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  • Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History


    June 2020

    The essays in this book from the Royal BC Museum recall the history of human-orca relations and lay the groundwork for what that relationship could look like in the future.

     

    AS THE COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift in BC, people are starting to emerge from their homes with gratitude—and some new awareness. Many of us have discovered how painful forced isolation can be, realizing the importance of communication and something as simple and precious as touch. We are social beings, and this heightened awareness of how essential connectivity is to well-being provides an opportunity to consider how we view and respond to that same need in the other social beings with whom we share the planet.

    The Royal BC Museum’s new book Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History (May 2020) brings us into intimate relationship with Orcinus orca—the species more commonly called killer whale. The book’s variety of perspectives all teach us not only about this iconic, beautiful, threatened animal but about ourselves. In that sense, the book takes a deep dive into two worlds and points to the many ways they are intertwined. Reading through the collection, which includes Indigenous oral histories, academic essays, cultural analysis, scientific data, personal anecdote, poems, paintings, and much more, we see that the kind of connectivity that comes through learning and expanded understanding, a broadened mind and opened heart, is essential for the orcas’ survival, and possibly ours.

     

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    Conceived as the companion to the museum’s COVID-interrupted 2020 feature exhibit Orcas: Our Shared Future, the book benefits from the editorial oversight—and insight—of former RBCM curator of Indigenous collections Martha Black, curator of history Lorne Hammond, curator of vertebrate zoology Gavin Hanke, and academic/Indigenous media-maker and decolonial curriculum advisor Nikki Sanchez. They are a powerful team, bringing their own unique backgrounds and approaches, and together compiling a multitude of passionate voices and artistic visions united around a love of orcas.

    In fact, in her introduction, that’s how Sanchez describes the goal of this project: “an invitation to fall in love, in awe, with these incredible marine mammals, so that we can come together to protect them.”

    But it’s difficult to truly fall in love from a distance. So how can we come into connection? In his chapter, former marine mammal trainer-turned-activist Steve Huxter speaks, I’m sure, for many when he writes: “I was ambivalent about marine mammals. I knew they were out there, but the chances of encountering one were low, so I wasn’t curious and didn’t much care as long as they didn’t try to eat me.” Until he met them.

    Thankfully, since Canada passed its anti-whale-captivity legislation last year, in June 2019, our chances to meet orcas that up-close are gone. Whales are no longer brought to us to gawk at or study in tanks. And so we must make the effort to meet them another way. We must actively seek, listen, learn. Often, as this book shows so clearly, we must unlearn.

    Wrapped in the gorgeous cover art of Andy Everson and inside jacket art of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Spirits of the Coast explores the shades and contrasts of the ways we have so far come to know orcas. Divided into three sections—Connection, Captivity, Consciousness—we see how these intelligent animals have been honoured, celebrated, and considered as kin, protectors, and teachers by Indigenous cultures. We are reminded of the way orcas have been feared, hated, and even hunted as pests and competition for resources in the settler worldview—until it was discovered they could be commercialized in shows, on record albums, and in film. (Fun fact: Bo Derek got her 1977 film debut having her leg bitten off by a vengeful orca.) And we are invited into the scientific world and how these animals have been studied through captive programs, non-invasive field studies, skeleton reconstruction, and molecular genetics. Thankfully, practices have evolved as awareness evolved.

    That’s one of the hopeful themes running through the various sections and often even the individual pieces of the book: how connection can lead to, and has led to, real change in our perspectives and actions.

    At the time of the book’s writing, the Southern Resident population is down to an unhopeful 73. We need to remain alert and alive to the threats to the orcas’ well-being, such as underwater noise, marine traffic, pollution, climate change, declining food stocks, all of which result in sick and malnourished whales, deaths, and declining birth rates. But a book like this takes those often-quoted statistics and gives us closer contact with what they mean to the orcas. For instance, we learn not just that underwater noise has increased by three decibels every 10 years since the 1950s, but exactly how that noise disrupts an orca’s ability to use echolocation to bounce sound off something as specific as a chinook’s swim bladder.

    We can only overcome what Ken Balcomb calls “our inability to self-regulate” if we truly understand the consequences of what we are doing not to some vaguely conceived of creature “out there,” but to other beings who also learn and grieve and love—like Moby Doll, Luna, Granny, and Talequah. Talequah in 2018 carried her dead calf for 17 days in a display of heartbreaking sadness and, one might say, accusation.

    Really, this book is not just recalling the history of relationship between humans and orcas but is laying the groundwork for deciding, each of us, what that relationship could look like in the future. At a time of discussion around how we make and can unmake our social structures and attitudes, the invitation to fall in love comes with a point as sharp as any harpoon of the past: “Ensuring the survival of these whales in the Salish Sea isn’t about managing the ocean, it’s about managing humans.”

    June is Orca Action Month, and one action you can take is to turn toward a new connectivity by turning the pages of this beautiful book. Through it you can visit the underwater world of the maxinuxw and hear from Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook, k’alapa, about how the orcas taught humans about unity and governance. Go tankside in the 1960s and watch captives Skana and Hyak teach neuroscientist Paul Spong about orca resistance and a love of music. Attend to the dead body of Rhapsody (J32), and her unborn fetus with Gavin Hanke, and lament with him that her muscles and internal organs had to be disposed of as toxic waste. With quiet awe, ride in a fog-shrouded skiff with ‘Cúagilákv Jess Housty of the Haíɫzaqv Nation while a pod of curious orcas surrounds the boat, breaching “with the elegance of a salmon and the enormous power of rolling thunder” while their vocal communication vibrates up into your bones.

    Despite dangers and dire warnings, the inspiration this collection passed to me can be summed up in Housty’s reflection on her own orca learnings, through direct encounters and ancestral teachings: “what resonates in my body, like whale song rising up through the hull of my father’s skiff, is the belief that community building is the most important work before us.” And that must go beyond our shore’s edge. “The planet needs us to be connected. The ocean needs us to be connected. The orcas need us to be connected. And through that sense of deep connection, we can build the trust that will help us bring the fullest of our capacity, creativity and compassion to addressing the complex and systemic challenges our world faces today.”

    Writer and musician Amy Reiswig works by day (and sometimes into the night) as an editor for the provincial government. Besides her Focus column, her writing has appeared in Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.


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