What a Grieving Orca Tells Us

People know a famous community of killer whales as individuals, with their own names, families, and personalities—which has made their woes even harder to take.

Mike, a southern-resident killer whale
Mike, a southern-resident killer whale (Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty)

The first half of the killer whale’s scientific name—Orcinus orca—comes from the Latin for “of the realms of the dead.” For one population of orcas living in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, that etymology has taken on a newly dark resonance.

Last month, a 20-year-old female orca named Tahlequah (J35) gave birth to a female calf that died after half an hour. While many orca mothers have been seen carrying the bodies of their dead calves for a day or so, Tahlequah did so for 17 days—a heartbreaking tour that captured the world’s attention, and that ended last Friday. “I have never seen that kind of grief,” says Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research.

Meanwhile, scientists noticed that a 3-year-old female named Scarlet (J50) was looking severely emaciated, with her ribs showing through her side. They have since given her a shot of antibiotics, via dart, and are considering feeding her more medications embedded within live salmon.

Both Tahlequah and Scarlet are part of the southern-resident killer whales—a community of 75 orcas that lives from spring to fall in the inland waterways of the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. The group, which neither mingles nor mates with other orcas, consists of three pods, designated J, K, and L. They are among the most thoroughly studied animals on the planet, thanks to decades of attention from scientists, naturalists, whale-watching enthusiasts, and more. Some of these people call themselves “dorcas”; others prefer “orcaholics.”

These whale aficionados see these whales not as generic, faceless exemplars of their species, but as individuals with families and personalities. This familiarity makes the whales’ plight even harder to take. The southern residents were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. Unlike other mammal-hunting orca groups, the southern residents almost exclusively eat salmon—and since salmon are dwindling, the whales are starving.

The group’s numbers are at a 30-year low, and old members are dying faster than new ones are being born. The community’s females should produce four to five calves a year, but no new calves have survived since 2015. Miscarriages are common. Around 75 percent of newborns die. Tahlequah’s recent loss was unusual only in its duration and visibility. “Every time they leave in the winter and come back with fewer members, we know that they’ve gone through grief,” says Deborah Giles, the science-and-research director of the nonprofit Wild Orca. “We just don’t see it.”

It is hardly anthropomorphic to ascribe grief to animals that are so intelligent and intensely social. Tahlequah’s relatives occasionally helped her carry her dead calf, and may have helped to feed her during her mourning. Scarlet was a breach baby, and the tooth marks on her sides suggest that her relatives helped to pull her out of her mother’s womb. In happier moments, when the different pods reunite in the spring, they face one another in straight lines, before engaging in energetic greetings.

The Lummi Nation, who live in the Salish Sea and also depend on salmon, have long understood this side of the southern residents. “We’ve fished alongside them since time immemorial,” says Jay Julius, the nation’s chairman. “They live for the same thing we live for: family.”

By contrast, Western cultures have variously cast orcas as aggressive savages, fish-eating pests, and tourist attractions. It was once acceptable to shoot them or round them up for aquariums. (Around 50 southern residents were captured in this way, including the original Shamu.) These attitudes started shifting in the 1970s, when the Canadian marine biologist Michael Bigg did a census and discovered just a few hundred orcas in the Pacific Northwest, rather than the thousands that had been assumed.

Bigg also realized that he could tell the orcas apart from the shape of their dorsal fin and their white saddle-shaped patches. That revolutionary insight, which many scientists didn’t believe at the time, laid the foundation for a remarkable four-decade census that’s still ongoing. Balcomb, who now leads the effort, joined it “because of the opportunity to completely know a population, in a small boat without great expense,” he says. “From a biological standpoint, nobody had ever done that before. But as I’ve gotten to know [the whales] in detail, I’ve developed a strong feeling of affection for them.”

The world did, too. Bigg, Balcomb, and their colleagues used their data to study the lifelong bonds between mothers and their children, to study their complex communications, and to work out why orcas are among just three animal species that go through menopause. Their discoveries led to public outrage over captures. These weren’t creatures that could be yanked from the wild without consequence. They’re recognizable individuals, with families that can be broken, and friendships that can be severed.

