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Interview with Monika Wieland Shields

For our second interview, I reached out to the Orca Behavior Institute, a nonprofit organization here on San Juan Island that Crystal Seas Kayaking supports. Their mission is to conduct non-invasive behavioral and acoustic research on the killer whales of the Salish Sea and beyond. They collect data from shore and from boats in order to better understand the behavioral changes happening by the orca whales in the Salish Sea. One of their Founders, Monika Wieland Shields was kind enough to share about herself, the Orca Behavior Institute, and her new book, Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents.

Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. To start off, I’d love to learn a little about yourself. What are some of your hobbies and interests?

A: Some of my favorite hobbies include photography and writing, which led to the creation of my blog orcawatcher.com where I share regional wildlife sightings and photos. In addition to whale-watching/whale research, I also just enjoy being outdoors, particularly going for hikes and bird-watching. I particularly love bird-watching because you can do it absolutely anywhere and in any season.

Q: What first got you interested in Orcas?

A: I’ve had a lifelong love for animals in general, with whales and dolphins in particular. In first grade I even wrote a story about my mom befriending an orca, so it goes way back! The “point of no return” for me was a family vacation to Alaska when I was twelve. That was my first time seeing killer whales in the wild and I was absolutely smitten. When we came back from that trip I wanted to find out if there were any orcas closer to my hometown of Portland, Oregon that I might have a chance to see. That’s when I learned about the San Juan Islands and the Southern Residents. After vacationing in the San Juans, I knew I was eventually going to live here. I started as a summer research intern during high school, worked as a whale-watch naturalist out of Friday Harbor during college, and then moved here full-time.

Q: Why do you think gathering data about these animals is important?

A: From a conservation perspective, I think orcas are an important species to study. Being at the top of the food chain, they tell us a lot about the health of the entire marine food web. They’re also so charismatic, that they’re an easy species to get people to care about; if there is an environmental issue that impacts orcas, they’re the perfect “poster animal” to inspire action.

From a purely scientific standpoint, orcas are also very intriguing. They’ve diversified into so many different ecotypes around the world, specializing to feed on whatever is available in their area and then building their whole social structure around that. We know that they live in complex societies, are intelligent creatures, and have complex communication systems, but despite them being so well studied we really know pretty little about them. They’re a perfect species for studying the evolution of culture.

Q: You’ve been researching these animals for 20 years, what changes have you seen?

A: Twenty years ago, I never would have imagined I would see changes as dramatic as I have among killer whales in the Salish Sea. Back then, the fish-eating Southern Residents were around on a near-daily basis in the summer months. From May-September, if you spent a few days on the west side of San Juan Island, you were virtually guaranteed to see whales, and quite possibly members of all three pods. Now, we can go weeks or even months between “peak season” visits from the Southern Residents, including in recent years both the first May and first June on record without any Southern Residents in the Salish Sea.

On the flip side, I was here for four seasons before I ever even saw a mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whale. They were rare visitors that we didn’t really know much about. Now, they are here in increasing numbers every year, and I have about 4 times as many encounters with Bigg’s killer whales as with Southern Residents in a given season. The primary reason for both of these changes is prey. The spring and summer Chinook salmon stocks the Southern Residents historically relied on have crashed, forcing them to go elsewhere to look for food. Meanwhile, since receiving increased protection several decades ago, Bigg’s killer whale prey populations of species like harbor seals and Steller sea lions have recovered to historic highs.

We’re incredibly fortunate to have two populations of orcas that live in the same waters to compare to one another. Since they have the same range, Southern Resident and Bigg’s killer whales are exposed to all the same environmental factors like pollutants or ocean noise. The fact that we have one population struggling and declining and another rapidly growing and thriving clearly illustrates the importance of prey.

Q: You research shows the Residents have been breaking off in smaller groups instead of staying as J, K, and L pods. Why do you think that is?

