Orca whales are one of BC’s most iconic residents. Besides being supremely lovable, with their high degree of intelligence and powerful family bonds, they are also a keystone species that upholds a delicate marine ecosystem, one that human beings intrinsically depend on.
We need orca whales and we adore them, but very few people are as outwardly devoted to them as Gary Sutton.
Gary is a captain for Ocean Ecoventures, a small, family-run whale watching company in Cowichan Bay. He’s also a gifted and hard-working photographer with a driving passion to photograph and protect these whales.
There are only 76 southern resident orcas remaining in the Salish Sea, and these endangered whales face numerous obstacles to their survival.
Now, they face their greatest threat to date: Kinder Morgan’s new pipeline and tankers, which would surely sound their death knell. We’re working hard to stop Kinder Morgan through our Pull Together campaign and we hope you’ll join us in supporting First Nations’ legal challenges to the project.
An orca whale pops its head out of the water with Mount Baker in the background. Photo by Gary Sutton.
With Kinder Morgan bullishly pushing ahead with construction at their terminal in Burnaby and laying down illegal mats to prevent salmon from spawning (Chinook salmon are the southern resident whales’ primary food source), our outreach coordinator Brynne Morrice thought it would be a good time to hear Gary’s perspective on orca whales and the battle for their survival.
B: Thank you for joining me Gary. First—how did you become a captain on a whale-watching boat?
G: I moved here ten years ago from Ontario to pursue a career in marine biology. I have been obsessed with whales and dolphins—particularly killer whales—my whole life. So when I finally lived in a city that offered whale watching tours, I jumped at the chance. I applied for marine naturalist jobs and was lucky enough to get hired by a company on Granville Island. I fell in love with it almost immediately. My boss offered to pay for my 60-ton captain’s course. I started driving the boats and then took over management of the company as well. I have since moved to Vancouver Island to work with Ocean Ecoventures, a small, conservation-minded company that really goes the extra mile.
B: How has your role as a captain related to your journey as a photographer?
G: Photography was never part of my life until whale watching became part of it. After my first season in 2007, I bought a camera to document some of the incredible things I got to see out there. It quickly became a passion.
Whale with Vancouver in the background. Photo by Gary Sutton.
B: It looks like you mostly photograph orcas. Is this primarily because of your job, or is there a more personal reason?
G: Mostly because of my job, but also because I love them! It’s such a challenge to capture an intimate moment of an animal that spends the majority of its life underwater. It requires you to study and learn their patterns and movements so you can have your camera pointed in the right spot when they surface again. I love that challenge.
B: When I first chatted with you, you said you want to fight for these whales in any way possible. Tell us more about that.
G: My goal is to be an ambassador for these whales and to show people how special they are. I’ve gotten more and more frustrated over the years about the lack of progress protecting these animals, particularly the southern resident killer whales. It’s very frustrating to watch politicians implement laws and restrictions that don’t have any positive impact on the animals. I understand why they do it. Most people aren’t intimately involved with the whale situation, so it’s easy for government to make these rules that give a false image of trying to “save the whales.”
B: There has been controversy about whale watching boats in the past, and again more recently with the federal government changing “viewing distance” laws. Can you break this down for us and address the issue of boats and killer whales?
G: Where to begin? Shipping noise needs to be addressed. However, it has to be done in conjunction with the most important factor, which is lack of salmon. The government’s announcement that they were putting over $7 million into acoustic research and just over $1 million into salmon enhancement is embarrassing. A recent study showed that the vast majority of harmful noise that could interrupt their foraging comes from commercial shipping. It’s obvious why the government is so focused on noise. They want to conduct studies so they can find some (most likely non-peer reviewed) science that will allow them to expand tanker and freighter traffic in and out of Vancouver. I am all for a viewing distance law for boats, both commercial and recreational. Again, more needs to be done than just that.
Other studies have shown that it’s the speed of the vessel that impacts the whales way more than the distance. My frustration grows when you see the whale watching fleet going 5 knots paralleling whales at 100m with enforcement boats on scene watching us, and there are freighters going by at 15-20 knots lighting up the whole area with harmful noise and at the same time recreational fishing boats sit right in front of the whales, still being allowed to scoop chinook salmon right from their mouths.
It’s great that there will be a law so DFO can prosecute when you see really bad behaviour (mostly by pleasure boats). However, it’s disappointing that this is the only action the government has taken. We have already seen this on the other side of the border. After implementing a 200-yard viewing distance for whale watchers 5 or 6 years ago, how do the southern residents look now? Lowest number of whales in 30 years, no calves for years, poor body condition, and this was the least amount of time the whales spent in the Salish Sea since the study began in the mid 1970’s.
Whale in the water near the Port of Vancouver. Photo by Gary Sutton.
B: Tell us about how the Kinder Morgan pipeline and tankers project relates to these whales.
G: The Kinder Morgan project would be a huge loss for the whales, wildlife, and ultimately, us. An oil spill in the Salish Sea would finish the southern residents. We saw that happen in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez went down. The AT1 transient population of killer whales in that area only have a few animals left now, with no reproductive females. They are doomed for extinction. This is a real possibility for our whales if Kinder Morgan goes through. It’s not worth the risk!
There’s also the salmon streams they are destroying while building this pipeline, the leaks from the pipeline and the increased noise from the 7X increase in tanker traffic. I understand fossil fuels are a huge part of our world, but if we want to be a progressive country we should be heavily focused on renewable energy and not increasing our exports of oil.
B: You’ve gained quite a following on Instagram with your spectacular photographs of orca whales. How has this had an impact for you?
G: Instagram has been a great platform to share information about what is going on out here. It’s also a great place for me to vent. It actually really makes me feel hopeful when you see how many people are engaged in this fight and willing to help. Most of the time, it’s not that people don’t care, they just don’t know.
B: For people who care about orcas in the Salish Sea, what would you ask them to do?
G: I encourage them to make small changes in their lives: Reduce your waste (especially plastic), eat sustainably, use responsible cleaning products, support sustainable fisheries or stop eating meat altogether. Politically, vote for your local representatives that have environmental conservation in mind. Write letters to Canada’s fisheries minister letting him know you don’t agree with the government’s actions and you want to see more fish in the water. Get rid of fish farms. Put a moratorium on Chinook salmon fishing.
B: Thanks for your time, Gary, and for your dedication to the whales.
You can follow Gary’s whale photography on his Instagram, or visit his website at www.garysuttonphotography.com.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Feature image by Gary Sutton.