Tahlequah – The Orca in Mourning

It’s not unusual for certain species to display signs of grief – giraffes, chimps, dolphins, gorillas, crows. Elephants, for example, return to the body of a dead companion multiple times over. Time and time again, research has shown that they are able to demonstrate a level of empathy that many only thought possible in humans.

Females have been shown to comfort calves by touching and cradling them with their trunks. When an individual has fallen over or becomes stuck, other elephants have been known to assist so they can continue moving as one. Amazingly some have even been known to remove foreign objects, such as spears and veterinary darts from others bodies.

Like elephants, killer whales are emotionally complex beings. Their brains are extremely developed – the second biggest among all ocean mammals, and their capability of understanding means they are able to learn local dialects, teach each other specialised methods of hunting, and pass down unique behaviours through generations.

– A GREAT LOSS –

The story J-35, or Tahlequah, has triggered a ripple of grief that has been felt around the world. Since July 24th and as of August 3rd, the 20 year old orca has been carrying her dead calf through the water of the Pacific Northwest coast.  Tahlequah is a member of an endangered pod of Southern resident killer whales, her calf who died just 30 minutes after birth, was born near the San Juan islands. While it is not uncommon for orcas and dolphins to grieve the loss of a family member for sometimes as long as a week, experts believe this is the longest period of mourning on record for an orca.

Orca
Tahlequah carrying her calf’s body. Photograph credit: Michael Weiss, Center of Whale Research.

The grieving mother who has been refusing to let go of the calf has been carrying the infant by pushing it with her snout, even diving under to retrieve it should it slide off, or by carrying it with one fin. When Tahlequah has grown tired, other members of the pod have come forward to carry the calf for her.

Rightly so, experts are growing concerned for Tahlequah’s wellbeing.

Combined with their extended family K and L pods, they inhabit a huge territory that includes Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. With only 75 members of the Southern resident orca clan, every birth matters and time is rapidly running out. The J-pod has not had a successful birth in three years. Ken Balcomb of Center for Whale Research believes it may be as soon as five years: “We’ve got at most 5 more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen” He continues by warning “If we don’t do it in those 5 years it isn’t going to happen.” 

– NOT ENOUGH TO GO AROUND –

Ken also blames the lack of food source for the doomed pregnancies – wild salmon, particularly Chinook, found throughout Washington state and British Columbia acts as a primary food supply for the endangered population of orca. Unfortunately, but hardly surprising, Chinook salmon are also endangered.

The lack of regular and healthy (these fish have been found with prozac, nicotine and cocaine in their system) could explain the demise of another unfortunate member of the J-pod. J-50 or Scarlet, a 4 year old orca female is literally starving to death. A white patch has been spotted on the back of her head, near her blowhole, and experts are panicking it could be an infection. The poor whale is so emaciated, the back of her cranium is visible.

The federal government is hatching a plan in an attempt to save Scarlet, this will include feeding live Chinook dosed with medicine, while biologists are planning a health assessment for her, which will gauge her activity and breathing levels. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said Scarlet has lost as much as 20% of her bodyweight: “There are a lot of ifs, whether or not she will even take the fish.” He then added “Her survival could only be a few days. She has continued to decline.” 

– MORE HUMAN THAN HUMANS –

Some have been questioning if Tahlequah is really mourning, but I ask what else could she possibly be doing? Most wouldn’t doubt if a dog felt pain or grief, or happiness and joy, so why doubt something as intelligent, sensitive, curious and amazingly complex as a killer whale.

The fate of Tahlequah and Scarlet at the moment remains unclear. From a conservation point of view, it’s disastrous that an endangered pod has lost another calf and potentially another orca or two. At 20, Tahlequah is of breeding age and her ability to reproduce again is critical.

From my point of view, I hope Tahlequah’s heartbreak hasn’t been for nothing. I hope that we are able to turn our empathy into actions and our grief into solutions. Ultimately, I pray that through her suffering, she is able to eventually find peace.

Please consider adopting one of the Southern resident orcas – proceeds from orca adoptions support ongoing education, research, and public outreach on behalf of the Southern Resident clan: https://whalemuseum.org/collections/adopt-an-orca

Alternatively, a one-off donation that will greatly benefit the Southern Resident community can be made here https://whalemuseum.org/products/make-a-donation or here:  https://www.whaleresearch.com/supportcwr

I want to hear your opinions on this story, let me know your thoughts in the comments:

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