mother orca grieves baby's death

Grieving with the world’s whale

It’s time for everyone who cares about orcas, oceans and the planet to join the endangered Southern Residents in holding Tahlequah’s dead daughter up for the world to see

Tahlequah is the whale heard around the world.

Just over a week ago, just off the coast of Victoria, the 20-year-old orca gave birth to the first new baby to enter the endangered Southern Resident population in three years. Less than an hour later her daughter was dead. Yes, researchers say the baby was female.

As of Thursday Tahlequah (aka J-35) has kept her daughter’s dead body afloat, and paraded her several hundred kilometres around the Salish Sea, for ten days.

Ken Balcomb, founder of the Centre for Whale Research in Washington State, believes she’s making a statement. To us.

Balcomb, has spent the last 40-plus years watching, or watching for, these orcas and he’s never seen anything like this. When we spoke on day three of Tahlequah’s mourning ritual an orca expert from New Zealand sent him a photo of a whale there who carried her decomposing calf for five days. At the time, five days seemed impossible.

Orcas may have done this before, but humans haven’t witnessed it. And now, thanks to Tahlequah, people around the world are learning that this critically endangered population is starving to death.

Tahlequah and her family are also showing the world what anyone familiar with orcas already knows. They look after each other. Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, says her family members are taking turns holding their lost future aloft.

This is a funeral. This is a ritual. This is love.

In Psychology Today, Marc Bekoff wrote, “Orca mom J-35 and her podmates are grieving… animals suffer from broken hearts just like we do.”

Yes, Tahlequah’s story is in Psychology Today.

Her story is everywhere. Tahlequah’s vigil is viral.

TIME shared it — although they kept the word “grieving” in quotation marks.

The New York Times has published several stories and their headlines aren’t putting grief in quotes.

Entertainment magazines like People are covering Tahlequah like she’s just been cast in a show by Shonda Rhimes.

Upworthy shared the Upworthy part of the tragedy — that females from Tahlequah’s family are grieving with her.

Lynda Mapes, who owns the orca beat for the Seattle Times, wrote that in 20 years of reporting she’s never seen anything like the emotions this story is stirring up. The Times is running an online questionnaire asking readers how the “plight” of this orca is affecting them and, more importantly, what they want done about it. The Victoria Times-Colonist is doing the same.

The world is watching.

In Canada that means the spotlight is on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline and oil tanker project and threats to wild salmon. Before the Trans Mountain expansion was approved, the National Energy Board warned that if nothing went wrong with their pipeline and not a drop of oil ever spilled, the increased tanker traffic alone would result in “significant adverse effects” to the southern resident orcas.

I asked every orca expert I knew whether a population of 83 could survive “significant adverse effects.” They all offered me a variation on “hell no.” We’re now down to 75 orcas.

Almost everyone I’ve heard mention the impact of a seven-fold increase in oil tankers on the orcas refers to extinction as a “possibility,” but fails to cite a single expert who doesn’t believe it’s a certainty.

Canada’s federal government recently committed almost $170 million to finding threats to the southern residents that won’t upset Albertans. And, hey, there is a fisheries closure — though it’s later and less complete than orca experts warned would be vital this year.

I’d be delighted that the Trudeau government is spending $170 million to help these orcas if I didn’t suspect their endgame was to keep them alive just long enough for a future federal government to preside over their extinction.

The southern residents feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon. For years, the federal and provincial governments have failed to take heed of warnings and expert recommendations on how to restore wild salmon populations.

The threats continue to pile up: The Narwhal recently reported that a provincial audit showed waste being dumped by fish processing facilities is “lethal to fish.” B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman has called the permitting of these facilities “outdated.”

Meanwhile, this spring the B.C. government announced confusing new fish farm rules that ask First Nations to decide what to do about the whole issue of fish farms on wild salmon migration routes. In a startling coincidence, the new rules won’t come into effect until after the next provincial election.

South of the border, the spotlight is on the Snake River dam — an anachronism that is now ineffective as an energy producer, but still does a world-class job of preventing salmon from reaching their spawning beds. But the Washington government would rather shoot sea lions — which makes sense, because no matter how well a sea lion can be trained, you still can’t get one to vote.

If U.S. environmentalists seize the moment, perhaps Tahlequah and her dead daughter can be the rallying point in the fight to save the Environmental Protection Act.

And Canadians can demand that our governments start acting on information we’ve had for years, instead of declaring that anything that could potentially cost votes requires further study.

Balcomb is urging people on both sides of the border to contact Governor Jay Inslee’s officewhile his orca task force is underway and to put the heat on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the Trans Mountain pipeline and threats to wild salmon.

It’s time for everyone who cares about orcas, oceans and the planet to seize the moment and join J-Pod in holding Tahlequah’s dead daughter up for the world to see.

Mark Leiren-Young is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, and host of the Skaana podcast, covering…

What the coronavirus pandemic tells us about our relationship with the natural world

There are moments in life that are etched into our collective consciousness forever. When the planes struck the World Trade Center. When Princess Diana was...

Continue Reading

Recent Posts