It was an unprecedented show of emotion, an event scientists are calling a "tour of grief."
For 17 days an orca whale mother – named J35 by researchers, or Tahlequah by watchers – swam with her dead calf, refusing to let it sink for more than 1,600 kilometres along the Pacific Northwest coast.
The world witnessed the scene, transfixed. Hardly a news agency didn’t cover the story. Millions of tweets spread Tahlequah’s story. Tears were shed as people read and watched.
It is, without doubt, a tragic story. Orcas are rapidly disappearing, and Tahlequah’s pod of Southern Resident whales along the British Columbia coast has just 76 left. In the pod, there hasn’t been a healthy calf born in three years, and in the last 20 years only 25 per cent of newborns have survived. Tahlequah herself had lost two other calves before this.
Scientists call orcas an "indicator species," animals that show evidence of the natural health of an entire region. Due to their voracious appetites and place at the top of their food chain, orca health indicates not only the state of marine life, but also the impacts of pollution and chemicals in water.
The rapid depletion of the orca population therefore points to much greater problems. As the editors of Scientific American write, "If orcas are in decline, the rest of the ocean is likely in big trouble, too."
Much of this has to do with the critical state of the salmon population in B.C., and particularly on the Fraser River. For years, the temperature of the river water has been increasing along the route followed by millions of salmon to spawn and then return to sea.
This summer scientists reported a record number of days with water temperatures over 20 C, the tipping point beyond which salmon can’t swim and "pre-spawn mortality" takes place.
A rapidly reducing salmon population has tremendous impacts on marine life, culminating in undernourished orcas incapable of sustaining healthy populations.
Add to this other animal threats, chemical toxins and the impacts of an increasing number of human vessels in the ocean – not to mention the effect of climate change on the West Coast's ecosystem – and it’s remarkable that Tahlequah, her pod and her calf exist today at all.
The health of whales, salmon and B.C.’s environment are certainly worth talking about, but those concerns weren't what kept the world’s attention on Tahlequah. It was the sadness of watching a mother mourn over a lost life. Anyone who has lost a member of their family – especially a child – knows this pain.
It's impossible to know exactly what Tahlequah was thinking as she refused to let her calf go, but her behaviour seems to indicate that she loved her baby. Orca whales are known to mourn over a dead calf for a day, and even sometimes a few days. But not 17.
It’s clear that Tahlequah had bonded with her baby. One doesn’t have to read studies on the social life of whales to know this; we only have to look at our loved ones — in particular, our children — to know what they mean.
And while Tahlequah didn’t intend to stage an environmental protest, it’s not hard to imagine she was asking why. Why this happened. Why her baby died. Why?
The answer is – at least partly – humans. Humans had a role in producing Tahlequah’s grief.
And unless something is done to address the causes, more grief is coming, and it will last a lot longer than 17 days.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.