Four days. As of Friday afternoon, J35, a 20-year-old southern resident orca had been cradling her dead baby above the water for FOUR DAYS. I just got off the phone with Ken Balcomb who runs the Centre for Whale Research. “It’s tragic,” he said. “Maybe that’s her statement.”
She may still be holding her baby as you read this, lifting the body back to the surface each time it slides into the water.
One of the theories behind this behaviour (that some scientists are reluctant to describe as “grieving" because they suffer from anthropodenial) is that the mother is showing the baby to other members of her community. So what we’re witnessing would be an orca funeral. Another theory is the mother is praying to the orca Gods that if she waits long enough, the baby might start breathing.
Three years. That’s how long it has been since a southern resident has had a baby, or at least a baby who survived long enough for humans to notice. This baby lived for less than an hour.
Seventy-five. J35—named Tahlequah by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington—is one of only 75 remaining southern residents in the wild. The southern residents are the orcas humans originally fell in love with because they were the first whales taken into captivity. After falling in love with them we started loving them to death.
This started with Moby Doll in 1964, who was caught and displayed by (though not at) the Vancouver Aquarium. Moby was a member of J-Pod, one of Tahlequah’s kin. The first Shamu was a southern resident. So were many, many, many Shamus. Between 1964 and 1976, at least 40 orcas from the small southern resident population were captured or killed. Check out the chronology and details in Jason Colby’s new book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator.
Here’s another number you should know. Eighteen months. That’s an orca’s gestation period. So that’s how long it’ll be before Tahlequah can potentially have another child.
And one more number to break your heart. Twenty-eight. Balcomb says that’s the number of reproductive female orcas in the current population. For some reason—likely the toxic load in the Salish Sea, though possibly it’s the inbreeding—almost all recent orca offspring have been male.
Last year, I attended a gathering of orca experts in Vancouver where they all said almost exactly the same things they’d been saying to anyone who would listen since I first started writing about orcas in 2015. These are the same things they were studying and reporting since orcas were declared endangered in the U.S. over a decade ago. The southern residents are starving.
They are starving because the chinook (a.k.a. King) salmon population is down.
So how are the human guardians of the Salish Sea responding?
Washington governor Jay Inslee put together a task force. Spoiler alert: the task force will tell him the orcas are starving. If they’re allowed to they will tell him he may be able save the population by removing four dams on the lower Snake River and giving the Chinook population a fighting chance at a comeback.
Canada's prime minister, Kinder Justin, has also commissioned more studies. Spoiler alert: the scientists will tell him the orcas are starving.
If they’re allowed to mention it they’ll also tell him that if he succeeds in resuscitating the Kinder Morgan pipeline boondoggle that the increase in tanker traffic will wipe out the population. How do I know this? Because that’s what Canada’s National Energy Board’s report said in 2017.
The B.C. government just reviewed a federal audit of open pen salmon farms showing farms dumping waste that is “acutely lethal to fish”. It boldly punted the issue to B.C.’s First Nations so they can study fish farms for four years (also known as, “until after the next election".) Spoiler alert: those studies will also show our open sea fish farms are putting wild fish at risk—which is why Washington state just became the last U.S. state on the west coast to end open pen fish farms.
As Tahlequah pushes her dead baby around the Salish Sea, four year-old J50—Scarlett—is so thin you can see her bones. Scientists are testing her breath to see if she’s sick or just starving to death. So we are, quite literally, studying her to death.
Yes, the recent limited fishery closures should have some impact. More fishery closures (or the earlier closures orca experts were pleading for) would likely make more of an impact. But long-term plans require long-term planning and acting on the information we have, instead of waiting for the next redundant report while these whales starve.
Scientists know the orcas need chinook. Healthy chinook.
But politicians in Canada and the U.S. have a better solution. Let them eat red tape.
Two more numbers for you. Since orca experts like Balcomb believe freeing the Snake River (#freethesnake) would be the quickest and most dramatic potential fix available for the orcas, here’s the phone number for Gov. Inslee (360-902-4111). Senator Patty Murray seems to be blocking efforts to save the salmon by smashing the Snake River dams. Here’s her number: 206-553-5545.