Some of the southern residents started off shy, but have become emboldened through the years. “They pull these little pranks when they know people are watching them,” says Balcomb. “When everyone’s on the port side, they’ll swim under the boat, and pop up on the starboard.” (I witnessed J26, named Mike, after Bigg, do this to me on a whale-watching trip a few years ago.)

Others were exuberant from the start. Scarlet had a difficult birth, but shortly after she started leaping out of the water. She’s now known for her boisterous nature, and her signature move where she arches her back into a crescent. “One of our volunteers watched her breaching 40 times in a row,” says Giles. “That’s a lot of energy and you can’t help but think it feels good—or weird. You’re buoyant and then suddenly under the influence of gravity. [But in her emaciated state] I don’t think anyone has seen her breach for quite a long time.”

Giles describes Tahlequah as an “incredibly attentive mother” that played with her first calf, Notch (J47), more than most orca moms. Since Notch was born in 2010, it’s likely that Tahlequah has gone through at least one failed pregnancy, if not two. That, combined with her personality, might explain her incredible 17-day mourning period. “Think about a female going through those pregnancy hormones, growing a fetus, and then losing it—twice,” says Giles. “And then finally, she has a full-term calf, and after a breath, it dies. It’s not surprising that she was grieving to the degree that she was.”

Balcomb goes even further. “It’s a little bit of anthropomorphism, but I think she was letting everyone else know she was grieving,” he says. “They’re very intelligent. They know people are out there: I’ve seen them look at boats hauling fish out in nets. I think they know that humans are somehow related to the scarcity of food. And I think they know that the scarcity of food is causing them physical distress, and also causing them to lose babies.”

There is no way of knowing for sure if that’s what Tahlequah was doing. Many scientists would undoubtedly accuse Balcomb of inappropriately casting human feelings and motivations onto another species, without extraordinary evidence for his extraordinary claims. Others would argue that it is more ludicrous to deny the mental capabilities and emotional lives of these animals.

It almost doesn’t matter. Whether or not you think Tahlequah was deliberately sending a message, it’s clear that people have heard one. Her grief has focused public attention in a way that conservationists hope will translate into political action. “She interpreted something to the world that I’ve been trying to adequately express to bureaucrats, politicians, and the public for 20 years: the need for salmon restoration,” Balcomb says.

The plummeting levels of Chinook salmon—the southern residents’ main prey—is likely the main factor behind the whales’ decline. But the whales must also communicate over the din of ships, and deal with toxic chemicals that become stored in their blubber. These three threats compound one another. “If there’s not enough prey, and noisy vessels make it harder to find that prey, they’ll use their blubber, and those harmful contaminants will circulate in their blood,” says Lynne Barre from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “They’re such a small population that they’re at risk of something like a catastrophic oil spill.”

There is no simple way to save the southern residents. Consider what it would take just to address the lack of salmon. The fish have a range that extends from far-inland streams to the expansive Pacific. They have to deal with dams, algal blooms, the nets of intense commercial fisheries, and blobs of warm water caused by our changing climate. “My concern for the southern residents has become much deeper because I understand the depth of the threats facing them, and the complexity of the policies that it’ll take to save them,” says Giles, whose voice cracks as she talks.

And yet, she remains hopeful. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, has made a priority of protecting the whales, and in May, he convened a task force to find ways of doing so. The people I spoke to for this piece are all members, along with policy makers, whale-watching operators, fishers, tribal representatives, and more. Their list of recommendations is due to land on Inslee’s desk in October. “I’m optimistic that we have the right people in the room,” says Barre.

It’s easy to make the case that the southern residents’ lives are worth protecting in their own right. But their presence also ripples throughout the entire ecosystem. They are large canaries, and their woes show how the world is changing. Their problems are ultimately our problems.

Indigenous people, for example, depend on the same fish that the orcas are missing. “What happens to [the orcas] is going to happen to us, and what happens to the Indians is going to happen to everyone else,” Julius says. “But if we fix this problem, a lot of other change is going to happen elsewhere too.”