If there was any excitement at the birth of a new calf to the dwindling population of Southern Resident Orcas on July 24th, it was short-lived. The baby died just half an hour after birth, and its mother, known as Tahlequah, made sure the world knew it.If somehow you missed it, Tahlequah carried that baby for 17 days.
The general consensus is that the mama whale was sending us a message and plenty of writers and researchers have made speculations about the contents of that message.
I’ve been wondering what it was that hit us so hard about Tahlequah’s “grief tour.”
Is it the fact that we cannot un-see that limp and yellowing corpse, the baby whose life we should be celebrating?
Maybe it’s not just the grief, but the injustice that gets us. Yes, babies die, but Tahlequah’s shouldn’t have and we know it. What we felt watching Tahlequah carry her child around was the same devastation we felt seeing images of a child’s body washed ashore because his parents tried to take him to a safer place. It was the same gut-sick feeling we held for the children taken from their parents by immigration officials at the US-Mexican border earlier this summer. It’s the same horror we feel when we hear about a teenager in our own city dying of “professional indifference.”
The more I learn about these whales, though, the more convinced I am that our grief is even deeper than this. We are bearing witness to the death of birth*, to extinction.
In an interview by Mark Leiren-Young in his orca-focused podcast, Skaana, researcher Ken Balcomb laid out the hard truth about this population:
There have been dead babies in the past and there will be dead babies in the future, and the problem is, there will be no successful reproduction if we don’t have a viable ecosystem for them to live in. That’s the problem.
Just look at the past few years in the life of these whales, and you’d be inclined to think Balcomb is on to something.
In 2014, an eighteen year-old named Rhapsody was found dead near Comox, an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.
In February, 2016, a whale named Nigel disappeared, researchers say his ribs were showing on the last day they saw him.
Throughout that summer, researchers followed 23 year-old named Polaris and her young son, Dipper. The pair appeared to be starving, and in October of that year, they disappeared.
Researchers announced the loss of Granny, believed by some to be more than 100 years old, shortly thereafter.
In the past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been trying to help three year-old Scarlet, who is also starving, but these efforts have ground to a halt now that she’s in Canadian waters.
In an article about the current situation, and his struggle to get answers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Leiren-Young writes:
Today, if I thought anyone would answer me, it’d be time for hardball questions like: “If Scarlet starves to death because no one signed off on feeding her in Canada, which Canadian official or organization would be responsible?”
It’s a great question.
Governor Jay Inslee could order the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams assisting in the recovery of salmon populations and cut Washington State’s tanker traffic. Premier John Horgan could let the licenses for 20 open-net salmon farms expire, and he could encourage the federal government to cut the allowable catch for the commercial chinook fishery by more than 25%. Prime Minister Trudeau could come up with a better way to spend $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars than to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline (especially now that the Canadian courts have rejected the legitimacy of the project’s approval).
If these things happened and the Southern Residents made a miraculous comeback, we could celebrate these leaders as heroes.
If their action are weak and ineffective, can we hold them responsible for the subsequent deaths?
I’ve left voicemail messages urging these leaders to act, and intend to follow up in writing (I’m better in writing). Honestly, my efforts feel scant and futile. The chances are low, I figure, that our leaders will take more than half-measures. A determined policy shift aimed at protecting our Southern Resident friends and rejuvenating the ecosystem they live in would probably be pretty disruptive to the status quo, and let’s face it, the status quo is quite comfy for most of us.
If every last Southern Resident disappears into the deep abyss of the ocean, we will mourn their passing and carry heavy hearts on our sleeves, but I doubt we will change much. As J.M. Cotzee writes in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians: The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.
I finished Cotzee’s book last week. Although it was written in 1980, I felt like it was incredibly timely. It’s about empire and oppression, but it’s also about seeing the future and making a half-baked attempt to change its course. The unnamed protagonist is an aging, lecherous man who holds (at the beginning at least) a position of relative power. The protagonist makes muffled protests against the injustice he sees around him, but ultimately, he is a party to the crimes of his empire.
The same could be said for most of us, myself included.
If our leaders take half-measures and turn our whale friends from living, breathing, sentient gems into artifacts for natural history museums, they are guilty. If the rest of us fail to speak up with the required force, we’re guilty too.
The good news is, we’re not at the end of the story yet. We still have Tahlequah and her fellow chinook-eating orca swimming the ocean. We still have the chance to listen when they send us a message. As far as I know, there’s no single solution to bringing this population back to health, but hope for these whales lies in a genuine commitment to saving them. A commitment to saving is also a commitment to saving their ecosystem and our own. If there was ever a challenge worth stepping up for, here it is.
We might not succeed, but also, we might, and when we do there will be babies to celebrate.
- “The Death of Birth” is a chapter in Paul Hawken’s book, “The Ecology of Commerce,” but I think that EO Wilson is the one who coined the phrase.
Feel like making some calls or writing some letters?
Premier John Horgan:
Telephone:(250) 387-1715 (Legislature number)
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau
Telephone: 613 992-4211
Canadian Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard 604.775.6333
102 W 3 Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia
Governor Jay Inslee
Telephone: 360-902-4111 | Fax: 360-753-4110