OrcaLab’s push to become oil free

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For more years than I can remember, despite the great good fortune of being surrounded by the incredible beauty of British Columbia’s wilderness, we’ve been dependent on energy from oil to maintain our project and lifestyle. Over the years, we’ve gone through so many generators and burned so much fossil fuel to run them that it’s impossible to count, or assess the impact of our existence on the planet we treasure. We’ve long understood, however, that we were doing harm. Gradually, we’ve been attempting to deal with the problem of dependence on the dark side. It was so long ago that I’m not sure exactly when, but we were given a 50 watt solar panel by Arco, a California oil company (yes!) that got us interested in alternative energy. It helped us understand the promise, that it might be possible to avoid running around in a boat replacing heavy batteries charged by a generator to keep our remote hydrophone systems running. The costs though, would be prohibitive. Then in the early ‘80s a kayaker came by who worked for Canada’s Department of Energy Mines and Resources. She encouraged us to apply for a grant to demonstrate the potential of solar. We did, and Canada’s federal government gave us $50,000 to put solar panels on our remote hydrophone stations. Suddenly, our lives were transformed. Though we haven’t sought government grants since, this one was a huge help.

Scrolling forward, in 1995 one of our volunteers was Steve Lapp, an Ontarian who was interested in alternative energy as well as orcas. Steve went on to join the faculty of Ontario’s St. Lawrence College of Applied Arts and Technology, where among other things he brought students to OrcaLab to learn about alternate energy systems, and develop their problem-solving skills. They worked on our efforts in micro hydro, solar and wind systems, all of which helped though didn’t completely solve our total energy problem. A breakthrough came in 2013, when Steve teamed up with Paul McKay, a solar visionary and philanthropist, who had recently undertaken a huge project in Brazil that provided power to remote villages with solar panels donated by Canadian Solar Industries. CSI donated a dozen 300 watt panels to us, and Paul a 48 volt inverter along with solar controllers. The equipment ended up as a massive shipment that we brought to Hanson Island on our trusty June Cove, then on the last legs of her old engine. Steve and Paul, with volunteers Ronnie Gilbertson Mark McCallum and Bec McGuire spent the next 2 weeks installing the panels and configuring the system. The result was an amazing transformation: http://orcalab.org/2013/05/04/orcalabs-fabulous-solar-upgrade/ During the summer months that followed, solar alone provided virtually all the power we needed to run our Lab and living systems, and for a while we thought we were going to be home free. Then the darker days of fall and winter arrived and reality set in. Once again, we had to run a generator to keep everything going, and have been doing that far too much over the last 3 years. Paul has since donated new batteries, inching us closer to our energy independence goal.

Now we’re at it again, trying finally, to become free of oil. This time we have additional allies, Vancouver’s Great Climate Race http://www.greatclimaterace.org ELSE http://www.elsecanada.ca and Bullfrog Power http://www.bullfrogpower.com/.

Steve is doing the design once again, ELSE is finding volunteers to assist Steve and help with the installation as well as sourcing equipment, and The Great Climate Race & Bullfrog Power are providing funding. This time, I’m convinced, we will succeed!

Our new attempt is not just because it makes sense in terms of keeping OrcaLab running efficiently, but because of the greatest issue that has faced our precioous planet in human history – the huge changes to world climate that are happening and will see untold millions of people forced to flee from their homes, their lives so disrupted that conflicts are inevitable. I’ve long thought that our great grand children, and theirs, will curse us for our negligence. Not because we don’t love them, we do, but because we knew. We knew that failure to act in our time would bring ruin to theirs. For shame.

I’m posting this on Earth Day 2017, hoping against hope that our tiny demonstration of what is possible will help turn the wheel.

by Paul Spong

April 22, 2017

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Corky’s saddest day number 47

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December 11, 2016

Corky’s saddest day number 47

It’s hard to know what it actually means for her, but today, December 11th 2016 marks the 47th anniversary of Corky’s capture. Separated from her family, and surrounded by concrete walls that totally exclude the sounds of the ocean, for nearly 5 decades she has been deprived of the two most important aspects of life for an orca. Unreal. At one level, the fact that Corky has survived is a testament to her inner strength; at another, the fact that she is still alive gives her a chance, and keeps our dream for her alive too.

