Orca Conservancy’s, Michael Harris, Receives Appreciation Award for 15 Years of Orca Advocacy

Whale advocate Michael Harris pulled together Graham Nash, Joan Jett, Country Joe and others who joined Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart in an Earth Day concert in a killer benefit for killer whales. (http://www.king5.com/news/environment/EMP-hosts-Earth-Day-benefit-for-whales-256275691.html). 1977457_10152370661739860_7758163175408055083_n

With all the recent controversy surrounding captive orcas, Ann and Nancy Wilson decided it was high time to celebrate the wild ones. The Earth Day concert and subsequent hour-long broadcast special are being produced by Seattle-based network journalist (ABC News and others) and wildlife filmmaker Michael Harris, together with EMP Museum.  The sponsors are Guitar Center and the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“Ann and Nancy and I worked together several years ago on a syndicated series for young people entitled ‘Baby Wild Films Presents,’ with Nancy hosting and narrating,” remembers Harris.

“One of those specials we did was called ‘The Killer Whale People,’ and so I had the pleasure of taking Nancy out with our orcas.  She’s always been a great advocate for animals and wildlife, but I think it was her first time seeing orcas in the wild, and she was hooked.” So much so, in fact, that the Wilsons teamed up with longtime songwriting partner Sue Ennis and wrote a song about orcas called “Baby Wild,” which Nancy performed in a wonderful beach campfire scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIbMrwbFpi8) that ends the special, and then later recorded in studio with seven-time ASCAP Award-winning Hollywood composer and Baby Wild Films Executive Producer Tim Truman.

The show went on to win several Emmy Awards. “I’ve been doing network television for over 25 years now and that experience still tops the list,” Harris said.  “I’ve spent a good part of my life amongst whales and wildlife, but watching Nancy see these wild orcas for the first time was a kick.  It was like I was seeing them for the first time too, through her eyes. This legendary rock-and-roller, this power chord guitar slinger, suddenly became a kid again. You could see the transformation, as I’ve seen with so many others who experience orcas in the wild.  But most importantly, Nancy immediately made the connection that this isn’t Shamu – this is the real SeaWorld, this is where orcas belong.  As she says in the show, this is where orcas reach for the sky, but not on command.’  

When I was asked to approach Ann and Nancy about doing this benefit, I think I got a ‘yes’ from them in about five minutes. “And having Graham Nash want to take part in this show is just amazing,” Harris continues. “We’ve now got two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and one future Hall of Famer, all donating their incredibly valuable time and talents to help the whales. I’ve been a huge fan of Graham’s all of my life. We all are. Graham’s not just royalty in the world of music, he’s also a hero to many of us for the causes he’s taken on, from social justice to stopping wars to fighting to protect the planet and wildlife.  Very few people understand like Graham Nash the power music has to make change.” Screen shot 2014-04-27 at 1.22.36 PM

ORCA CONSERVANCY is an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1996 as the Tokitae Foundation, calling for the retirement of Tokitae, also known as Lolita, a Southern Resident orca captured in Puget Sound, Washington in August 1970 and now living alone in Miami Seaquarium, the smallest killer whale tank in the United States.

In 2000 the group changed its name to Orca Conservancy, broadening its mission to do everything possible to help Lolita’s family back in the Sound, to ensure healthy fish runs, to clean up toxic sites, to encourage responsible whale watching, and to prevent an oil spill that in one fell swoop could wipe the population out. And if they ever got into trouble with people, or even if they just happened to run aground on their own, Orca Conservancy resolved to move fast to marshall the public, financial and political support needed to get them out of harm’s way and right back to being wild whales again.

To keep them from going into a tank in the first place.

Under the leadership of Seattle-based television producer and filmmaker Michael Harris and fellow Board Members Fred Fellman, MSc., artist and orca researcher Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, five-term Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, former Friday Harbor Port Commissioner Brian Calvert, and Friends of the San Juans Executive Director Stephanie Buffum, Orca Conservancy took part and often the lead in an impressive series of campaigns on behalf of whales. The group fulfilled its new mission immediately, being the first on the scene and then part of the operations team leading a highly publicized, successful rescue of a seal-hunting orca stranded on Dungeness Spit, Washington in December 2001.

Orca Conservancy became a petitioner to list the Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orcas under the Endangered Species Act. It was rejected — the feds said our Southern Residents weren’t “significant.” But against all odds and with almost no money, Orca Conservancy took on the Bush Administration. OC joined four other groups and sued NOAA Fisheries. And under the determined counsel of EarthJustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, the plaintiffs won an historic U.S. District Court case that secured the orcas their first-ever federal protection under ESA.

