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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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Shared Sorrow – loss in the Southern Resident orcas

Last Wednesday night (August 8th), my heart sank as I read my messages: Tahlequah (J35) was spotted near the Olympic Peninsula off the coast of Washington State, still carrying the body of her dead daughter, 15 days after her birth (and death). 

I hoped it was somehow not true – an old sighting confused with a new report, some strange reflection on the water, the whales seen from a far distance without being sure if the body was still there.  But the next day Tahlequah and her family returned to the inland waters of the Salish Sea, and back into the range of researchers and people watching from shore.  She continued to carry her deceased daughter for two more days before it was confirmed by the Center for Whale Research that Tahlequah was no longer carrying the body, and looked “vigorous and healthy” with other members of J pod.


And then I was relieved – for Tahlequah, who is hopefully on the path toward healing, foraging, and caring for herself; for her family, who has been accompanying and helping her; and for all of the Southern Resident orcas, that this particular ordeal was over.

I first heard the news just one day after I left San Juan Island on my annual summer visit to see the orcas.  I had seen the J16 and J17 matrilines, including Tahlequah and Scarlet (J50), pass close by the west side of San Juan Island several times during my visit, and while the whale community on the island was already concerned about the poor condition of Scarlet, no one had any idea of the tragedy yet to come.

It has been a long and difficult two weeks for the Southern Resident orcas and all those who follow this beloved community.  People from around the world have reached out to our corner of the Pacific Northwest to share their thoughts and how this story has affected them.  Many people saw their own experiences of loss, sadness, and grief reflected in Tahlequah mourning the loss of her newborn daughter.  People who had never heard of the Southern Residents before were now deeply invested in the story of this mother orca and her family.

I think we can’t help but feel so connected to these whales – they might not look like us and they live in completely different surroundings, but their long lives, tight family bonds, and intelligence are very similar to human societies, and we see ourselves reflected in these beings beneath the waves.  We know them as individuals, and those who spend extended periods of time with the whales will tell you stories about their personalities and unique behaviors.  We know their families and who they spend time with, and we’ve watched them be born, grow, live, and die.  They are our neighbors, they co-exist with us on this planet, and they share their home with us.

And we are being bad neighbors.  Tahlequah and her “tour of grief,” traveling over an estimated 1,000 miles in 17 days, is a stark reminder of how humans are failing as stewards of this planet and the other beings who live here.  We will never know what Tahlequah was thinking or feeling as she carried the body of her daughter.  There is plenty of evidence for grief and mourning in whales and dolphins – they are mammals, after all, and they have all the same parts and chemicals and hormones in their bodies and brains that we do.  There is no question that Tahlequah understood that her daughter had died, and was grieving her loss. 

But was she sending us a message or staging a protest and a cry for help, as many have interpreted her extensive and extraordinary journey?  Or was she simply mourning the loss of her daughter and we happened to bear witness to her grief?  Unfortunately, the significant communication barrier between humans and whales means we don’t know what her intention or purpose was.  (If the whales could send us clear messages about what goes on in their world, my job would certainly be a lot easier). 

How we interpret Tahlequah’s message and what we choose to do with it is another way the whales reflect humans back at ourselves.  If we do nothing following this tragedy, what does that say about us?  Do we create change to prevent the extinction of the Southern Resident community, our fellow inhabitants on Earth, or do we continue with the “status quo,” which is leading to their demise?

We know why the Southern Residents are struggling to survive – they don’t have enough food, their waters are polluted, and their urban home is filled with noise.  An oil spill or disease outbreak could completely decimate the small community.  We also know what we can do to help them (and will have more detailed information on that in a later post), and we must not let this tragedy fade into memory without taking action.  We cannot stop at sadness; we must turn our own grief into inspiration and action.

That is how I felt as I watched and waited for news on Tahlequah – sadness and shock as she continued to carry the body of her daughter, disbelief that she continued to carry her for so long, worry that she wasn’t eating and her own health was at risk, but renewed determination to save this unique community of orcas. 

And while I am relieved that Tahlequah appears to be on the path to healing, I am still anxious for Scarlet (J50), a young “beacon of hope” for the population and for all of those who care about them.  Efforts are underway to learn why Scarlet is ailing, and the U.S. and Canada are working together in an unprecedented attempt to treat her.  Every time a sighting is reported and it is confirmed that Scarlet is still alive, I breathe a little sigh of relief before the worry sets in again.

While we at WDC usually try not to let our emotions overwhelm our work – we all love whales (a lot), but we rely on strong, science-based reasons to support their protection and conservation, and believe that since our actions directly impact whales and dolphins, it is our responsibility to change them – sometimes you have to let down the “walls of science.”  I sincerely appreciate hearing from everyone in our own community of supporters and followers who shared what they were thinking and feeling with us as we all followed Tahlequah’s story together, sharing in her sorrow.

Thank you for being with us in this difficult time, and we will continue to share news and updates on Scarlet and all of the Southern Resident orcas, and how you can help ensure the next baby born to their community lives in celebration, not mourned in our memories.