Matt Driscoll

You don’t have to wait for a special occasion to help southern resident orcas

Perhaps the humpback whale felt snubbed or assumed its invitation got lost in the mail.

It was Orca Recovery Day, after all, not a Humpback Appreciation Lunch, but that didn’t stop a representative from the latter group of large mammals from making its presence felt.

“I wouldn’t have even dreamed it could have worked out so well,” said Pierce Conservation District spokesman Allan Warren of the unexpected visit, which occurred last Saturday, just offshore as the dozens of people assembled at Tacoma Narrows Park sat down for lunch.

They were gathered for the Pierce Conservation’s Orca Recovery Day event, one of 10 such events organized by conservation districts across the region.

It was designed to “celebrate, honor and restore local orcas,” Warren explained.

More pointedly — and importantly — it was intended to give regular folks like you and me some tangible examples of what we can actually do to make a difference and help save our critically endangered orca population.

It was empowering, in other words, and motivating — features too often missing from our collective doom-and-gloom vigil for the Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas.

Over the last few months, we’ve watched as a grieving Tahlequah — or J35, one of our southern resident orcas — carried the lifeless body of her deceased calf for more than two weeks. We’ve watched as the search for J50, or Scarlet, turned up nothing but despair.

It’s depressing, and can lead to almost overwhelming hopelessness. With the southern resident orcas teetering on the brink, it’s easy and understandable to fall into the feeling that nothing can be done.

On the other end of the spectrum, actually helping — especially on the weekend before the state’s Orca Recovery Task Force delivers its final recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk — is precisely what Orca Recovery Day was all about.

“It’s kind of paralyzing,” Warren said of the raft of bad news and the impact it can have when it’s not accompanied by a call to action. “When we’re all sitting there in traffic or listening to the evening news, and you see this tragic imagery … I think most people are just left with a sense of sadness or tragedy and have no sense of, ‘OK, great, what can I do about it?’

“And there are things people can do about it. There are a great deal of things people can do about it.”

The Tacoma area’s Orca Recovery Day event offered more than just a pep talk. In total, more than 600 people participated, planting more than 3,800 trees and shrubs in priority habitat and removing some 700 pounds of garbage along the Tacoma shoreline.

Even if you couldn’t attend, there are lasting, important and relatively small steps you can take in your daily life to help the southern residents.

Using natural yard care techniques — like getting rid of fertilizers or installing a rain garden — can help prevent contaminants from making their way to the Sound. That’s good for orcas and also good for the salmon they eat.

Have a car that’s leaking fluids? Get it fixed.

Have pets that do their business outside? Clean it up.

If you’re looking to get involved, do it, said Jeanette Dorner, Pierce Conservation District board chair.

There are a number of organizations throughout the Puget Sound area that have been working on orca recovery and salmon restoration efforts for decades, Dorner says, and they’re always looking for volunteers.

“We have been making a difference, but we’re not making the difference yet,” Dorner said. “The way that we make the difference is if more people in the community understand what is needed, and support those actions and get engaged.”

Warren, who helped to spearhead Orca Recovery Day, echoed the sentiment.

“If you multiply my actions and your actions by 4 million people in the Puget Sound area, it has a profound impact,” Warren said. “That’s what gets lost in the shuffle of, ‘Well, I’m just one person.’ You’re one in 4 million.

“If we don’t start taking responsibility for what we’re doing in our own homes and our own day-to-day life, everything we love about the Puget Sound is going to be lost.”

Which brings us back to that humpback whale and its surprise cameo. While orcas and humpbacks can be adversaries in the wild, hopefully they will soon have something in common besides sheer size and majesty.

In 1970, under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the federal government listed all humpback whales as endangered.

Today, thanks to regulations on whaling and the tireless work of conservation groups, most populations no longer require endangered species protection.

Dorner recalled the humpback encounter last Saturday, and the impact it seemed to have.

“To see something so huge and majestic and beautiful swim by, there’s a personal connection. For some people, I think it’s spiritual,” Dorner said.

“And that’s what inspires people.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.