20 Apr 19
Santa Cruz Sentinel
The world watched with gut-wrenching sorrow last year as a grieving 20-year-old orca mother named Tahlequah, or J35, lifted and pushed around her dead calf in the cool waters of Washington state for 17 days while traveling a distance of [cq comment=”over “]more than 1,000 miles.
This agonizing journey, which gained an international following and was dubbed the “Tour of Grief” by orca experts, is indicative of rising concerns over the health of a specific population of orcas, the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), comprised of pods J, K, and L. Feasting on the region’s formerly abundant Chinook salmon, these “fish eating killer whales” are deemed resident as they survive primarily off of local fish runs, as opposed to the transient orcas seen annually in Monterey Bay that eat other marine mammals including sea lions and baby gray whales.
Southern Resident Killer Whales are one of the most critically endangered marine mammal populations in the [cq comment=”United States “]U.S. due to a rapidly declining source of sustenance, coupled with the accumulation of highly toxic chemicals in their tissues from contaminated food and polluted water, among other threats. Between the three pods J, K, and L, there are only 74 individuals alive today.
Tahlequah’s heartbreak also surfaced questions about consciousness in nonhuman animals, specifically marine mammals, and their ability to make deep emotional connections and experience empathy, love[cq comment=”,”] and tragic loss. For many people, the orca funeral procession triggered a sense of responsibility to protect the more-than-human world, and served as a reminder of our shared fate as described in the adage, ”as they go, so go we.” For the first peoples of Washington [cq comment=”S”]state this is not news however, as the notion of human-animal kinship has endured for thousands of years.
I grew up on two distinct islands, the first in the Puget Sound of Washington, where my family and I would delight in spotting the massive, signature dorsal fins of the orca pods as they migrated around the glacially carved archipelagos. My father was the tribal judge for the Suquamish people, working long hours in a small trailer where he was often gifted salmon jerky, and the occasional whole fish for us to gut as a family. To the Suquamish, the “people of the clear salt water,” both the salmon and the orca are sacred relatives, and they are represented in Suquamish songs, stories, dances, art, and prayers. The linkage between the flourishing of the orca, an indicator species whose survival is dependent on the overall health of the ecosystem, and the thriving of Indian tribes such as the Suquamish, is as clear as black and white.
An orca ‘spyhopping’ with mother and calf in background. (Marine Life Studies — Contributed)
Pacific Northwest tribes have long fought for reparations related to the pollution and damming of their traditional salmon runs, impacting their ability to live healthfully while practicing their culture. Following Tahlequah’s public suffering, many Washington tribal leaders and government entities joined forces to create the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, designed to implement actions that immediately benefit pods J, K[cq comment=”,”] and L. The task force focuses on three key areas including addressing introduced contaminants, assessing and aiding in the availability of prey, and creating strategies to mitigate noise pollution and vessel traffic. Orcas are complex and intelligent social beings who communicate using whistles, songs, and movement. Suquamish tribal leaders believe orca sightings to be a blessing, their breaching displays as dances sent by their ancestors.
On March 31[cq comment=”st of this year”], Peggy West-Stap of Marine Life Studies and her team of cetacean researchers were shocked when they spotted members of the L pod in the Monterey Bay for only the fourth time in recorded history. Marine Life Studies, a nonprofit which operates a research vessel out of Moss Landing and whose mission is to inspire the public to protect our oceans’ whales and dolphins, ultimately ended up identifying 28 of the 34 individuals who make up L pod. West-Stap has devoted her life to documenting and researching the health of whales and dolphins, fundraising on a shoestring budget to cover her fuel and gear needs, all the while not taking home a salary of her own. She said she fears that the presence of the L pod in the Monterey Bay could be a sign of desperate times as “it indicates that they have had to expand their range in order to find food which has become scarce in the Pacific Northwest.”
West-Stap said she believes that humans can positively influence the lives of our visiting resident orcas by choosing to “eat sustainably-harvested salmon and other seafood to help protect wild fish populations.” To prevent pollution runoff, she encourages that we “dispose of unused medicine and chemicals properly.” She continues, “Never dump them into household toilets and sinks or outside where they can get into ditches or storm drains. See if your community has a household hazardous waste collection facility that will take your old or unused chemicals.”
There are reasons for optimism, as West-Stap’s labor of love came full circle when she witnessed another labor of love, the spotting of a new baby orca traveling with L pod in Monterey Bay. “The calf that was sighted with the L pod was very significant as many offspring of the SRKW have died, which was very alarming,” West-Stap said. She continued “the calf, L124, which is the newest calf in the community, was traveling steadily beside its mother L77 (or Matia).” She believes the newborn is a “sign of hope” for the whale pod. After Tahlequah’s and our society’s collective mourning, this little black and white whale feels like a not-so-little blessing, a reason to sing, and a reminder to tread carefully in this web of life where we are all connected.
Rachel Kippen is the executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. She can be reached at email@example.com.