Op-Ed

Editorial: Orca mom holds on to dead calf. Humans should hold on to this picture of grief

Whale watch group adopts new rules for ecotourism

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, which includes 32 companies in Washington and British Columbia, has adopted vessel operation guidelines it says will better protect killer whales and humpbacks in the Salish Sea.
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The Pacific Whale Watch Association, which includes 32 companies in Washington and British Columbia, has adopted vessel operation guidelines it says will better protect killer whales and humpbacks in the Salish Sea.

Some photographs are so arresting, they stab our collective conscience, stick in our minds and maybe even stir us to action.

A lifeless refugee child washed up on a Turkish beach. A shellshocked Syrian boy, sitting in the back of an ambulance, face caked in blood and soot. A firefighter cradling a dead baby girl in the wake of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Such iconic images remind the beholder of youthful innocence, the broken promise of a journey prematurely ended, a fragile life unfulfilled. They awaken parental instincts that transcend race, creed, geography and every other boundary.

So it is with photos over the past last week of an orca mother carrying her dead calf on her nose through the waters of north Puget Sound. They offer clear evidence that humans aren’t the only species that must reckon with powerful feelings of grief.

Since the baby died last week, the killer whale mother has labored to keep up with her pod members, diving and resurfacing but refusing to abandon her calf.

Southern-resident orcas are not unlike refugees captured in news photos, often on the move and threatened by conditions over which they have no control.

They’re a magnificent, intelligent, keenly sensitive whale community on the decline. The number of orcas off the Northwest coast, which rested at around 100 in the late 1990s, is down to 75 today. Last week’s death of the J Pod calf continues an alarming trend: Fewer females are reproducing, and there hasn’t been a viable pregnancy in this clan in three years.

Sharing the busy channels and stressed resources of an urban ecosystem with an exploding population of humans has brought these creatures, listed as endangered since 2005, to the edge of extinction. The culprits include hydroelectric dams, bad hatchery practices, overfishing, boat noise and discharges of industrial and municipal waste – some planned, some inadvertently spilled – up and down the Sound.

The common denominator is a precipitous decline in chinook salmon. It’s the orca’s chief prey – they slurp down around 30 a day – and there’s no substitute. A study this month showed it’s not just about saltwater; urban rivers, including our own Nisqually basin, play a critical role in replenishing chinook stocks and feeding the orcas.

Washingtonians have a part to play, both at the policymaking level and in daily life around the water. Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force will release recommendations this fall, and legislators must respond with urgency. We’re glad to see the state already broke ground this month on a $16.4 million overhaul of the Puyallup Fish Hatchery; the facility will now produce an estimated 800,000 spring chinook.

Meanwhile, as migrating whales are sighted around the South Sound this summer, boaters are reminded to stay at least 200 yards away. Orca conservationists have helped keep vessels clear of the grieving mom and her calf over the past week, like traffic monitors at an extended funeral procession.

“This is just very hard to watch,” Billie Swalla, director of the University of Washington’s research lab on San Juan Island, told the Seattle Times last week.

But watch they must, because it’s their job.

And watch we all should, because it’s rare to get such a poignant picture of why we can’t accept the downfall of a kindred species.

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