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The Orca and the Shopping Mall

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Our guide, Alex, heard the orcas before he saw them. To his trained ear, their surfacing blows were audible just below the frequency of the wind. Look, he whispered from the cockpit of his kayak. Over there. Off to the left.

And there they were, a couple hundred yards away in the gray distance, flashing and disappearing like lightning strikes. From where we sat, bobbing along just inches above the water line, we could see that the dorsal fins of some of the larger males stood six feet higher than the hulls of our boats.

The whales were running parallel to our kayaks in Haro Strait, off the west coast of San Juan Island, a few hours' ferry ride northwest of Seattle. These orcas, Alex assured us, were an unusual group. They were the seasonal "residents" of the local waters, and were considered nonthreatening to humans, since they feasted almost exclusively on Chinook salmon. Even if our kayaks did resemble large seals or a sharks, he said, they would not have been tempting to these predators. (An entirely separate group of orcas, the "transients," were a different story. Though they are not known to interfere with humans, the transients are versatile pack hunters who roam up and down the Pacific Coast, and think nothing of taking down a Great White Shark or even other whales. Pods of resident and transient orcas, scientists like Alexandra Morton have discovered, are essentially different tribes, with different languages, and want nothing to do with one another).

The sight of these majestic animals was thrilling, to say the least, and more than a little unnerving. I was paddling in the rear of a tandem kayak with my eight-year-old daughter; my wife Katherine and my 11-year-old son were right next to us. Alex was slightly ahead, his head cocked to the west, listening for whale spouts: deep ventilations that resonate, if you're lucky enough to hear them, deep inside your chest.

Suddenly, from behind us, a voice from a second guide: "Hey, Alex. Look to your right."

All seven of us turned just as a black and white subway train burst from under the water, not eight feet from the bow of my kayak. It was a mammoth orca, blowing a full blast of spray. This wasn't just a whale, it was the entire ocean, exhaling right in my ear.

What can you say about such moments? Seeing a wild animal up close, especially an apex predator the size of a school bus, leaves you at once wanting to shout, and utterly without words. Such moments are preposterous, beyond language, like witnessing a birth, or a death. You are left incredulous not just that you have just seen something transcendent, but that such moments exist at all. These experiences offer, fleetingly, an experience of awe, a glimpse of God. The whale had come from nowhere, it was here for a miraculous moment, and then it was gone. Back to the source.

My young son, wide-eyed and breathless, said afterwards that seeing the orca so close up lifted him three inches out of his seat. He was literally moved by the experience.

What else can you say about such moments? You can say that you want them to happen forever. Even now, back home in Baltimore, I remain stunned by the encounter, and grateful that pods of orcas continue cycling through the San Juans, rising and dipping with the rhythm of a pendulum. But these orcas, these "residents" of a coastal waterway bordering two of the continent's most populous cities, have been considered officially endangered since 2005. Not by hunting, a scourge that mercifully ended in the 1980s, but by more subtle threats.

Hydro-electric dams on the Pacific coast have decimated the Chinook runs that provide these whales with most of their diet. Subtler still, as apex predators who require hundreds of pounds of fatty salmon every day, orcas suffer from highly toxic "body burdens" of man-made chemicals, especially PCBs (used to insulate electrical wires until they were banned since the 1970s), and, more worrisome, flame retardants known as PBDEs (which are still manufactured around the world and found in everything from computers to foam padding in furniture). Because PCBs and PBDEs are fat soluble rather than water soluble, they don't just dissipate in ocean waters, they "bioaccumulate" as they move up the food chain, appearing in ever-higher concentrations until they end up stored in whale tissue. These chemicals affect whales the way they affect humans: by interfering with thyroid function and the workings of the neurological and reproductive systems. And since they are fat soluble, they are transferred through mammary glands from mother to baby. In both humans and whales.

Chemical contamination is showing up in orcas from the Arctic to the coast of New Zealand, and is now so ubiquitous in the San Juan orcas, Alex said, that dead whales "have to be carted off to a hazardous waste dump."

All of which made me look more disconsolately at the gargantuan container ships that used this same waterway -- there, on the horizon, just beyond the orcas -- like an aquatic conveyor belt from Chinese factories to American shopping malls. Moving between the ports of Asia and those of Seattle and Vancouver, these ships carry uncountable tons of consumer products made with the very chemicals threatening the viability of these whales. The connection between our buying habits and the health of orcas, in other words, is direct.

So what else can you say about a close encounter with a killer whale? You can say this: It makes you wonder who the ocean's most dangerous animals really are.

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