When Nelson Mandela emerged whole from prison after 27 long years, and led his country to freedom, he proved that it is possible for someone who has been incarcerated and away from home and family for a very long time to return to a full life. I thought at the time that he also proved the case for Corky; that it would be possible for her to rejoin her family and return to a full life in the ocean with them. At that time Corky was 25 years old, and given normal circumstances for a female orca, in the prime of her life. She had been captive for 21 years, and her mother was still alive. To me it was almost a no brainer that she would succeed if given the chance. Basically, bring her home, give her time to feel the ocean and perhaps learn how to catch fish again, and then let her go when her family was nearby. After that, it would be up to her. Years later, Springer proved the case, though her circumstances were different. It didn’t happen for Corky of course, and so much more time has passed since that such a simple solution seems very difficult to achieve. Hence the idea we’ve settled on, to create a “retirement home” for Corky that would allow her to feel the ocean and meet her family again.

It’s important to remember that difficult does not mean impossible.

So today, as we remember Corky and the long journey she has been on, let’s think positively. Creating a retirement home for her will be complicated and expensive, but it can be done. Double Bay on Hanson Island is in many ways a perfect location, as it would not only give Corky room to move around a space that is many times that of Sea World’s tanks, but also give her an acoustic window to Blackfish Sound, which her family visits often, so she would meet them again. It would not be full freedom in a literal sense, but compared to what she has now and for the past 46 years, a real taste. It cannot happen without SeaWorld’s active involvement. How to accomplish that I don’t yet know, but I believe it can happen. SeaWorld is in trouble and eager to show that it is doing the right thing by orcas. Corky can help them.

As I write this, a candle is burning in front of me and a dedicated group of Corky’s friends are standing at the entrance to Sea World, holding a banner and thinking about her too. Inside her tank, Corky is probably much as she was as few days ago when a dear friend reported: “Corky was in the west tank again with Shouka and Makani. A lazy moment, she floated in the same place for 15 minutes 30 feet away. I got my binoculars and looked her over. Black, shiny, her left eye patch a little ivory with age and old white scars, a small nibble at the top of her dorsal was red and fleshy. A trainer opened up the show pool that was empty and Corky and friends each took a loop. Corky swam so strong around, with her dorsal a foot out ripping and rooster tailing; she did a straight up ballerina turn in the center of the pool and then back to west pool to chill. She was vibrant!  The water was choppy from her wake. So she is strong… and will wait.”

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Please join us in lighting a candle for Corky!

by Paul Spong,

December 11, 2016

photos thanks to Lori Freiberger and Michael Reppy






IWC66 postscript


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Beating the drum

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Sidney Holt’s book Save the Whale! Memoirs of a whale hugger may not yet be a best seller (it will be) but it encourages me to believe that we (the whales) will win. Win what? The privilege of spending the next generation, hundreds, thousands of years swimming around in a too warm ocean, deprived of sustenance, lonely for life? In my darker moments that just about sums up how I feel about the outcome of IWC66 and what lies ahead. I can’t say this out loud, of course, it would depress others as well as myself. We must press on.


