Southern resident killer whales struggling for survival in the Salish Sea are getting a helping hand from a children’s book author 4,800 kilometres away.
I Am 99: A Southern Resident Orca Story (Stillwater Press) by marine naturalist Keri Newman, who lives in Rhode Island, chronicles a young girl’s visit to Friday Harbour, Washington and her discovery of the orcas and their life on the brink of extinction.
Newman, who is involved in a project with the World Cetacean Alliance to publish the Worldwide Guide for Responsible Whale Watching, said she has visited Friday Harbour five out of the last six years and is returning this summer.
The population of J, K and L pods now stands at 75, with three new calves born over the past year. The book’s title is based on the hope the population will reach 99, and beyond.
Illustrated by Newman’s daughter, Ashton Alba, the colourful book is geared to younger elementary school students and future stewards of the orcas, and is a delightful tale of hope that human help and conservation efforts can improve the southern residents’ situation.
It includes the “99 Pledge,” which encourages children to be a “whale hero” by talking about conservation efforts for salmon — the orcas’ principal but declining food source — keeping the ocean clean and sharing the story of the southern residents.
Newman’s book coincides with the Royal British Columbia Museum opening on Friday of the long-awaited exhibition Orcas: Our Shared Future, a deep dive into the stories and science of the apex predator that was postponed last year because of the pandemic.
Timed tickets are being sold to ensure safe distancing. The exhibition, featuring life-size replicas, interactive displays and games and short films, will run until early 2022.
The more than 100 original artifacts and specimens in the exhibit include a complete 3-D skeleton of an adult female orca suspended in the air, so visitors can appreciate the size and scale of the remarkable mammals.
Newman says her parents gave her a book on the southern resident orcas when she was 14, inspiring her to enroll in marine biology after high school. But life interrupted her study plans and she opted for an English degree after giving birth to her daughter — the same one who ended up illustrating I am 99.
She hopes the book inspires kids to “grow up caring and to make a difference” even in small ways, she said in an interview.
That means learning about oceans, picking up litter on beaches, spreading the word about salmon conservation projects and doing projects and reports on endangered species.
I Am 99 is Newman’s fourth children’s book centred on ocean and species awareness — others focus on sharks, manatees and narwhals, and all are available with downloadable classroom kits.
It isn’t the first time the southern residents have gained support from afar, though.
The town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma — more than 3,200 kilometres from the Salish Sea — has taken a special interest in J Pod and the story of namesake Tahlequah, who pushed her dead calf for more than 17 days in 2018 in an act of mourning.
Tahlequah, also known as J35, gave birth to a new calf last September.
The Oklahoma town is home to the Kirkpatrick Foundation, which heard about the story and made a significant donation to Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3) in Washington state.
Louisa McCune, executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation and whose father was born in Tahlequah, said the foundation supports conservation and animal well-being and non-profits that work in those fields.
IF YOU GO
• Orcas: Our Shared Future, opens Friday and runs until early 2022
• COVID-19 health and safety protocols include: timed tickets, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and special hours for vulnerable guests. See full details at: rbcm.ca/covidsafety.
• Purchase timed tickets in advance at rbcm.ca/orcas or in person from the box office.
• Closed Wednesdays. See current opening hours at rbcm.ca/hours.
• Admission: $26.95 adults, $18.95 seniors/students, $16.95 youth, included with membership.
• On social media: #RBCMOrcas
• Exhibition publication companion: Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History, by Dr. Martha Black, Dr. Lorne Hammond and Dr. Gavin Hanke with Nikki Sanchez, $29.95, available in the Royal Museum Shop and online.