Orcas Appear in Ancient Artwork Worldwide

As I was writing the previous post (Art, Orca Whales and the Coastal Salish Community) I began to wonder if other early cultures also had integrated orcas into their motifs or artwork. Since people today are thrilled to observe these stunning animals, and the orcas’ presence has always impacted those of us who live in this region, it just seemed logical that similar stories would exist in other parts of the whales’ range.

What I learned came as a bit of a shock: included among the mysterious figures made in the high desert of Nazca, Peru thousands of years ago is one of a 213 foot long orca whale.

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Orca image in the high desert of Peru (Creative Commons Photo)

Figures of animals, humans and geometric forms extend over hundreds of miles there, and it is believed that they were constructed over centuries. Why they were made is anyone’s guess, (current theory is that it is related to their spiritual beliefs), but the inclusion of an orca and another type of whale tells us that these animals were of importance to them.

Some of the oldest known images of orcas, however, were found in the granite fields of Leiknes, Norway, which is host to petroglyphs (rock carvings) believed to be 6000 to 9000 years old.

A cave on San Nicolas Island (one of the islands off the California coast) is known as ‘Cave of the Killer Whales‘, named for the numerous images of orcas carved into the sandstone walls. These drawings are believed to pre-date the indigenous tribes that later occupied the islands.

Petroglyphs depicting orcas can be found up the Northwest coast all the way to Alaska, and for a facinating read on the subject I recommend Bill Leen’s website, A Gallery of Northwest Petroglyphs: Shamanic Art of the Pacific Northwest. Some of these carvings are relatively easy to get to, particularly in the Canadian Gulf Islands, and appear on everything from rocks in the intertidal zone all the way up to granite rock faces.

Because these orca images – from Norway to Peru and up the coast to Alaska – were carved in rock, they have endured for millennia. We may never learn if other less permanent expressions might have been used in other areas.

But those records that we are lucky enough to have reach through time and tell us that humans have probably always been fascinated with orcas wherever we encounter them.

Our relationship goes back a long way, and is yet another reason to make the necessary changes to save our resident orcas.

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Young male J26 (Photo by Katie Jones)

Art,Orca Whales and the Coastal Salish Community

In The View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland made the following observation about the classic role of art in human culture:

Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both. There’s pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level – from the purely technical to the completely profound – simultaneously. He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was “to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands.”

In other words, from the earliest times art has had many simultaneous functions that encompassed the spiritual, educational, and practical areas of life – and nowhere more so than among our regional Coastal Salish communities. Art is so interwoven into their lives that there is not a word for ‘art’ in the language, no identifying word that separates the decorative from the practical, the beautiful from the spiritual. It is all one, which is reflected in their reverence for all life and knowledge of how to live in balance with nature. Justin Mah, Associate Staff Contributor for the West Vancouver Museum writes that their closest word is ‘xal’ which “expresses making a mark, of altering, changing, or transforming what merely exists into something of sublime beauty and meaning.”
Of greatest value to the Coastal Salish are their beautifully woven blankets, originally made from whatever fibers they chose to gather, including animal hair, down from waterfowl, and various plant materials. These blankets were time consuming to make and carefully crafted, and were symbolic of wealth, and it is therefore of highest honor to be given a blanket, or even to wear one for ceremonial purposes, to this day.

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The Ceremonial Blanket (Photo by Jeanne Hyde)

There is a practicality to this melding of every day life with their craft which is mirrored in their beliefs about orca whales, as I understand it. It seems to me that the Ancestors revered and respected the orcas (as shown by their belief in some instances that they are considered to be tribal members, and also that after death their chiefs manifest themselves as orcas) – yet viewed them as competitors for salmon.
One of their myths tells a story of how Thunderbird came and caught a pesky orca that had been eating all the salmon…and Thunderbird then flew off with and ate the unfortunate whale. End of whale, end of story – except the lesson from that seems to be that there is no need to worry if the whales came to eat in the salmon because the whales would soon move off. Thunderbird or no, that is what the whales do.
Contrast that to the reflexive and often deadly ways people in some other cultures respond to competing species, and the value of weaving these stories into the fabric of their lives becomes apparent.
In the past these stories were recorded on everyday utensils and tools, but contemporary artists are beginning to incorporate modern media, and to define for themselves ‘art’ as a separate concept, yet as they do so they enhance and revitalize both their language and their culture.

A Participant’s Experience in the Samish Naming Ceremony for Orca Calf J-45

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor runs a contest to name the baby orcas as part of their Adopt a Whale program. These names are varied and run the gamut from calves being named for sweets (Oreo) to local personages (Mike, for Dr. Michael Bigg – one of the original scientists to study the orcas in the wild), but the naming of calves born to one of the females in the J-2 matriline (J-14) is reserved for the Samish Indian Tribe.

