Howard Garrett has been working to protect orcas since the early 1980s. First beginning as a researcher with his brother Ken Balcomb, where the pair worked to conduct the first dorsal photo-identification work, cataloging the southern resident orca population. During this time is when his decades-long love and care for the Southern Residents began. He realized shortly into his work that the differences between orca pods were not one of biology, but one of culture. He noted how each distinctive orca family had their own symbols and language that they used to communicate with one another; their communities pass down knowledge on what to eat, who to associate with, and how to communicate. Orca ceased to be just a job, but a passion and friend for him as he worked with and learned from them further.
Since that time, Howard has moved on to do work to have orca released from captivity throughout the 90s; however, from 1995 to 2001 when the Southern Resident population dropped by 20%, he knew that he had to turn his sights back home. Returning to Washington and opening Orca Network on Whidbey Island with his wife Susan. Since that time Orca Network has expanded to a small team of 10 people that works primarily on orca education and tracking.
When asked why he is so passionate about orca, Howard replied with an old adage: “to know them is to love them.” He points to his long career working alongside the whales, marveling at “their power, their grace, their form,” and how highly developed they are as a species. He stated that orcas are worth saving not only for the role that they play in our ecosystem but simply because they exist. He notes that although he does come from a western science background and cannot call orca his family, he feels a deep connection with them and his feelings can’t be put into words to describe it.
Howard raises the alarm for orca, noting that their behavior reflects the desperate situation they are in. Rather than spending their time frolicking and socializing, much of their time is occupied with foraging for food as their primary food source, Chinook salmon, have been greatly depleted over the past decades, highlighting the tragic stories of two orca mothers, one who passed away and one who carried their stillborn calf throughout the region after its death. He points to the pressing need to breach the lower Snake River dams in order to restore Chinook salmon populations so we don’t continue to see a decline in our beloved orca.