As Orca Conservancy waged whale wars in one of the nation’s highest courts, the group became a central player and prolific media advocate for the orphaned Northern Resident orca A73, or Springer, in what would become the first-ever successful rescue and repatriation of a wild killer whale (See “THE SPRINGER FILE”). Two of OC’s Board Members lived in Seattle at the time, so they say this little wayward calf sorta fell into their backyard, sick and alone, 250 miles from her home waters. Fred and Michael recall it was almost a “civic duty” to help keep an eye on her, to protect her and keep humans away. They fought to get the feds to act on behalf of Springer. And then when they did give the green light, Orca Conservancy porpoised the airwaves and every angel we knew, enlisting a wave of public support and helping to raise over a quarter-million dollars to get her home. All that was needed. The rest is history.

The group has been involved in other successful campaigns — and some that were not. Orca Conservancy led a similar effort to rescue and repatriate the wayward young orca L98, or Luna, a Southern Resident alone in Nootka Sound, BC, working the project literally to the 11th hour, only to see it fall apart — largely, we think, because of the spectacular failings of a few bureaucrats on the Canadian side, the pecking of a clutch of activist hens in the U.S., and the maneuverings of one marine circus clown (see “THE LUNA FILE”). The whole thing turned into a side show. We had just hit a home run with Springer, out of the park, and now this new team was striking out wildly with Luna. After a few weeks, DFO Canada just checked out altogether, leaving our displaced Southern Resident treasure to his own devices. The First Nations tried their best to be kukawiin guardians, but the federal stewardship funds soon ran dry. Luna would spend the next year-and-a-half of his life hounded by his Human Pod, pursued by lookiloos and video cameras, until finally as we feared he nuzzled up to a familiar seagoing tug on a stormy day, with hoots and come-hithers from the crew, everyone looking to get that great Shamu shot — it was Luna’s last photo op. He got sucked into the propeller tube of the tug and was killed.

The tragic and avoidable death of this extraordinary creature was devastating to Orca Conservancy. It almost killed our organization. Many of us went our separate ways. Some got married, some had kids. OC went into a “dormant” stage, if you will, stepping out of the white-hot media spotlight, taking time to regroup and regain perspective.

But that didn’t mean we stopped working. We quietly engaged at important times as NOAA Fisheries moved ahead on its ESA-mandated orca recovery effort, making sure its actions weren’t disproportionate to the levels of threat to the population. Salmon and herring recovery. No fish, no blackfish. Clean up the toxic hotspots, including ag runoff. Get a good oil-spill response plan in place. Stop picking on whale watchers, who are part of the solution, not the problem. At times we seem to be the only ones trying to keep the feds honest — maybe because OC never became a NOAA contractor, while other non-profits have gone on the ESA dole. Funny how that works. We kept advancing our mission in other material ways, namely in helping to craft new guidelines for responsible, sustainable whale watching in the Pacific Northwest. Michael even serves part-time now as Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, representing 33 operators in BC and Washington, who take out over a half-million passengers a year. Our organization now has a direct line to the most expansive platform for orca conservation in the region.

Orca Conservancy also spent the last few years compiling our vast news archive resources, all of these invaluable assets we’ve collected since 1996, and to make them accessible to conservationists around the world. To learn from our collective experiences, good and bad, to show — maybe even inspire — others that no matter who you are or how much money you have, or if you happen to have a full-time job doing something else (we all do), you can build a fire to light the world — as long as you don’t mind getting burned now and then.

We’ve come out of a lot of fires, and hope to jump into more. That’s our wisdom.  And Luna proved to be a wake-up call, a realization that sometimes the worst things that can happen to whales are some of us humans who say we’re saving them. There needs to be a better way to do this. That’s what Orca Conservancy is always trying to do, to find that new paradigm in conservation and advocacy. Strategic strikes, not social clubs. To make resounding and enduring change, as we did with Springer and the ESA case, as we’re doing today to protect whales and dolphins here in the Pacific Northwest and around the world — all as volunteers.

We don’t pay ourselves anything — but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook! You can help the orcas by contributing a few bucks to ORCA TRUST, our “go-through” fund sending much-needed support directly to orca researchers in the field and projects helping whales. Your donation isn’t going to pay for computer campsters, newsletters and bumper stickers; it’s actually helping policy advocates and scientists save whales. It’s a killer way to show you care.

About orcaconservancy

Orca Conservancy is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working on behalf of orcinus orca, the killer whale, and protecting the wild places on which it depends. Successful Petitioner and Litigant in historic U.S. District Court case to list Southern Resident orcas as "Endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act -- the first-ever federal protection for the population. Leader in the Springer Project, the first-ever successful translocation and reintroduction of a wild killer whale, a rescue that captured the attention of the world.
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