Yesterday, I felt like I was forgetting something important. Someone’s birthday.
Today, I realized what had been tugging at me. July 24 marked the second anniversary of the birth, and death, of an orca made world famous by her mother’s 17-day sojourn of grief.
Humans are not the only species that feel the suffering of loss.
Tahlequah’s previous child had been stillborn three years earlier, and this one did not hold the thread of life much longer. Tahlequah held her dead child above water on her rostrum, following her pod of killer whales for over 1,000 miles. Her companions took turns helping her keep the baby afloat until finally, after 17 exhausting days, the grieving mother released her daughter back into to the sea.
Like the tip of the iceberg, like the dying canaries in unsafe mines, another species makes visible the hidden toxins beneath our changing landscapes and seascapes.
“Regrettably, approximately 75% of newborns in the recent two decades following designation of the Southern Resident killer whale (orca) population as “Endangered” have not survived.“
Tahlequah, known by scientists as J-35, is part of the J pod of the Southern Resident community of killer whales that frequents Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Unlike seal-eating transients, the Residents’ diet relies on Chinook salmon. With salmon runs ever more depleted, and the increasing pollution in our seas, the orca population not only suffers malnutrition but also the build up of harmful biochemicals in their bodies. Those high levels of PCBs are a big part of infant mortality.
In her deeply moving memoir, Into Great Silence, poet and scientist Eva Saulitis described her experiences with another group of orcas, the AT1 (Chugach Transients), a pod devastated by the Valdez Oil Spill. Saulitis paralleled their situation with her own losing battle against cancer. How I wish she were still here, sharing her lyrical, luminous reflections on the natural world.
Her Chugach Transients are disappearing. The Southern Residents may not survive much longer.
“In the seminal 1989 book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben confronts a new reality, a world in which human impact alters even the untamed force of weather. Our dominion over the earth, our global reach, our changing climate, our acidification of the rain and the ocean, our mass poisoning of the communal food supply mean nature as we once conceived it — bigger than us, out of our control, pure and free — is over. Nothing on this earth is apart from human tinkering. No raindrop falling on my face is free of human causation. Even my body, burdened with cancer, burdened with fifty years worth of toxins, enacts this truth.“
– Eva Saulitis, “Wild Darkness“, Orion Magazine 2014
For the latest on research and conservation related to orcas and other whales, visit the Center for Whale Research