Explaining the orcas we think we know

Written by By Sarah Skidmore Sell, CNN

Judith Rideout wants to make sure any damage done by oil sands in Alberta is never again forgotten.

It’s a particularly notable orca that has been featured in her educational movie. For the past 30 years, the notorious southern resident killer whale known as J35 has been making headlines as a nuisance killer whale who leaves behind a mess of dead carcasses. In her new documentary “Oilsands Denied,” Rideout focuses on that 10-year spurt.

In the film, Oilsands Denied, Rideout follows J35 and other orcas as they recover from extended stays at a secluded marine park — home to a 1.8 million gallon storage tank — as well as addiction to herbicide. She also follows scientists who have tried to understand exactly what caused J35’s decline.

As J35 recovers, so does the whole of the southern population of killer whales. While Rideout isn’t pleased with how this message isn’t being communicated, she also understands that the realities of oil development aren’t easily exposed.

“As a woman, people are really good at looking at, ‘That’s a unique lifestyle. That’s not realistic. That’s not natural,’” she says. “But we don’t change the way we look at that.

“The ugly side of the oil industry is always going to be in the public eye.”

Oil traces in toxic fish

The oil sands of Alberta are the largest known source of crude oil in the world. Surrounded by pristine tundra and boreal forest, they have the potential to break old records for production.

However, the environment surrounding the bitumen extends beyond the near-stagnant Canadian tar sands

Subsequent to the extraction process, tar sand contained chemicals and heavy metals, which can wreak havoc on the environment and wildlife, ultimately becoming what is commonly known as a tarsands epidemic. The lignite and sand mining that precedes the mining itself can contribute to serious air pollution. By the time tar sands have been extracted, much of that pollution has been deposited into the water, leading to pollution including toxic algal blooms and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd./AFP/Getty Images

The toxicity of that pollution has affected both fish and many animals as well as mammals like birds and mammals, but it is the little creatures that travel with the movement of these transnational animals who are most impacted. Although one of J35’s calves was later found dead, scientists suspect that the contaminants she was exposed to most likely caused her demise.

“Why does someone want to do that to an animal? What business is that? Is this really the way we want to treat animals? Why?” says Rideout.

“I do think that there needs to be more grassroots, local action,” she adds. “I don’t think that it’s possible to move forward from the failure of our current oil policy unless we understand the true cost of the resources we are using.”

Leave a Comment