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The Vanishing Orcas

Orca photo by Skeesh

This world can be so damned heartbreaking. Case in point, today's story from the New York Times, Orcas of the Pacific Northwest Are Starving and Disappearing.

For six years, we lived on Vashon Island, in the heart of the Puget Sound. Our only way on and off the island were the Washington State Ferries Often they were a frustrating form of transportation - an aging, underfunded fleet, with long waits, breakdowns, and increasing prices. But sometimes - they were priceless.

Once, after a particularly long, tedious, and awful day at work in Seattle, boarded a ferry in West Seattle for Vashon. The boat was filled with weary, wiped out commuters, many of whom plopped themselves down in booths or on benches inside, reading their papers, or just nodding off to dreams of home.

It was a beautiful evening, with the sun low over the Olympic Peninsula. I went upstairs, outside, and leaned on the railing. About five or six minutes after we pulled away from the dock, I saw quite a commotion - a pod of orcas was jumping around about mid-way between West Seattle and the Vashon dock.

As we got closer, the boat slowed. The paper-readers and nodder-offers didn't notice. Then, the captain seemed to cut the engine and we just drifted nearer and nearer the orcas. There were mothers playing with their babies. I was utterly entranced. The evening skies, the light playing on the water of the sound, and the orcas just celebrating being alive in the best way they knew how. That moment, that place, was paradise. I would commute a thousand monotonous commutes to take this one journey.

Those of us out on deck became enthusiastic and joyful - the orcas' enthusiasm was contagious. Dozens of us beaten and worn out commuters making our way back to the island were revived - after all, there was a party going on all around us! The paper-readers and nodder-offers paid no mind and kept reading and nodding, missing one of the best moments one could ever have on the planet.

I think the commute home that evening took about three times longer than usual, and none of us out on deck complained. The orcas were both wild and so fantastically beautiful in spirit, that we couldn't believe we had been blessed with our time with them.

But that was 20 years ago. Now, there are no orca calves to frolic with their mothers in the waters of the Puget Sound. There have been none born for the past three years in the Pacific Northwest, according to a New York Times story from July 9, 2018. The pods of endangered orcas are at a 30-year low. Just 75 remain, according to the Times.

What accounts for the vanishing whales? Starvation.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has tried to help, convening the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, with state, tribal, provincial, and federal participation. But the Chinook salmon, those tasty fish that the orcas feed on, are also vanishing. At the same time, the Canadian government and Kinder Morgan are planning a pipeline terminal that would increase oil tanker traffic through the orcas' range by up to seven times, exposing them to dangers ranging from outright collisions (unlikely, but possible), to increased marine noise, and of course, oil spills. Remember - oil spills can never happen - until they do. The whales, which migrate from the coast of British Columbia down into the waters of the Puget Sound, face many challenges, and even the bastards at Sea World have contributed to their decline here, stealing four dozen orcas from the region (though there may be ways Sea World could redeem themselves in this situation).

Some see this as an isolated single species problem. Others see the possibility of the collapse of the marine ecosystem, the Times pointed out. There was starfish wasting disease, "The Blob," a giant, well, blob, of nutrient poor warm water, and things are now so noisy that the whales are having a hard time communicating. Imagine yourself in an echoey auditorium with a thousand people all screaming while you're trying to hear what your spouse is saying from the other side of the room. With its boaters, whale watchers, ferries, and commercial vessels all plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest, the whales may have a hard time telling each other not only the local gossip, but important stuff like where the food is located.

There's pollution, and genetic issues, and even diseases from humans (the New York Times story notes that pathogens have been found in the orcas including antibiotic resistant bacteria and staphylococcus). Maybe we're not just bad neighbors - maybe we're actually making them sick. That's not just a random fear, the Times notes toxoplasmosis - the kitty parasite that makes us do their bidding, spread through kitty poop and thus kitty litter, is now killing Hawaiian monk seals.

Governor Inslee commented, "I believe we have orcas in our soul in this state." I think back on that evening, leaning on the rail, watching the sheer joy of life expressed through the happy dance of the mama and baby orcas playing together in the Puget Sound, and I realize if you've ever seen them like that, the orcas are in your soul.

If the orcas are lost from the waters of the Puget Sound, I know part of my soul will be gone as well.


Not long after writing this, news came out that a female orca known as J35, or "Tahlequah," gave birth up near Victoria. The whale calf was born alive and had been reported swimming with its mother and other members of J pod. But it died shortly thereafter. The Center for Whale Research notes that around three-quarters of newborn orcas from the region in the past decade have died, and all pregnancies have resulted in dead calves.

Tahlequah was visibly distraught by the death of her calf. She has carried it on her forehead for at least several days. According to a report cited in an excellent piece in the Island Sounder, a resident of San Juan Island witnessed what appeared to be an orca ritual of some sort. The resident noted a group of half a dozen female orcas gathered at the mouth of a cove on the island and for nearly two hours they formed a tight-knit circle on the surface of the water. According to the witness, they appeared to center themselves in the half-moon's beam even as it moved during that time.

We know so precious little about life on this planet, and we fancy ourselves so intellectually superior to other species. But are we superior when it comes to wisdom? Or compassion? Or have we superbly missed the point of this experience? And if so, what are the consequences of missing it? Will we put the puzzle together before it's too late?

August 9, 2018 update: Tahlequah continues to carry her dead calf on her forehead. It's been 16 days or so. The mother's health is now in question. She may not have the will to live any longer. Sometimes I wonder if entire species can lose the will to continue living.

A starving three year-old orca with the pod will be receiving an injection of antibiotics in an effort to help - if the procedure can occur prior to the orca reaching Canadian waters, where it will not be allowed.

August 12, 2018 update: Tahlequah has apparently let go of her decaying dead baby. If anyone ever wants an example of grief, how about carrying your dead baby for 17 days and over 250 miles? Now there are worries about the mother's health.

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