In the waters off the coasts of Washington and southwestern Canada lives a population of killer whales known for their difficult feeding. They feast almost exclusively on the largest salmon in the world.
But whales, known as southern resident killer whales, are also famous for another reason. There are only about 75 left.
Now, visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History can see a holographic group of orcas residing in the south up close. “Critical Distance,” a new experience created by Vision3 in partnership with Microsoft, explores why these whales are endangered and how marine conservation can help.
“The biggest threat to southern resident killer whales is that there is less chinook to eat than before due to overfishing and degradation of the habitat where the fish lay their eggs,” John said. Ososky, responsible for the museum’s collections for marine mammals.
A scarce food supply wasn’t the only thing threatening the southern resident orcas. Toxins and plastic pollutants in the ocean are usually ingested by small animals such as fish. When killer whales eat the fish, they themselves absorb toxins and plastics. These small amounts of contaminants build up over time in the body of killer whales and can lead to health complications. It sounded too good to be true.
“Toxins and plastics can mix in whales’ bodies, causing damage to their organs. The effects can have a particularly large impact in the early stages of killer whale life depending on the amount of pollution in their streams, ”Ososky said.
Ship traffic in the Salish Sea, the aquatic region of the Pacific Ocean where whales live, can also complicate matters. Orcas hunt using echolocation, emitting high-pitched sound waves that bounce off nearby objects to create a picture of their surroundings. The noise of ships can mask sound waves, while the crowding of boats can distract whales from their hunting grounds.
The augmented reality experience creatively interprets the impact humans have on these whales. It explores the value of marine conservation and the importance of monitoring the complex issues affecting the health of killer whales and the oceans.
“Marine conservation is important because we all share the planet,” Ososky said. “The health of southern resident killer whales is an indicator of whether or not they can live with marine life.”
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