1: Orca Story

Released February 12, 2019

VIDEO: Water sounds

JULIA DRACHMAN: This is a video my dad took. It was a few years ago, on a family trip. We went up the coast from Seattle to British Columbia and spent a week kayaking from island to island and camping on the beaches. We were there to see Orcas or Killer Whales. Well, we were hoping to see them, but there’s no guarantee. We’d kayak all day, and scan the ocean for a sign that they were close. Like a black fin or the pssssssh sound of their breath.

One night, we were sitting around the campsite, eating dinner. The sun was going down, but it wasn’t quite dark yet. Suddenly, our guide, Monica, noticed a fin way out in the water.

It was coming toward us! And it wasn’t just one -- there were maybe 3 or 4. Monica put this special microphone called a hydrophone into the water so we could hear the Orcas talking. As they started to get closer, we heard these little meowing sounds getting louder.

Even when I watch it now, I get goosebumps. I don’t know how else to explain how it felt, except that it kind of felt like we were all in the water too.

One Orca started coming toward the shore – aiming right at us. The fin popped up, closer and closer. When it got to the rocks where we were standing, it turned and looked up at us before it switched directions and swam away.

WOMAN (VIDEO): Oh my god, you gorgeous thing! Ah! Beautiful creature!

JULIA: For that split second, we were in contact with this creature on the other side of the surface of the ocean. It felt like magic.

As it turns out, Orca stories are a thing here in Seattle.

MAN: ...They appear to be coming a little bit closer….

JULIA: You can find tons of videos like ours on Youtube. Usually, someone’s filming from a kayak, bobbing around in the ocean. Then, out of nowhere: PSSSH!

MAN: There we go, there’s a whole bunch of em! They’re all around us!

JULIA: As the whale gets closer, people get giddy. And then it’s right in front of them.

MAN: Wow! Wow! They’re checking us out man.

JULIA: There’s video after video of people seeing Orcas – usually up in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, or further north in British Columbia.

WOMAN: Oh my gosh do you see him under water? Oh my god! Oh my god! That was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life! It looked at us. Oh my god!

JULIA: Every one of them gives me a rush. You can hear that moment happening in the videos. That magic.

MAN: I’m speechless.

JULIA: When we got back to Seattle, we showed the video to our friends and tried to describe the feeling of making eye contact with this huge animal. From then on, whenever people mentioned Orcas, I would think back to that trip. But this past summer, everything changed.

JULIA: This is Going Forward. I’m Julia Drachman.

JULIA: Back in July, local news started covering one Orca in particular.

RADIO: This week our local Orca pod, the J-Pod, thought it had something to celebrate; a new Orca was born on Tuesday. But within a half hour, this new calf had died. And its mother has spent the last two days with its baby on her back.

JULIA: When an Orca dies, its body sinks to the ocean floor. But this mother Orca wouldn’t let that happen. Over and over again she would dive down and bring the body back to the surface. When I heard the story, I shut down. I did this thing that I do where I filed it away. Like, I’ll get to this when I have the emotional space for it.

Days went by. Constant updates.

RADIO CLIPS: For more than a week, a grieving Orca mother known as J35 has been carrying her dead calf as she swims through Puget Sound...by now you’ve likely seen some of the images of the Orca known as J35 pushing around the body of her offspring…still carrying her baby 17 days later. Researchers say that they’re now concerned for her health.

JULIA: I can’t remember when it was that I let myself cry about it. But once I did, I couldn’t stop. I cried for hours. And I wasn’t alone. It felt like we were all holding our breath, waiting for her to let go. And then one day...

RADIO: The grieving Orca mother, Tahlequah, as we call her, has let go of her dead calf… She carried her offspring for at least 17 days for at least 1000 miles. People called it a tour of grief…

JULIA: 17 days. 1000 miles. When it was over, I think I was expecting people to put it behind them or forget about it. But instead, people started to talk about the whales... a lot. It turned out, this wasn’t just a story of one Orca’s pain. It was a wake up call. An unavoidable front page warning: these Orcas are dying off.

So, Tahlequah or J-35, is a member of what’s called the J-pod. It’s one of our 3 local Orca pods -- or families. They make up a population called the “Southern Resident Killer Whales.” And they are critically endangered. The reason for that? Let’s call it “The Seattle Effect.” It’s us -- the people and the industry of our city.

The Southern Residents are basically urban whales. And the waters around Seattle are full of shipping vessels, ferries, and cruise ships. For animals that use echolocation to get around, all that noise underwater can keep them from finding food.

Plus, the prey just isn’t there. The Killer Whales in this area don’t eat other mammals – they only eat fish, mostly Chinook Salmon. And those salmon aren’t doing well either. Salmon habitat keeps disappearing as the city grows and dams along the rivers keep them from getting back to the ocean.

When the salmon don’t make it back to the ocean, the Orcas don’t have enough to eat, so they start to metabolize their own blubber. And, because of decades of pollution, their blubber is full of toxins that can cause infertility, disorientation, and damage to their immune systems.

So: vessel disturbance, lack of fish, and toxic pollution. There are so many reasons that our way of life is threatening their existence. And I had no idea until this summer.

In a way, Tahlequah’s tour of grief was a brilliant PR move.

LYNNE BARRE: I think people feel a connection to these animals, because, in some ways, they behave like we do...

