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The Last Orca

Photo of transient orcas, taken by me in the San Juan Islands, June 2017.

On July 24th, 2018, a Southern Resident Killer Whale gave birth to a baby. This fact is significant as it was the first baby to be born for several years. And then, it died. Tahlequah’s (aka J35’s) calf passed away within 30 minutes. The grieving mother carried and pushed her dead child’s body on her nose, holding the baby up out of the water in a procession of mourning, for 17 days. National media sources covered the event. People worldwide are paying attention, and demanding action.

Today, September 13th, Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research declared another orca whale from J Pod, Scarlet (aka J50), to be dead. The four year old lady whale was struggling, emaciated, and sick. Researchers previously administered antibiotics to the ailing orca by dart and attempted to feed her Chinook – an unprecedented intervention on behalf of an iconic, endangered species. They’re at risk of extinction due to toxic pollution, vessel traffic and noise, and lack of prey (Chinook salmon).

It appears that these last ditch efforts may have failed. Scarlet disappeared after last being sighted a week ago, on Friday September 7th. With her disappearance and presumed death, we are now down to 74 Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Being a relative newcomer to the pacific northwest, my personal experiences with orca whales are limited. I had a few encounters with them during my childhood on the east coast: Free Willy (the movie), Shamu (an orca show I saw when my mom took me to Disney World when I was 8), and again, Shamu (a stuffed toy I won by taking first prize in a drawing competition) were pretty much all I had to go on. My impression of the species was of a smart, gentle, friendly creature forced into captivity by humans. My impression then, as now, is that they’re totally at our mercy (the child actor, Jason James Richter, ultimately sets Willy Free).

As an adult I’ve learned the more sinister side to this reality. Now I see just how difficult we’ve made things for these whales. We’ve basically thrown every possible obstacle in the way of their survival.

Hey, you live in water? We’re going to chase you around with boats, take your picture, and disturb you – All. The. Time. When you’re trying to relax, have sex, and eat – we’ll be there! You communicate by sonar? Great! We’re going to totally mess with that process by sounding noisy, screechy, excruciatingly disruptive underwater noises around you so you can’t echolocate. Hey, you like to eat these yummy, fatty salmon? Well we’ve been hard at work for decades dumping pollution into our waters, just for you. With our ever-growing population, we’ll keep dumping more and more toxic pollution from our roadways, tires, cars, and industrial processes into the water you swim in via our stormwater and wastewater, contaminating (and killing) your food and environment with deadly chemicals, like PCBs! Glorious PCBs. They're great because they bind to sediment, can re-contaminate water, and will be stored in your blubber. And since we’ve overfished and poisoned your salmon runs down to a fraction of their historical size (with some populations estimated to be 1% of the size of their 1970’s populations), we’re starving you, too! So that as you starve, your body will use up your fat reserves – your blubber - full of toxic chemicals, poisoning you. Triple whammy!

Harassing, poisoning, and starving. I can’t think of much more we could do to our orcas – the “icons” of the northwest. Symbolic of our region, and sacred to some of our first nations. Well - and let us not forget Tokitae (aka, Lolita), the last captive Southern Resident Killer Whale, currently living at the Miami Seaquarium. So we can add “stolen and imprisoned” to the list of punishments.

What’s happening right now seems sadly typical of environmental issues in the 20th century. Things seem to have to progress to a tipping point before the general public will take enough notice to start asking questions and demanding that something be done. Scientists and researchers might document, lament, and theorize various doom scenarios – but the rest of us often don’t pay attention until an imminent disaster rears its ugly head and superlatives get tossed around. Words like “extinction,” “last living,” “worst,” and “unprecedented.” The only type of words that capture our (rapidly diminishing) attention. Our Facebook algorithms love drama, and horror.

The truth is that our salmon runs have been on the decline for decades, and our water quality is still poor. We’ve been trying to make changes but so far they’ve been incremental. Things are not getting better fast enough. Scientists have answers, but most of them aren’t quick and none of them are easy. The saddest hurdle is that many of the answers aren’t politically feasible… yet. Or are they?

It took the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 to spark national movement to protect our waters, and the Clean Water Act was born. Perhaps this moment, too, will spur a revolution. A revolution in the way we regulate and treat our stormwater and wastewater; to bring down dams that block fish passage and survival, and to eliminate dangerous risks posed by vessels.

I might be jaded, but I’m also naively optimistic. If we can take recreational flights to the moon, engineer CRISPR DNA sequences to wage warfare on bacteria and make precise changes to our own genes, and walk around with little machines in our pockets capable of answering every question known to man: certainly we can solve this, too.

Photo of transient orca, taken by me in the San Juan Islands, June 2017.

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