J-35, one of the last remaining southern resident killer whales, carried her dead calf for hundreds of miles in an apparent expression of grief. (Photo by Michael Weiss, Center for Whale Research )

Grieving orca should inspire more than momentary sympathy

Action needed to help resident orcas to survive

The grim images that surfaced at the end of July of a mother orca carrying her dead calf for hundreds of miles in what has been described as a tragic display of grief for her child have once again, ever so briefly, raised awareness of the plight of the southern resident killer whales.

But Jason Colby, author of Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator, maintains that more than a transitory feeling of sympathy is called for.

“Something like this happens and, for a few days, everyone feels bad for the whales, but the news moves on and people forget about how serious the situation really is,” said Colby.

“This is a population on the verge of extinction and it’s time we do what’s needed to save them. Wait much longer and it will be too late.”

The whale, designated as J-35 but also known as Tahlequah, gave birth near Victoria on July 24 near Clover Point, but soon thereafter, the calf died.

It’s a situation that saddens, but does not surprise the Centre for Whale Research that reports that approximately 75 per cent of newborn southern resident killer whales do not survive and that 100 percent of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring.

“These whales are starving, so it’s not surprising,” said Colby.

“Of course there are a lot of factors at play that are contributing to the stresses on the remaining 75 whales, but the simple truth is that they are starving to death.”

The problem, said Colby, is that there has been a massive decline in the Chinook salmon food stocks that make up nearly all of the whales’ diet.

“Unlike transient orca populations, the southern resident whales have been considered to be unique. Some consider it a separate species from the orcas that are more general feeders and may eat other fish stocks or marine mammals,” he explained.

“Chinook salmon have been their primary food source for tens of thousands of years and now they are disappearing.”

Colby said that it’s a source of frustration for those who care about the orcas, but it’s not reasonable to suggest that the southern residents should just change their diet.

“These animals have been described as ‘culturally conservative’ and are just doing what they have been doing, very successfully, for thousands of years.”

The answer, he said, is to take immediate steps to help the chinook stocks to recover. That would involve placing an immediate moratorium on the sport fishing of Chinook and the removal of some dams on the American side that are impacting the spawning grounds for the fish.

On the Canadian side, he said that the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, while not impacting Chinook in the same way, will have an enormous effect on the orca population, should it go ahead, as more marine traffic poses a serious danger to the species.

“There has been an evolution in our attitudes toward the orca population,” said Colby, “but more is needed.”

There was a time, he said that the federal government installed a Browning machine gun on a lookout on Quadra Island to shoot orcas that fishermen said were threatening their catch.

(Various other remedies were also explored, including bombing the whales from the air.)

“We’ve thankfully moved on from that point, but now it’s time to go a little further and work to save these magnificent animals. These whales, more than any other population of cetaceans on earth, helped to change our minds about orcas and whales in general. They have been iconic and trans-formative in respect to whale science and environmental activism and we owe them a chance to survive.”

And, so far as the description of J35’s behaviour as grieving goes, Colby acknowledged that there is a danger in looking at the behaviour of an intelligent cetacean and projecting human emotions upon them. Still, he doesn’t discount the behaviour.

“We know that these are very intelligent animals and we’ve seen similar behaviour in other cetacean species. If this wasn’t grieving, then I’m not sure what else it would be.”

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