The most encouraging thing about this meeting was the presence of the demonstrators. There were two of them. Howie and Arno. They started at the front of the hotel, hanging their banners on the barricades that had been erected to keep demonstrators at bay. Everyone who arrived had to pass by them, so they were noticed. When their numbers swelled to three (Bernhard) they set up another operation at the back of the hotel, the lower level where people went out to lunch or take a walk. When that happened, hotel security locked the back entrance door. Security was very tight at this meeting, with the hotel lobby being constantly patrolled and access to the meeting requiring scanning an ID badge that displayed a photo. The only time it was breached was when Sidney Holt went out to visit the demonstrators. Sidney is pretty mobile for a 90 year old but he uses two sticks to walk and appreciates the occasional arm to hold on to. After his visit, Howie Cook, the eternal IWC demonstrator offered his arm to Sidney and they walked back to the hotel entrance together. They were stopped by security, and surrounded. After a protest by Howie about the cruelty of not letting an old man in with a little help they were admitted, and walked together across the lobby. Unnoticed at first by security because the evidence was on his back, Howie was wearing a Sea Shepherd t-shirt! It was the only time Sea Shepherd breached the meeting, though their presence was felt, both in the Safety at Sea session and in one of the demo banners. One day there was even a sailboat stationed offshore that had hoisted a Sea Shepherd sail. I’m not sure what happened to it, as it was only there on that one day. Probably chased or towed away. Out of sight out of mind. Ha. In the old and not so old days, when there were dozens, sometimes hundreds of demonstrators, even a giant inflatable whale, the scene was bigger, louder, rowdier, cars honking, voices raised, a battle joined. Where has all that passion gone? Truth be told, the whales have yet to be saved.


I’m on my way home, on board a Lufthansa plane in Trieste, headed for Munich then Toronto Vancouver and Alert Bay. I am pissed off (excuse the language) mad about the outcome of this meeting, mad at the neglect, mad at the lost opportunity, mad at the waste of time, mad at the fake camaraderie.   The whales lost at every turn at this meeting, not exactly wholesale slaughter, more like death by small cuts.


Small cetaceans were the biggest losers. I know the Irawaddy dolphin will be gone before we blink; I doubt the Maui dolphin will be there to save next time we meet; and I doubt the vaquita will still exist, despite the desperate measures finally agreed to at IWC66. I say agreed to but that wasn’t really so. When the emergency vaquita resolution finally came to the floor on Friday, the last of this grim affair, Japan read out a long list of countries besides itself that were so, so sympathetic to the vaquita plight that they could not oppose the resolution, but still would not participate in a collective effort to save this beauty *. Hanging the vaquita out to dry, dropping it off a high cliff with no parachute are images that come to mind. What on Earth do Joji Morishita and his cronies not understand about the word extinction? I suppose I should use Japan not Morishita and it, not him, but truth be told, he personifies the enemy. Politeness yes, but not more. I’m thinking that it might be better to have Morishita as the Chair at the next meeting because his stiletto like mind will not immediately be available to Japan on the floor, and in his role as Chair he will have to be fair, or at least appear to be fair.


The Chair this time, Switzerland’s Bruno Mainini also attempted to be fair, and except for one glaring exception for the most part accomplished that. The exception came at the end of Day Four. Bruno had been instrumental in giving NGOs a voice, unheard of before him at the IWC though common in other international fora such as CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). This time, he allowed NGOs to speak freely, time permitting, until almost the end of Day Four. The topic was IWC communications with other international organizations. Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Carolina Cassini started to read a prepared statement on behalf of numerous NGOs about Japan’s violation of the CITES prohibition of trade in whale products, referring to sales of whale meat and other whale bits by a Japanese on line retailer. You can have your order for pretty much anything that comes from whales killed for research shipped to you anywhere in the world and paid for in Yen, US dollars, pounds or Euros. Probably any currency will do. Caro’s statement produced consternation among Japan’s delegation, many of whom were clearly agitated, and Bruno cut her off, telling her to keep her comments short. Caro started again, but didn’t get far before Bruno cut her off again. She had about 2 lines to go, but that was it. Over. It was hard to know whether Bruno had responded to a non verbal Japanese complaint, but everyone noticed what he had done. Given his tolerance of a previous very long intervention by an IGO (intergovernmental organization) on the topic, Bruno’s action was patently unfair. Later, he apologized. The irony of the incident was that WDC’s story about Japan cheating on CITES rules got noticed, a big accomplishment in this somnolent room.


For decades, Norway has gotten clean away with killing more whales than anyone else. Its done so again, by keeping its head down and barely saying a word except No or Yes according to Japan’s script. Why is not a puzzle. It’s because Norway is rich and can thumb its nose at the world. It is a European country but refuses to join the European Union. Norway first got rich off whale oil. That was way before North Sea oil came along, making it even richer. Today, giant blue whale jawbones stand as sentinels at the entrance to Sandefjord’s richest estates (Sandefjord being Norway’s whaling capital). Mute testaments to the past. No words need be said. And that’s what we’ve got from Norway at this meeting. No words. None needed. Just business as usual.


