First, let me apologize for disappearing from this blog for over three months. I feel that I need to explain myself. In the beginning, I was slow to post because I was just busy and orca encounters kept piling up. But then events involving endangered southern resident orcas Tahlequah J35 and Scarlet J50 occurred and it has taken a long time to gather myself. I am sure many of you followed along with the news of these two orcas so I will just cover the basics.
Scarlet J50 was born in December 2014. Still nearly the size of a newborn calf, her body condition began deteriorating in June 2018. By August, she was skin and bones. It was at this time that NOAA, DFO, SR3, the Lummi Nation, SeaWorld, and others stepped in. Breath samples were collected from Scarlet and attempts were made to medicate her with darts and offerings of live salmon. Barely able to keep up with her family, preparations were made to capture her. She was declared deceased by the Center for Whale Research on September 13th after disappearing a few days prior.
While Scarlet was dying, Tahlequah J35 gave birth to a female calf on July 24th. Amazingly, the calf was born alive (southern residents have an extremely high rate of late term stillbirths) but passed away half an hour later. Instead of letting the calf sink, Tahlequah carried the calf around for at least 17 days. She swam over a thousand miles while supporting this calf on her head/carrying it in her mouth or by its flippers. Tahlequah's family, especially her son Notch J47 and niece Star J46, stayed by her through it all. The calf's body decomposed and was gone by the morning of August 11th. Tahlequah was then finally able surface normally and focus on caring for herself again.
Some people are better at dealing with extinction than others. I am very bad at it, as I have been very depressed, unmotivated, and lethargic for the last few months. Nothing is harder than watching those you love slowly wither away and carry their dead around. The grief and suffering that these orcas are going through is heartbreaking. It is infuriating that these orcas are dying because of damage done to the ecosystem by humans and that the higher ups that could actually save them turn a blind eye.
The remaining 74 southern resident orcas need more Chinook/King salmon to recover. This means banning Atlantic farmed salmon net pens in Canada, void the leases that expire in four years for the pens still in Washington State waters after the recent ban, breach dams that are blocking salmon from spawning, restore salmon habitat, pollute less, increase salmon fishing closures, etc. It should also be noted that many salmon that are destined to spawn in our rivers are caught up in Alaska while they are maturing, that hatchery salmon can be an overused band aid 'solution', and that seals, seal lions, and birds need to stop being scapegoated for the decline of salmon. We are the ones responsible, always have been. Killing predators damages the ecosystem further and is another band-aid. Killing seals and sea lions (people are advocating for this currently) would also cause the decline of transient orcas and then we would have two endangered orca populations on our hands instead of one.
If these salmon issues were addressed once the southern residents were declared endangered in 2005, we would not be having this conversation right now. For the first time ever, I believe the southern residents will likely go extinct because of money, politics, carelessness, and selfishness. And that kills me. Over these last eight of working with orcas, I always believed that the southern residents would recover. Now I am at near inability to deal with the sadness brought on by the southern residents and what their future looks like. I avoid the southern residents as much as I can now because seeing and hearing them is painful. I hope I can learn how to deal with southern resident heartbreak, as it will likely become sadder with each summer.
If I am not able to deal with the sadness anymore, I may need to retire from my career for self preservation and find other work. I don’t want to leave the southern residents behind and would feel massive guilt in doing so. I love them so much but must also protect my teetering mental health.
Below are photos from some of my orca encounters over the last few months. The next blog post will be normal and less depressing.
Please do not use my photos without my permission. Just ask.