Science denialism and the bright extinction of killer whales - Salish Current
May 23, 2024
Science denialism and the bright extinction of killer whales
Rena Kingery

While the SeaDoc team was on a recent excursion to film gray whales in Mexico, several whales emerged from the deep and peered up at the crew, seemingly asking for pets and scratches. Scientist Joe Gaydos will talk about his encounters with sea life, why the Southern Resident killer whales may be on the path to extinction, and more, in Bellingham on June 5. (Courtesy Joe Gaydos)

May 23, 2024
Science denialism and the bright extinction of killer whales
Rena Kingery


Wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos reflects on what we know about our resident whales and why it’s so hard to save them.

On a 2022 excursion to capture documentary footage off the coast of Baja California Sur in Mexico, Joe Gaydos peered into the eye of a gray whale. Over two days, dozens of curious whales emerged from the deep blue water to scope out Gaydos and the rest of the crew. The whales seemed to ask for pets and scratches, and the delighted crew was more than willing to indulge them. Gaydos, an animal scientist and veterinarian, relishes these moments. 

“The whales were checking us out as much as we were checking them out,” Gaydos said. “That animal can easily smash your boat, but it’s more interested in having an experience with you and seeing what’s going on. I love that.”

These interactions are part of why Gaydos tirelessly pursues conservation of the Salish Sea ecosystem. Gaydos, science director at the SeaDoc Society, has coauthored more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers and published a best-selling book, “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.” An engaging speaker with a radiant smile and a passion for conservation, Gaydos will speak at Village Books on June 5 as part of the Current Affairs speaker series, cosponsored by the Salish Current.

During the talk, titled “Fish Tales, a Drone, and Science Denialism,” Gaydos will draw on his conservation research on Southern Resident killer whales (SKRW) to discuss how science denialism may be hindering efforts to save these iconic Salish Sea orcas. “It’s a very information-rich situation,” Gaydos said, referring to the well-known perils of SRKW. “Yet, we still are not saving them.”

The SeaDoc team readies to land its drone. The drone noninvasively collects data from the whales’ respiratory droplets that can reveal signs of infection and other conditions. (Louise Johns)

Gaydos and his team can even study the health of individual whales by using drones to take breath samples. A flying petri dish attached to the drone captures respiratory droplets from the whale’s exhale as the aircraft hovers several meters above the water. The drones don’t seem to bother the whales, and the researchers can analyze data that will tell them more about how the drone’s presence affects the whales. Respiratory droplets can be tested for traces of blood and signs of infection that could pinpoint a treatable ailment. Only 74 SRKW remain, so the health of each whale is critical.

Scientists know these whales down to their DNA. They’ve sequenced the genomes of more than 100 SRKW, including some that have died. That research, published in 2023, confirmed a long-held suspicion that this population of orcas is highly inbred. Inbred whales have a shorter lifespan, resulting in fewer offspring, and inbreeding may decrease the whales’ ability to cope with disease and a changing environment. [Also read “How much of orca decline is in their DNA?Salish Current, Dec. 9, 2022] Other known causes for SRKW decline are a shortage of chinook salmon (their preferred prey), chemical exposure and boat noise and interactions. 

Bright extinction

Gaydos and other scientists have termed what’s happening to SRKW a bright extinction.

“People talk about these dark extinctions of species nobody knows about, and they just disappear,” Gaydos said. “Tragic, right? But then there’s bright extinction, where we have all the science we need to do something, and politically and socially, we still can’t do it.”

Gaydos is involved in conservation on almost every level. He carries out scientific research and also advocates for SRKW and the health of the Salish Sea ecosystem before politicians and policymakers. He hosts SeaDoc Society’s Salish Sea Wild, a documentary film series that educates the public about wildlife conservation with engaging footage, fascinating facts and clever scriptwriting. 

Gaydos said participating in science communication beyond peer-reviewed papers should be part of every scientist’s job.

“We’re very uncomfortable giving talks,” Gaydos said. “That’s not what we do. We do science. But we live in a time where anybody who puts up a website or Facebook account becomes an expert, and the real experts who have data are not showing up to talk, whether that’s in front of Congress, the state legislature, or a county council meeting.”

Untruth and consequences

When scientists doing rigorous research don’t step up to the plate, scientists and science deniers who cherry-pick facts and have self-serving agendas have a larger base from which to go to bat against facts … with devastating consequences. 

Misrepresentation of facts has contributed to loss of public trust in science. Gaydos will discuss in a talk June 5 how the community can counter denialism and advocate for wildlife. (Louise Johns)

The tobacco industry used science denialism tactics to instill doubt in the public about the connection between lung cancer and smoking. Millions of deaths from smoking-related lung cancer and heart disease might have been prevented if the public hadn’t been misled.

Those same tactics were used by the oil industry to deny the scientific facts of climate change. Now, climate change is affecting humans and animals across the globe, in part, because science denialism schemes may have delayed the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

With stories like these, it’s clear why public distrust in scientists has grown. According to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, trust in scientists has decreased by 14% among U.S. adults since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When industry leaders use science to misrepresent facts and people lose trust in science, Gaydos said, it’s hard to use scientific discoveries to make decisions, including those that could conserve the Salish Sea and help SRKW recover.

Nonetheless, Gaydos believes there are ways the community can fight science denialism and advocate for the region’s wildlife. That and more will be the subject of his June 5 talk.

“It’s a positive talk about doing things better,” he said. “About how we can pick this up and be better at using science and making decisions.”

Joe Gaydos on June 5 looks at the state of the Salish Sea in the Current Affairs speaker series, “Fish Tales, a Drone, and Science Denialism.” Village Books, Bellingham, 6 p.m. Reservations.

By Rena Kingery

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