How can we help the whales?
Read a view of the situation from our Arctic species specialist, Pete Ewins.
In August 2008, I was fortunate to see a pod of a dozen Killer Whales, while traveling across Hudson Bay with Students On Ice. Geoff Green, SOI’s leader, said at the time that it was the most he’d seen in many years of Arctic sailing.
Killer whale / (Orcinus orca) just below the surface, Kristiansund, Nordmore, Norway, February 2009. © Wild Wonders of Europe /Nils Aukan / WWF
As climate change continues warming the Arctic and melting ice, Killer Whales have been moving to northern waters, less likely to be hampered by their dorsal fins bumping up on ice as they surface for air. As predators often preying in packs, they have also earned the name “Sea Wolves”, as well as “Orcas.” Their newfound appetite for Arctic whales and seals, which have not always been their prey, brings to mind Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s vivid phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw.”
So Killer Whales in Arctic waters and ice-loss patterns may well mean more such entrapments in ice in the future. Inuit have known of such incidents for millennia. In fact, entrapments happen from time to time among Arctic whales like Narwhal and Beluga, and even occasionally the much rarer Bowhead — almost certainly for Killer Whales, too. Ubiquitous cameras and social media mean we’ll all see such unhappy incidents more often.
Let me repeat – it is most unfortunate that this happens and difficult to watch. And day after day of media coverage brings a tide of pressure “to do something about it”. As tough as it may be to swallow, my view is that normally, we should let Nature take its course. In practice, it’s enormously challenging and expensive, with low odds of success, to send ice-breakers to the rescue of such whales. Rescue attempts may even at times be counterproductive, driving whales under the ice away from the small ice opening they do have. And while the Killer Whales we’re watching this week may not yet be safe in the open ocean, we’ve seen that in a day or two, the ice can shift and open up leads for their escape.
Try thinking of it this way: if a city sees more fires, it may need more fire trucks. But in the long run, what it really needs is a stronger fire safety code and enough education to prompt people to act in their best long-term interests.
So what can and must we take from whale entrapments is a message to redouble our efforts to conserve whales and especially confront climate change. We must aggressively reduce our carbon emissions, particularly from coal, oil and natural gas, and to prepare ourselves – “adapt” – to the changing world that is certainly our future. All Arctic peoples, including the Inuit across Canada’s North, and all Arctic wildlife and wild places, are at risk from rapidly warming climate trends.
Want to really help save a lot whales and all Arctic life? Let’s tackle climate change like we know we must.