For 1000 miles, Tahlequah grieved – while her baby decomposed. Born on July 24, the calf would live only about 30 minutes before she perished. For 17 straight days, her mother would carry the little body with assistance from members of the pod. Born to the critically-endangered southern resident orca population, the baby represented hope – another life to add to the minuscule population of 75. But soon, joy would be replaced with despair, as scientists, environmentalists and indigenous populations alike watched the pod struggle with the burden of its most recent loss.
Alex and Maria, two veteran Dolphin Project Cove Monitors, are currently filming on San Juan Island for a documentary titled “Searching for Chinook,” a project supported by Dolphin Project that will bring awareness to the desperate plight of these mammals. They have seen first-hand the devastation and grief that Tahlequah (J35) and other J pod dolphins have endured with the loss of the baby:
“We never expected during our time here that we would witness such unprecedented actions from this grieving mother. We have spent a little time on the water with Tahlequah and her pod, and it was clear that the whole family was feeling loss. After 17 days of carrying her dead calf, it would appear she has finally let go.”
While displays of grief and mourning are not uncommon to orcas and other large-brained mammals, the duration upon which Tahlequah carried her baby is; raising another critical issue regarding both our understanding and treatment of orcas, particularly the keeping of this species and other dolphins in captivity.
In 2013 “Blackfish” was released, a documentary film that focused on this very issue, and of a captive orca named ‘Tilikum’, a dolphin involved in the deaths of three people who has since died himself. The film served to reinforce that captive orcas suffer from extreme stress, causing their behavior to become unpredictable.
Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project and an ex-trainer himself, knows this only too well. In February 1968, a young male orca was caught near Puget Sound, Washington and was later shipped to the Miami Seaquarium. After 12 years of performances and repeated brutal, self-inflicted damage to his head, Hugo died of a brain aneurysm in March 1980. Says Ric:
“When I fed Hugo, his tail would be lying on the bottom and his head would be completely out of the water. It was pathetic. I left in disgust.”
The hardships faced by both southern resident orcas and captive dolphins have a common denominator: human intervention. Greed-centric decision-making has put their lives in peril, causing unnecessary suffering and death. If there truly was an educational component to keeping dolphins in captivity, this would have resulted in the widespread realization that they DO NOT BELONG there. And herein lies the irony: dolphins and other whales have thrived for millions of years without human interference. The solution to keeping them intact as a species is to nourish their evolution, not suffocate it.
Perhaps this is what Tahlequah was attempting to communicate – and it’s no longer an option not to listen.
Featured image: Tahlequah and her dead baby, credit – The Associated Press