Monika Wieland Shields is a wildlife photographer, author, and field biologist who lives on San Juan Island. She is the co-founder of the non-profit research group the Orca Behavior Institute, studying the behavior, communication, and habitat usage of killer whales in the Salish Sea. She has been observing the plight of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales since 2000. She placed as semi-finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and her photography has been featured by Oceana, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Washington and Oregon State Parks, the American Cetacean Society, the Vancouver Aquarium, and many regional news media outlets.
She is the author of Orca Encounters: Images of Southern Resident Killer Whales and A Guide to Birds of San Juan Island. Her third book, Endangered Orcas, will be published in 2019.
Artist’s Statement: The Southern Resident killer whales, made up of J-, K-, and L-Pods, are icons of the Pacific Northwest. They have traditionally made their summer home in the Salish Sea, spending much of their time in the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia, including the San Juan Islands. Despite being listed as endangered in 2005, their population has continued to decline, numbering just 75 whales as of spring 2019. The main contributor to their decline is lack of abundance of their primary prey, Chinook salmon. Toxic contaminants and noise from sources such as commercial shipping traffic also impact them.
In recent years, as spring Chinook stocks have crashed, the Southern Residents have spent less time in the Salish Sea. When this photo was taken, J-Pod had just returned to the Salish Sea in late May after a long absence. We were the only boat on scene with them in northern Haro Strait that evening, and the entire pod was in one large resting group, more than 20 whales surfacing slowly and in synchrony. Seeing that many dorsal fins all together is always spectacular, but couple that with evening light and the dramatic backdrop of the islands and it was an unforgettable night, so peaceful that the blows of the whales were echoing across the strait.
It was a visually stunning moment, watching the whales silhouetted against the sunset, but as moments like that one have become more rare to witness, it was also bittersweet. The title of the image, “Into the Sunset”, references both the beauty of the photo and the fear that, unless dramatic action is taken to rebuild regional salmon runs, the Southern Resident population as a whole may also disappear into the night.