Saving What We Love

This is the time of year that my excitement starts to grow. It is when I begin to anticipate seeing members of my "family” again.

I’m speaking of the killer whale. Encounters with the Orca have become part of my West Coast life. I have been overcome with emotion many times in the presence of this creature. I have seen them while walking the Cable Bay Trail and the beaches of Gabriola Island. I have kayaked in their company at Yellowpoint and Telegraph Cove. Growing up in Ontario, this experience remains both incredible and spiritual. Each time, I am completely grateful.

Seeing the whales is still special for me. My daughter, on the other hand, doesn’t quite understand. To her, it’s normal to see whales in the wild. But I know that there may be a time when we no longer see these magnificent creatures in our waters again.

This, I cannot accept. The thought of it brings me to tears. A quote from Senegal provides wisdom and inspiration.

"For in the end, we will save only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

We face some sobering truths.

Northern resident killer whales are currently threatened (likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed). In 2004, 217 animals existed.

Southern residents are endangered (facing imminent extirpation or extinction). In 2006 only 86 animals remained.

Both northern and southern residents qualify for legal protection and recovery under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

But risk remains. Human activity continues to be harmful. Research shows the significant danger of increasing bioaccumulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in sea life. Pacific salmon, identified as the primary prey for resident killer whales, contain these pollutants. As such, whales are becoming increasingly toxic.

A female Orca can bear one calf every three to five years. Yet researchers have seen that nearly half of new calves die between birth and six months.

POPs are stored in body fat and accumulate over time. A female killer whale rids itself of these pollutants by offloading through milk, often creating toxin levels that the calf cannot survive. Males have no way to reduce bioaccumulation. Their maximum life span is up to 30 years shorter than a female.

It’s clear that these chemicals are causing problems for marine mammals. Now there is evidence to show that, because we are also high on the food chain, humans are not far behind.

When I nursed my daughter, I had no idea that I was offloading POPs to her in the same manner we’re seeing in whales. According to the David Suzuki Foundation report, Fireproof Whales and Contaminated Mother’s Milk, "Canadians have the second highest level of PBDE concentrations in women’s breast milk in the world, behind Americans.”

Where do PBDEs (a type of POP) come from? Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers are fire retardant chemicals found in commercial goods including furniture, mattresses, clothing, carpets and electronics. Exposure is often through house dust and fatty foods. Basically, they surround us in every home, office, car, bus and plane.

Environment Canada has proposed listing PBDEs as toxic chemicals. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund states that the proposal is "toothless” because it does not include a complete ban of all PBDEs, notably the ones most widely made. They are asking for a board of review to investigate.

I’m no expert on this topic, but love is a powerful tool. Please do your part to learn more and take actions that will make a difference.

Save the whales. Save us.

Marla Hunter-Bellavia is a writer and owner of Ocean Spirit Communications in Nanaimo. She welcomes your comments at