Yesterday, shortly before noon, a barge laden with logging equipment that included a fuel truck carrying thousands of litres of diesel fuel, spilled its load in the Robson Bight Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve. The fuel truck and numerous other vehicles carrying diesel fuel plunged 200m to the bottom, where the fuel was released and quickly spread at the surface. Within a few hours an 8km long 1km wide oil slick covered the adjacent area.
Two family groups of orcas (I15s & I33s) were nearby in Robson Bight when the incident happened. They were vocal before the accident and during the intense sounds that accompanied the equipment as it fell to the ocean floor. Fuel tanks probably imploded upon impact with the bottom. OrcaLab’s “Critical Point” hydrophone picked up the sounds, which were recorded and also heard live by the Orca-live internet audience (www.orca-live.net). It was immediately obvious from the sounds that something traumatic had happened. This was confirmed by observers at the “Cliff” observation post opposite Robson Bight, who reported that a barge being towed by a tug had half sunk and dumped its load near Critical Point.
After the incident, the orcas grouped up and continued their eastward movement, stopping for a brief rub at the Main rubbing beach, and then carrying on to the east. Another group of orcas, the A12s, was in western Johnstone Strait at the time, and soon afterwards headed “out” via Blackney Pass. At that point, we believed the whales to be safe for the moment, and hoped they wouldn’t return anytime soon. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. At around 9pm, the A30 family returned to Robson Bight and traveled slowly west through the thickest part of the contamination. A few hours later, they turned around and traveled east back through the slick again. During the course of this travel, for about 6 hours, they were exposed to concentrated diesel fumes. Following soon after the A30s were several other orca families, the A4s, A5s, I15s and I33s. Altogether, more than 50 orcas inhaled diesel fumes over a protracted period of time last night.
Today, all the orcas involved have been accounted for, but serious health concerns remain. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska, half the members of an orca pod that was nearby when the spill happened died within the following year. There is little question that inhaling diesel fumes over an extended period of time could have serious health consequences for these orcas. We are afraid for them, though there is little we can do in a practical sense to help them.
Time will tell us whether our fears are justified. We hope not. Meanwhile, we take the fallout from this tiny oil spill as dire warning of the vastly greater consequences that will inevitably follow the opening of British Columbia’s coastal waters to oil and gas exploration and development, and/or tanker traffic that delivers Alberta oil to the world. We have every right to be afraid, for the orcas, and for the myriad other creatures and ecosystems that make B.C. “The best place on Earth”.