From the time I was a little kid, I have always had this “extended family” that spent summers in the Salish Sea. Year after year, you would see youngsters become adults, new family members born and even a “Granny” who seemed to keep everyone calm and safe. When you have swam the cool Pacific waters for over a century, you tend to have that effect.
Sadly as I have gotten older, I have watched this family dwindle in numbers. Where there used to be nearly 100 orcas in J,K, and L pods, there is now only an estimated 76 (as of December 2017). With new calves failing to reach puberty, these numbers stand to fall even faster as the years keep ticking by.
All is not lost however. Thankfully, people like aspiring filmmaker, Jess Webster are working to bring awareness to the plight of the Southern Resident Orca pods to an audience much larger than the West Coast of the United States. I was lucky enough to speak with Webster recently about her project, The Final Breach, and chatted about how you can help her make this project happen. At the end of this Q&A I have also posted a link to her Indiegogo page, as well as a link to my podcast, The Conservationist Conversationalist, for your listening pleasure.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Jess and I’m a zoology graduate from a small seaside town in the UK. I’m currently studying for a Masters in wildlife filmmaking which is run in collaboration with the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol. I’ve previously completed a research internship at the Zoological Society of London and in my spare time I volunteer for a national charity alongside playing the piano/guitar.
How did you get into orcas and how did you learn about the Southern Resident Whales?
I’ve been passionate about killer whales for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure what it is about them, but they just fascinate me. As a child my bedroom was literally full of orca posters and toys (to be honest it still is a bit!). My interests in orcas and in nature in general led me to study zoology at university, and so I’ve always tried to keep up with environmental issues. A couple of years ago I was doing some research and I came across the problems facing the Southern Residents. Even back then the situation seemed bad, but I gather it’s got a lot worse and the Southern Residents have had a particularly awful couple of years with regards to deaths and reproductive success.
It’s interesting because I was watching Blue Planet II the other night when I was visiting my grandparents. I mentioned that several of the top environmental researchers and film makers are coming out of Europe or Australia right now. From someone who lives there, have you noticed this interest?
I think the environmental research/film industry has always been strong in Europe, particularly in the UK with the world famous Natural History Unit. But I think what’s changing is the realization that many species on the planet are in real trouble, so I think more and more conservation is being built into natural history film, which relies on the input from expert researchers in the field. There’s definitely a sense of urgency here, and an ongoing pressure to come up with ways to deliver conservation messages whilst still telling engaging stories that people will want to hear. You can definitely see that a lot of the big blue chip documentaries such as Blue Planet II are making a real effort to raise awareness of some of the biggest issues facing our wildlife today, such as plastic pollution.
Tell us a little about your upcoming project The Final Breach.
As part of my Masters degree I’m going to be producing a short film which will focus on the unique relationship between the Southern Residents and the local community. From my research I’ve been fascinated to learn just how significant these whales are in this part of the world, and I’m aiming to raise global awareness of their current plight through the film. I’ve also been amazed to hear stories of how these whales have tried to protect one another in what has and continues to be a desperate time- I think this says a lot about their nature and shows a side to them that a lot of people don’t see. In general, I think a lot of people see orcas as these bullet proof predatory killing machines, and this isn’t the case at all. I also think a lot of people don’t realize that there are distinct subsets of orcas, all with individual behaviors, communities and personalities and like many other animals they face very real threats.
The film itself will be set off the coast of Vancouver Island, and is due for release in November 2018, where it will be screened to industry professionals from the BBC and other UK production companies in Bristol. It will also be distributed online and submitted to film festivals in order to get as wider audience as possible. I’ll be working with researchers and orca advocates based in the community to pull this story together, and a key focus of the film will be the problems facing calves- with the last couple of years being particularly disappointing in the context of successful births.
Now obviously with that sort of project, you will need some help with funding. Where can people help out and in what ways?
Yes absolutely. Film-making is not cheap, and a project of this scale does require a lot of funds. As a student, I simply don’t have these kinds of funds but I’m determined to complete the project so I can raise awareness for the southern residents. I’ve set up a crowdfunding page where people can donate, and there are perks set up to thank people from their support. You don’t have to claim these; if you just want to donate you can by simply ‘backing’ the project. The campaign can be found HERE!
I am very excited that you will be able to experience the beauty of the Pacific Northwest later this year. What are you most looking forward to besides seeing orcas?
I’m really looking forward to visiting this part of the world- I’ve never been to Canada and I’ve only been to Florida in the states, which is obviously very tourist focused. I’m really looking forward to seeing the nature that the west coast has to offer, and meeting the people who live alongside and are fighting for the southern residents. Above all, I’m really excited to be going to a part of the world described as the ‘Realm of the Killer Whale.’
Stay up to date with Jess Webster and her project on Facebook, by clicking HERE!
Editor in Chief of Lemonade Magazine