The Samish are part of the Coast Salish First Nation Community, who have lived in this region for thousands of years, and they consider orca whales to be members of their tribe. The naming of the calves is important to them, and Jeanne Hyde, coordinator for the whale adoption program, was honored to be invited to participate. Jeanne is also a dedicated whale watcher, and posts her observations as well as beautiful photographs on her informational and often entertaining blog.

Jeanne shares her experience of the naming ceremony:

By: Jeanne Hyde, San Juan Island

I felt honored when I was asked to speak about J-45 at the Samish Indian Nation potlatch naming ceremony. I had a prepared speech, along with images, that glimpsed into the first eight months of this young whale’s life.

It was beyond words when, just before it started, I was asked to be one of the four witnesses of the ceremony. It was explained to all in attendance that being a witness meant that each person needed to pay attention to what occurred and speak to the gathering at the end of the ceremony, telling what took place. It was also our responsibility to share the meaning of the ceremony to others for the rest of their lives.

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The Ceremonial Blanket (Photo by Jeanne Hyde)

Blankets played an important role throughout the ceremony. Blankets signify purity of heart and that the name for J-45 came from the hearts of the Samish people. [The following is a correction from the original post, apparently there was a mix-up during the introductions at the ceremony. I have eliminated the incorrect information.] I was in awe of the significance of (a young man named) Jacob carrying the image of J-45 around the room, introducing this young whale to all in attendance.

Then J-45’s name was given: Se-Yi-Chn (pronounced “sea-ee-chin”) means ‘younger one’ in the Samish language. There is no word for brother, sister or sibling, but only ‘older one’ or ‘younger one’ with the emphasis always being placed on respect for your elders.

I felt a part of the Samish community during the ceremony. I feel honored to have been given the responsibility to share Se-Yi-Chn’s name and meaning.

It is a name full of wisdom and power and it gives my heart joy to share this experience with others.

Jeanne added the following notes when I asked her how J-45’s mother J-14 came to be named ‘Samish’:

“The naming of the whales has evolved over the years. Back in the ‘beginning’ and I can’t really say exactly when, many of the whales received names related to Native Americans or tribes, such as J-17 Princess Angeline who is named for the daughter of Chief Seattle (Sealth), which the city of Seattle was named. Also Lummi K-7, who died last year, was named for the Lummi Tribe. Lummi had no offspring to be named.

Many were given place names such as J-8 Spieden for Spieden Island or names related to the marine ecosystem. Others were given names totally unrelated, such as J-2 Granny.

……Once the Samish Tribe was officially recognized by the U.S government, it was only right for the Samish to name the calf (Hy’Shqa) born in 2001. Since then and into the future they will name all calves born to the J-14 matriline, which included ‘Suttles’ (J-40) in 2004, and now Se-Yi-Chn (J-45).”

NOAA’s Proposed Vessel Regulations Delayed – What Will Happen Next Year?

On Oct. 16, 2009, NOAA made the following announcement;

“Comment Period Extension: NOAA has extended the deadline for submitting comments on proposed vessels regulation to protect killer whales in Puget Sound to Jan. 15, 2010.

We recognize that by extending the public comment period, we won’t have enough time to issue a final rule before the 2010 summer boating season. We continue to believe that it’s important to address the adverse effects of vessel traffic on killer whales in the near future. In light of the requests we’ve received for an extension of the comment period, however, we believe additional public outreach will enhance both NOAA Fisheries’ understanding of public concerns and the public’s understanding of the basis for our proposal. This will also allow time for cooperative efforts to refine the proposal. We’ll work toward adoption of a final rule before the 2011 summer boating season.

We’ll consider all comments and information received during the comment period in preparing a final rule.”

After giving us an opportunity to make comments on the proposed vessel regulations and to attend public meetings, NOAA has altered their course of action in response to the feedback. Everyone seems to have been caught off guard when the proposed regulations were announced, and if that was an error on the part of NOAA and NMFS, they are now correcting it. We needed to be heard, and they listened.

I find this impressive, because although it is less cumbersome to say “NOAA”or “NMFS”, what we are really talking about is a group of people to whom we have given the huge responsibility of saving our southern resident orcas from going extinct – and they don’t have a whole lot of time to get it done.

Those folks at NOAA are trying to implement fairly swift and bold measures, measures which will impact our lives and require change from us, measures which they feel are necessary. Yet they are willing to take the gamble that another year of doing nothing will be okay, because we need the time to digest the concepts and adjust our own thinking. They are also open to finding compromise – but we shouldn’t forget that they are charged with an enormous responsibility: to protect and enhance the survivorship of the members of J,K, and L pods.

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The Newest Member of L Pod Looks Healthy!

