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.”