A: In addition to being here in the Salish Sea less often, when the Southern Residents are present, they tend to be in smaller groups. It used to be that if you saw one pod, it was usually all of that pod present. Now, pods are more likely to split into sub-groups, meaning that instead of seeing 20-30 animals you might have about a dozen animals traveling together. The most likely reason for this is also prey: if there isn’t enough salmon in one place to feed three dozen whales, if you split up, you might be able to find enough fish for your smaller immediate family. Historically, pod splitting was something seen more often in the winter, but now it’s occurring all year-round.

Q: Our guests usually come in with little to no knowledge about orcas. What do you think is important for them to know?

A: I think the comparative story of Southern Residents vs. Bigg’s killer whales is so important for naturalists and guides to share with visitors to the region. So many people don’t realize there are two populations of orcas here, and regardless of which type you are lucky enough to encounter, it’s a great teaching moment to explain the conservation issues important to the Southern Residents.

I also think it’s important to emphasize that both populations range over much of the West Coast and rely on prey sources all the way from California to Alaska. Often these populations get characterized as “Puget Sound’s orcas” or “Washington’s orcas” when really they are West Coast orcas. That makes the conservation connection to a much wider range of people. It’s not just important what you put in the water or what seafood you eat in the Salish Sea; actions you take no matter where you live on the west coast will impact these killer whales.

Q: What keeps you interested when listening to whale acoustics? Ever wonder what they are saying? What do you think they are saying?

A: The fact that we really have no idea what the whales are talking about in itself keeps me interested in listening to them! Despite studies trying to relate orca call types to specific behaviors, we’ve really gained no insight into what they’re communicating about. I suspect we may not be looking at their communication system in the right way at all. What we label a “call type” may be more a badge of social identity or emotional state rather than a word or a phrase like we typically think of in human language. All the nuances within the call – the changes in duration, frequency, amplitude, etc. – that are so difficult for us to detect, may be where all the content of the message is to an orca, which has a brain equipped to receive and analyze sound in complex ways that we can only imagine!

Q: What would you like shared about OBI?

A: While there are several different groups conducting important whale research, we started OBI because we saw a niche for utilizing citizen science to collect long-term data to document changes in regional killer whale populations. For example, our first scientific publication compiled sightings data from sources like The Whale Museum, Orca Network, and the Pacific Whale Watch Association to document what up until that point had been an anecdotal observation that the Southern Residents were using the Salish Sea less frequently in the spring. We felt it was extremely important to publish the data proving this shift in a peer-reviewed journal article so it could be used to inform policy and management actions. For instance, do additional protections in the Salish Sea make the most sense, if the whales are now spending more time elsewhere? We need to make sure the recovery actions that we are taking both short-term and long-term reflect the short- and long-term habits of the whales. In addition to collaborating with other organizations to compile and share data and conducting our own field research, we’ve also found an important role in educating the public about the latest whale news and action alerts. Due to increased media attention in recent years there has been an increased interest in following the plight of the Southern Residents, but surprisingly few resources for up-to-date information on how individual whales are doing or how the public can engage in their recovery. Primarily via our Facebook page, I spend a lot of time answering questions, distilling information from ongoing processes like Governor Inslee’s Orca Task Force, sharing updates on specific whales, and providing background information and details on public comment opportunities. While this wasn’t in our original scope for OBI, I think we’ve evolved to fill an important role in getting accurate and digestible information out to the public.

Finally, if people are interested in learning more, I also have to put in a plug for my recently published book Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents. It’s the book I wish I had been able to read when I first came to the region, summarizing the history and the latest science about this incredible population of whales.

Brooke grew up spending her time on the lakes, rivers, and forests of Michigan. She graduated from Central Michigan University in 2015 with a degree in Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Science all while spending almost every weekend biking, rock climbing, skiing or ice climbing. She spends her summers guiding for Crystal Seas and TerraTrek in hopes of sharing her love of exploring the outdoors.

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