Grief is a universal emotion, and it’s palpable in these images of an orca mother buoying the body of her dead baby as she swam near the coasting of Victoria, Canada, this week.
The Center for Whale Research, which tracks and researches the Southern Resident whale population in the eastern Pacific Ocean, first noted the calf on July 24, the day it was born. The calf sadly died within hours of its birth. As the body sank into the water, the mother repeatedly pushed it up, keeping it afloat for at least three days as she and her pod swam on.
Ken Balcomb, the Founder of the Center for Whale Research, tells CNN that in all likelihood, the whale and the rest of her pod knew exactly what they were doing.
“They know the calf is dead. I think this is a grieving or a ceremonial thing done by the mother,” he says. “She doesn’t want to let go. She’s probably lost two other calves since her first offspring eight years ago.”
Three years, no surviving babies
In this way, the sad display speaks to something deeper than a mourning mother and her lost child. Killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest are dwindling, and the statistics for infant deaths and viable pregnancies are downright shocking. This killer whale mother was part of the Southern Resident killer whale population, found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Canada and the northwestern United States. They are only about 75 whales in this population, and their birth rate for the last few years has been zero.
Zero, as in no babies at all. Zero, as in 100% failure of infant survival over the last three years. According to the CWR, over the last two decades 75% of newborns in this population have not survived infancy.
“The cause is lack of sufficient food resources in their foraging area,” Balcomb says. “There’s not enough food, and that’s due to environmental reasons.”
Killer whales eat salmon, and Balcomb says a number of human practices have taken a toll on native salmon populations. Some sources of hydroelectric power block salmon’s natural spawning routes. Over-harvesting eats into population numbers. And hatcheries may serve economic needs, but they come at an ecological price.
“The hatcheries are not working,” Balcomb says. “You’re genetically homogenizing the populations and they’re smaller and less fit and more expensive to produce.”
All of this means, in short, the whales aren’t getting enough to eat. And without enough to eat, pregnancies aren’t successful, and babies die shortly after birth.
On average Balcomb says, a female orca can produce about five viable babies in her reproductive lifetime, which is about 25 years starting when the whale is 15. Mother orcas gestate for 17 months, and the babies nurse for about a year after that. So each and every orca baby is literally years in the making.
However, with salmon populations waning and no babies to speak of, the future of some Northwestern Pacific Whale populations isn’t just grim. It’s nonexistent.
“Extinction is looming,” Balcomb says.
A man-made problem with man-made solutions
Now, if all of this to just too depressing – mourning mothers and dead calves and the dim future of beloved marine mammal – Balcomb says there are solutions.
“It’s time to heed environmental protections and rebuild essential ecosystems … My advocacy is to restore some of these natural river systems to facilitate wild salmon populations again.” Balcomb also says we should reconsider certain dams that create more environmental upheaval and economic cost than they’re worth.
“If the rivers recover, the salmon recover, and then the whales will hopefully recover,” he says. “We can fix this.”