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An Interview with Sandra Pollard

In July of 2014, I sat down with Sandra Pollard, Whidbey Island resident and author of the recent book “Puget Sound Whales for Sale.”  The book details the history of live captures in Washington State, the long-lasting impact on the Southern Resident population, and shares the fate of the orcas taken into captivity and those left behind.

This video is a portion of our discussion about the book and the Southern Residents.  As we went for the “in action” setting of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA, there is some background noise – transcript is provided after the video.  For a full transcript of our extended conversation, please click here.

Many thanks to Sandra for being such a good interviewee and for her insight into this critically endangered population.  As we discuss, prey depletion is one of the top threats to the Southern Residents – you can help WDC address this issue by signing our letter of support for taking down the Klamath River dams.

Colleen Weiler (CW): Hi Sandra

Sandra Pollard (SP): Hi Colleen

CW: Thank you for sitting down with me today to talk about your book.

SP: Thank you for having me.

CW: I’d like to start with a question, one that I overhead here on San Juan Island this week while attending the Superpod events. Someone in a coffee shop said that they didn’t know why these whales mattered so much.  So I’d like to ask you: why is this population important to you?

SP: Well, they are an endangered species, and nobody wants to see an endangered species become extinct.

CW: This particular population was subject to capture, which ended 40 years ago.  Have they recovered since then?

SP: Unfortunately not. The capture era was 1964-1976 here in Washington State.  In 1976, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research started to do his census and photo-ID on these whales.  After the population was decimated in the capture era, when approximately 40-45 Southern Residents were taken for marine parks and 13 were killed during the process, there were only 71 whales here.  That was in 1976 – we’re now in 2014, and at this point in time the official number is still 80.

CW: What measures are in place to prevent captures from happening again and stopping any impact that could potentially have?

SP: In December 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in the United States, and that prohibits US citizens from taking any whales in international waters; it also prohibits people from randomly capturing whales in US waters.  So, in order to even think about capturing whales here now, anyone who wants to do so, anybody who wishes to do so must apply to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for a permit.  The Southern Residents are an endangered species, so there’s never going to be any way they can apply for a permit to capture these whales again.

CW:  What changes have you noticed in public perceptions of wild orcas and captive orcas?

SP: When the capture era started in 1964, there was still a general feeling of fear towards the orca.  And also dislike by fishermen because they took the salmon, or the fishermen perceived that they took the salmon, so they weren’t popular. They were also used for strafing runs by the US Navy, as target practice, back at that particular time.  A number of the whales that were captured and taken to marine parks were found to have bullets or bullet wounds in their blubber.  So that was then, but even back in those days, those early days of the capture era, there were still people protesting.

CW: I’ve seen pictures.

SP: That’s right, so that was happening even then. And the perception gradually changed of the wild orca, and they were seen to be more docile and gentle, particularly the first Southern Resident, Moby Doll, who was captured up off Saturna Island up in British Columbia. People began to perceive them as not quite so fearsome, not quite so frightening – these are not the man-eating beasts, the ravenous creatures they were thought to be.

CW: They are still here [on San Juan Island] in the wild and still very much revered and enjoyed by many, but they still do face some threats.  What are their main threats and what do you think is the biggest problem facing the population?

SP: The main threats are lack of Chinook salmon – the Southern Residents are very fussy eaters, and 80-90% of their diet is Chinook salmon.  That’s their energy bar, and unfortunately some of those runs of Chinook salmon are also endangered.  We just don’t have the abundance of salmon there anymore.

CW: Talking about Lolita, who is the captive Southern Resident down in Miami – she still makes L pod calls, they have found.  Can you sum up her situation and what you think the future looks like for bringing her home?

SP:  Lolita was captured in Penn Cove in 1970 – Penn Cove on Whidbey Island – and she has been at Miami Seaquarium, where she was taken to 44 years ago, and still performs twice daily there. 

CW:  How do you think people could be more involved in both bringing her home and also just general orca welfare and protection?

SP: I think with regard to bringing her home, people have always shown their support by the many – I’m not quite sure how many there were – I think there were thousands of public comments made on bringing Lolita back here to the NMFS, in favor of bringing her here.  So that public support is already there.  And I’m sure there would be plenty of volunteers here on the island who would be more than happy to arrange a 24-hour, round the clock watch of Lolita and support the scientists here.  One of the best things we can do is all watch our carbon footprint, see what we can do to help the oceans, and that means recycling, and watch things like runoff, which causes pollution in the waters here.  Maybe don’t use your car one day a week, and making sure there’s no nasty fluids running off the car that are going into the ocean, and also be aware of the issues regarding salmon, and lobby your own government and people there who are going to help with salmon restoration and habitat restoration who are aware of these issues.  And learn more about the Southern Residents, talk to people you know, spread the story of them and raise awareness about this wonderful, iconic species that we have here.  It’s a very fragile population that we cannot afford to lose.  We have already learned a lot from them – they live in harmony, in social groups, and they can teach us a lot.  So we need to keep them, and we need to do what we can to help from our little part of the land.

CW:  Yes, and I think everyone everywhere, those are all good suggestions to how someone can help conserve the oceans in general, in everyday life – making good choices.  Well, thank you for sitting down with me today, I really enjoyed your book – Puget Sound Whales for Sale.  It’s great, a good history of the Southern Residents.

SP: Thank you very much.