I’ve been reading a lot recently about a touching story that has caught the imagination of the world. It’s the very human and relatable story of a mother Orca whale, named Tahlequah, whose calf died shortly after birth. Tahlequah has been mourning her baby by carrying it around with her for over 17 days now.
Her family, or pod, have been traveling with her in a funeral procession covering over a thousand miles. The length of this mourning period is unprecedented for the species.
Tahlequah and her dead calf
People have realized that the Orca’s behavior shows real emotional pain, similar to what humans feel. The attention the world has focused on Tahlequah has also focused attention and interest on the plight of the dwindling Orcas in the Seattle, Washington area. I’ll talk about that later.
The most interesting article I read was in the Sunday New York Times on August 5, 2018. It was called “ An Orca, Her Dead Calf and Us” and was written by Susan Casey.
The author talks about how ‘human’ the mother-child bond is in Orcas. Also, how social their close-knit family groups are. “Like us, Orcas are self-aware, cognitively skilled individuals that communicate using their pod’s signature dialect.”
Their core identity is communal, not individual. “Orcas are among Earth’s most socially sophisticated animals.” They live in matrilinear groups that can include four generations. The oldest females are in charge. Some can live to be 100 years old!
Fascinating fact – Orcas are one of just a few species, like humans, who go through menopause! This is because the grandmas are needed to devote themselves to training the younger generations. “The matriarchs serve as midwives, babysitters, navigators, and teachers.” Calves deprived of the care and influence of their grandmothers are ill-equipped for adult Orca life.
Tahlequah and her calf
“Orca behavior and neuroanatomy point to a complex inner life.” Their brains are larger and in some ways more elaborate than ours, especially in areas devoted to social emotions and awareness. They have similar neurons to ours that relate to empathy, communication, intuition and social intelligence.
We have more in common with Orcas than we do with many other mammals. This makes it even more tragic that we are destroying the Orca’s habitats and putting the species at risk for extinction. There are only 75 Southern Orcas left in the Seattle habitat. There hasn’t been a successful birth there in three years. Many of the orcas have starved to death because their food supply is dwindling due to pollution and overfishing in the area.
Biologists and government officials are now working on a plan to save the youngest member of Tahlequah’s pod, a three-year-old who seems to be on the brink of starvation. They are tracking the young whale and trying to feed her antibiotic laced salmon.
They are also tracking Tahlequah because they are worried she may not be getting enough to eat, although members of her pod are bringing her food. It may not be enough because she is expending so much energy keeping her dead baby afloat.
If we don’t reverse some of the environmental problems we have created for the Southern Orcas, our grandchildren will only read about these amazing creatures in history books. Knowing how much we share, emotionally, socially and linguistically, makes the prospect of their extinction particularly depressing. But the attention that is being focused on Tahlequah may actually help her pod’s survival.
There are people who want to build a Trans Mountain Pipeline that would make the already dire situation of these Orcas much worse. Greenpeace, among other groups, is trying to stop this pipeline from being built.
You can help them by letting Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, know that you are watching him and that you care about the Orcas. Tell him that you want a moratorium on new fossil fuel traffic in Washington state waters until Southern Resident Orcas are no longer at risk of extinction. https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/energy-environment/southern-resident-killer-whale-recovery-and-task-force
You can also donate to Greenpeace and get more information at https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/greenpeace-calls-for-greater-efforts-to-protect-endangered-orcas/
UPDATE – Aug. 13 – Tahlequah has finally let her calf go.