A heartbreaking journey resulting from a grieving mother’s loss that spanned thousands of miles has officially come to an end.
Her endeavour drew worldwide attention and personal empathy. Many believe that feelings of grief, loss and heartbreak are human emotions but what makes this situation unique is that this mother is not human at all. Her name is Tahlequah, or J35, and she is an orca, more commonly known as a killer whale.
On July 24th, Tahlequah gave birth to a calf. The birth was the first live birth in her pod since 2015 but unfortunately, her calf died minutes after it was born and the cause of death is unknown. Instead of abandoning what was left of her baby and moving on, J35 prevented her calf from sinking by nudging it to the surface of the ocean and pushing the corpse along or swimming with it balanced on her forehead.
Other female pod members even took turns carrying the calf’s body. Some experts are claiming that this is an unparalleled testament to the strength and importance of the species’ familial bonds and say that they have not seen anything quite like it. “These are highly intelligent, highly social animals, and they have cultures,” says Peter Ross, a killer whale expert and vice president of research at conservation group Ocean Wise. “They’re like family units.” This familial
responsibility was also demonstrated two years ago when Tahlequah’s sister died, leaving behind a nursing calf. Tahlequah “adopted” that calf and attempted to nurture and nurse it but unfortunately, it died. The Southern Resident Orca population that Tahlequah belongs to has about 75 members, but the pod has not had a successful birth in nearly three years and only 25 percent of calves have survived in the last twenty years.
Contrary to popular belief, orcas are not whales but dolphins. They are the largest dolphin and one of the world’s most powerful predators. The diet of the orca population in the Salish Sea (a complex network of coastal waterways which includes the Southwestern portion of British Columbia and the Northwestern portion of Washington State, and also where Tahlequah and her pod reside) consists primarily of
salmon – particularly Chinook – whose populations are declining across both the Salish Sea and Columbia River basins. Between 1973 and 2016, the population of orcas both increased and decreased. In 1995, the population increased forty-five percent, to a high of ninety-eight, however, it then dropped by twenty-three percent between 1995 and 2003 to eighty-two individuals, causing them to be added to the list of endangered species. As of 2016, there were seventy-eight killer whales in the Salish Sea. Ben Smith, Greenpeace USA Field Organizing Manager, says “Unfortunately, that population is malnourished and in dire need of food and protection.”
Orcas can live upwards of sixty years or more and reside in tight-knit matrilineal groups led by older females. Researchers have been able to discover that whale culture and learned behaviours are complex and vary from pod to pod. A pod’s culture has a substantial impact on factors such as what they eat, their choice of mates, and even what they do for fun. Orcas in the Salish Sea are known for being unusually playful. They slap their pectoral fins, wag their tales and bob up and down to get a better view of the world above the waterline. While there are around fifty-thousand orcas worldwide, the Salish Sea population is down to less than ninety animals. Social conventions appear to prevent mating outside their group, which has led to an inbred population.
What Can We Do?
Recent causes of killer whale deaths have resulted from toxic pollution as well as noise and disturbance from boats and other water traffic. This, combined with a decreasing food supply, has put these orcas in a compromising position but there are many things that the community can do to help.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency urges communities to engage in citizen science by alerting researchers whenever they spot an orca in order that their migration and movement patterns can be tracked. Perhaps one of the most important things is to educate the industry on the best and most ethical methods of disposing of chemical and medical waste to ensure that they are not seeping into the ocean. It is crucial to never dispose of these materials down household drains such as toilets, sinks or anywhere outdoors where they could leak into ditches or storm drains. Choosing to eat sustainably-harvested salmon and seafood also protects wild fish populations and getting involved in environmental
initiatives for habitat preservation, particularly Chinook salmon habitats, is hugely important to ensure that these animals have a long-lasting food supply. Finally, orcas are extremely sensitive to noise and disruption from boats and other aquatic vehicles. If you are able, find out if there have been any recent sightings of pods in your area and, if so, avoid boating there. As well, avoid approaching them on your own and instead opt to observe them from the shore or a responsibly-managed vessel. This way you are less likely to disturb them and more likely to learn a thing or two about the species.
A Silver Lining from a Sad Story
Scientists say that Tahlequah travelled one-thousand-six-hundred kilometres (one-thousand miles) with her baby before she let it go. According to the Center for Whale Research, “The carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of these inland marine waters…and researchers may not get a chance to examine it for necropsy (autopsy of an animal).” Most likely the body began to fill with water and simply became too heavy for her to carry.
Although this story strikes a human note and is distressing, the silver lining is that it attracted the attention of many people around the world to conditions affecting these beautiful animals. Hopefully, with the insight of how compassionate, emotional, and loyal orcas are, more attention will be focused on preservation and resources to ensure their survival.
Life goes on. Tahlequah was spotted Saturday chasing a school of salmon with her pod in the Haro Strait.