Ultimately, it is up to us to make changes anyway, and I wonder
what changes can be made on our own during the next year and a half? Will we voluntarily go slowly and give the orcas a wider berth? Will we voluntarily reduce our salmon catch in the area during the leaner ‘no pink salmon’ year?

I’m betting that we will at least try.

New Orca Calf!

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New calf L113 (Photo by Jamie Nagel)

The Center for Whale Research reports: “Jamie Nagel with Naturalist Island Adventures Cruises took the above photograph on Saturday October 10 off Port Towensend. The calf is traveling with L94 (female, 14 yrs.) and L41 (male, 32 yrs.). Until further documentation, the identity of the mother is unsure.”

We’ll bring you more information on the calf and its family as it becomes available!

Stephen Colbert Asks: “Why should I care about the ocean?”

In his usual glib manner, Stephen Colbert asked the renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle “Why should I care about the ocean? It’s deep, it’s dark, people drown in it, it’s full of sharks that want to eat us.”

With her disarming and winning smile, Dr. Earle essentially said that the oceans are the heart and lungs of the planet, and our survival depends upon the ocean to keep our atmosphere present – and in her opinion, the most crucial problem for the ocean is that we continue to over-fish.

Colbert then asked: “Fish is supposed to be the healthy food, right? I mean how else am I supposed to get my mercury?.. If there is one thing you can get us to do to help the oceans, what would it be?”

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Creative Commons Photo

Her reply was straightforward – “Make better food choices. Know what you’re taking out of the sea, and how it was captured”.

In her view, choosing what fish we buy can make a huge impact on the health of the ocean. Colbert didn’t ask her what is the most important change, he asked her what it is that we can do, so although there are other issues that may seem more critical, fishing practices are something that can be changed by us, in our lifetimes, that might make a difference to the future of our planet.

You can catch a video clip of the interview at colbertnation.com, but if you have 20 minutes or so to spare, the following video is well worth your time.

Update On The Southern Resident Orcas

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Photo by Stewart Macintyre

Erin Heydenreich from the Center for Whale Research reports that overall, the Southern Resident Orcas appear to be doing well and that they “seem to be in typical ‘fall’ mode, coming in for a few days then disappearing again.

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Calf J 45 with his family (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

None of them looks obviously sick or skinny, and although it would be great to have had a summer calf, it is good news that no whales were lost this year, as opposed to last year when we lost several.

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J 44 with nine-year-old sister J 35 (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

The current population remains at 85, with 26 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 40 in L pod.”

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Calf L112 with its mother L86 (photo by Dave Ellifrit)

The three calves that were born last winter/spring seem to be doing great, and we can only hope that they fair as well over the winter.

Senator Murray is Beginning to Listen to You on Orca Issues

By any account, the consensus among those who attended the three public meetings held by NOAA Fisheries Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the proposed vessel regulations is that the regulations need careful reconsideration before being adopted. This is an emotional and contentious issue…one that at every turn seems to have caught our government officials off-guard. From NMFS to our state senators, no one seems to have anticipated the groundswell of public opinion on the issue, nor to have taken into account how unified people with divergent interests are when it comes to the subject of the southern resident killer whales. (Please see Carole May’s excellent article which covers the most recent public meeting in Friday Harbor).

Although the people who are directly involved have different points of view and different agendas based on how the regulations might impact them, everybody is concerned about the welfare of the orcas. Granted, there is a fair measure of self-interest involved by those who live, work, and play in the region most affected by the proposed regulations (San Juan Island) – but in large measure, those people have chosen lifestyles that permit them to be there, not the other way around. In other words, people involved with tour companies, commercial and recreational fisheries, and pleasure boats have either found ways to make a living doing what they enjoy, or in other cases, dedicate their free time and disposable income to vacationing, fishing and whale watching, so in most cases their appreciation of the orcas and the environment preceded their vested interests.

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Photo by Erin Heydenreich

On some issues, environmentalists, developers, the tourist industry, and commercial fisheries represent opposing philosophies on the “rights of man” versus nature…but not when it comes to the orcas. The people of Washington State are unified in our respect and affection for the whales, we consider them an important asset even if our livelihood and leisure pursuits are not tied to them.

Where is our leadership on this issue? I suspect that they might feel as blindsided as the rest of us by the way NMFS has handled the presentation of the proposed regulations, and maybe a bit surprised to learn that issues involving orcas are important to such a large number of their constituents. But for whatever reason, neither of our senators nor our governor had formulated an official statement on the issue when I contacted their offices yesterday (October 6th).

Senator Patty Murray’s office is relatively responsive, open, and communicative, and I am impressed by the effort they have made to attend to orca issues recently. From what I understand I might not be in agreement with Senator Murray’s position, but in all fairness I’ll give her time to step up to the plate and let us know how she feels about the issues affecting orcas, both captive and wild.

I’m still waiting to hear back from Senator Cantwell’s and Governor Gregoire’s offices…