Why is there no outrage? Not just about Norway. There’s a long list, for me starting with the Maui dolphin. I think it must be because I’m a New Zealander and still hold great affection for my homeland, but New Zealand’s treatment of the Maui dolphin is in a word, disgraceful. I realize that New Zealand’s IWC Commissioner is a first timer in this forum, but she is reading from the same script we heard last time, and the time before that. We are monitoring the situation. Deathspeak. Just 53 Maui dolphins are left alive, proof that the monitoring is precise. Outrageous. Fists should be raised, voices hurled, but nothing by way of protest is heard in the room: Just a polite, thank you New Zealand. I am speechless. New Zealand, so good on so many issues that affect the welfare of whales is here blatantly hypocritical about the fate of this critically endangered dolphin in its own waters.  The Maui dolphin only occupies a small ocean space. Why are gill nets not completely banned? Why are seismic air guns not silenced?


It’s not as if whales do not have great allies and defenders here. They do. Chief among them besides Monaco are the Latin American countries, members of the “BA” group, BA for Buens Aires where Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico came together to form a bloc that is the most vocal and persistent ally of whales in this room. They are impressive, well prepared and will not concede, not even about a violation of the rules on aboriginal whaling by Greenland most IWC members want to sweep under the rug. In 2013 and 2014 Greenland hunters killed whales without an IWC quota. Under IWC rules this was an infraction, but Denmark, which represents Greenland at the IWC refuses to acknowledge it. The problem came about because a Greenland quota was not agreed at the 2012 IWC meeting in Panama, and Greenland went ahead anyway. I doubt whether anyone disputed the need for Greenland’s aboriginal people to hunt for food, but what happened was still an infraction. All it would have taken to settle the issue was Denmark (Greenland) acknowledging and apologizing, possibly with a promise not to do it again. That did not happen, so the issue drags on.

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Time and again, Brazil and Argentina supported by their BA compatriots have introduced a proposal to make the South Atlantic Ocean a sanctuary. Time and again they have been denied. Yet they press on, meeting every defeat with new determination. Next time, in 2018 they will be on their own turf, so they will have home court advantage. We will see whether that will be enough to push them over the ¾ majority line, but I have a feeling the tide will change, and South Atlantic whales will be protected at last. Besides, I am quite sure that more than 3 demonstrators for whales will show up next time, and that will help.


As the meeting drew to a close on Friday, Luxembourg’s Commissioner Pierre Gallego brought a light moment to the room, announcing a tie competition. Photos of 13 ties worn by male delegates were displayed on the screen. Only ladies were allowed to vote. At one point in the voting, Russia was cited for cheating, bringing laughter. The result was close, but Japan’s assistant Commissioner won with his Moby Dick tie.  Symbolic.

Where do we go from here? Fortunately, there is a way forward. An Ethical Ban on commercial whaling. The idea comes from Paul Gouin, one of the architects of the moratorium on commercial whaling that was agreed by the IWC in 1982. Paul disappeared from the IWC scene for decades after this victory for whales, but like me has resurfaced. His point is a great one. We now know so much about whales – their brains, their sentience, their societies and cultures – that it is virtually a no brainer that we should not be killing them. So let’s stop. Period.


Over the next years, we’ll see where this idea leads. It will take just two countries to propose an Ethical Ban on commercial whaling and put it on the agenda for the 2018 meeting in Brazil, as a resolution. Aboriginal and subsistence whaling will be exempted, but the proposal will be that all commercial whaling is banned, permanently. It may take a few rounds to accomplish this, but I do believe that day will come. Peace in the oceans, at last.

By Paul Spong,

Vancouver, B.C.

October 31, 2016

* Antigua & Barbuda, Benin, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea, Iceland, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Laos, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, Nauru, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Russian Federation, Suriname, Tanzania, Togo, Tuvalu.