JULIA: This is Lynne Barre. She works for the Fisheries division of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. She tells me that Orcas actually have a lot in common with humans. They have their own languages, they’re playful. And like us, they live in tight-knit family groups.

LYNNE: And so I see that carrying of the dead calf as a, you know, an example of those close, tight, family social bonds that they have. And I think people can really relate to that.

JULIA: Lynne’s title is: Recovery Coordinator for the Endangered Southern Residents. For the past 15 years, she’s been working every day to save these Orcas. She’s in charge of coordinating research, communicating with the public, and helping make regulations that would protect the whales. Last summer, all eyes were on her. And it wasn’t just about Tahlequah.

LYNNE:  It was kind of at the same time really, when all this media and public attention on J-35 and her calf, we were also monitoring the condition of J-50, also known as Scarlet.

JULIA: Scarlet was a 4-year old Orca, one of the rare young whales in the pod to survive to adulthood. But she was starting to look really skinny.

LYNNE: And so the researchers that were in the field were providing information to us about her condition, sometimes she was straying from her family group or lagging behind.

JULIA: Lynne’s team did everything they could. They brought her live salmon, administered antibiotics, and teamed up with partners all over the Pacific Northwest to track her pod. The story unfolded on the front page of the Seattle Times, just days after Tahlequah dropped her calf. For almost two weeks, Seattleites got regular updates on Scarlet. Then there was a long silence.

LYNNE: It’s very rare that an animal separates and is alone, so if they’re not seen with their usual family group, they probably have passed away.

JULIA: Watching it happen in real time, right on the heels of Tahlequah’s story, was heartbreaking. It wasn’t just that a beloved young Orca had died of starvation. Scarlet’s death was a huge blow to the potential recovery of the whole pod.

LYNNE: The Southern Residents is such a small population. There’s only 74 whales right now and it’s really that female reproductive potential that’s gonna drive population growth and recovery. So she was, you know, a particularly important whale.

JULIA: But Lynne isn’t giving up. If anything, she thinks the more attention these endangered animals get, the better chance they have. And, after this past summer, people are paying attention.

LYNDA MAPES: Why is it suddenly in the year 2018, the Orca issue has blown up? I have a one word answer for you, and it is her name: Tahlequah.

JULIA: This is Lynda Mapes, the environmental reporter at the Seattle Times. Her daily updates on Tahlequah got millions of page views.

LYNDA: I’m pretty sure the Seattle Times has never seen any story on any subject at any time take off like that.

JULIA: Lynda says that readers are now demanding more reporting on these whales.

LYNDA: Her message still reverberates – and I don’t think you have to be a new age, woo-woo person to interpret what happened this summer as truly a wake up for all of us.

JULIA: After the J-Pod deaths, the governor of Washington State pulled together a taskforce to make policy recommendations. And in December of 2018, he proposed a $1.1 billion addition to the budget to help enforce those recommendations -- to save the Orcas. But the whole thing is controversial. Some people are opposed to the tax increase, other people think it isn’t enough, or that the money’s going to the wrong places.

Lynda thinks this question of whether we’ll save the Orcas is at the heart of an identity crisis we’re having in this region.

LYNDA: We all like to say that’s we’re green out here in Pacific Northwest, it’s different. I’ll tell you – I moved here from NY in 1992. And I thought to myself, we’ll see if you’re different. Will we step up and make room for nature? Or are we gonna become a place just like everywhere else? That is Tahlequah’s question.

JULIA: Us Seattleites are proud of having a reputation for being kind of granola. Living here can sometimes feel like a hall pass when it comes to the way we treat our environment. But we don’t always walk the walk. I mean, I grew up in Seattle. But it took these Orcas dying for me to really wake up to the ecological disaster that we’ve created.

I’ll put it this way: The Chinook Salmon that these Orcas depend on were listed as a “threatened species” in 1999. That’s 20 years ago! And I knew that they were threatened -- I learned about it in elementary school. It just didn’t feel urgent. But the Orcas? They’re on our transit cards. They’re in our gift shops. They’re iconic. We can relate to them. Their suffering feels like ours. It’s hard to wrap your mind around having fewer salmon because every grocery store still sells salmon. But we only have 74 Orcas left.


JULIA: At the end of the summer, I went downtown to a memorial for Tahlequah and Scarlet. I was there for the podcast, but it was kind of an excuse. I think I was there because I needed to be.

CHIARA D’ANGELO: We’re here to grieve, mourn the loss of potentially a species on this planet.

JULIA: This is Chiara D’Angelo. She organized the memorial.

CHIARA: But also demand that habitat and salmon runs are returned and restored to levels that can sustain the southern resident killer whale populations.

JULIA: The square was packed with people wearing black and white, holding handmade posters and photos of the whales that had died. There were even a few people dressed as Orcas.

MAN 1: I am wearing an Orca cape -- I think there’s probably about 100 Orcas on here.
MAN 2: Oh it was very sad…you couldn’t come up with a better poster child really for what’s going on.
WOMAN 1: And I’m so in awe of Tahlequah for communicating her grief to the world...
WOMAN 2: To me the Orca are the heartbeat of the planet…we live on a planet that is ocean...
WOMAN 3: I heard a thing on this morning that said we don’t want our animals in zoos and we don’t want our zoos to become museums.
CHIARA: It didn’t really hit me that I cared in an emotional way until I hugged my mom last night. And I just started bawling. I needed to grieve. That this creature that I’d been praying for is gone -- it didn’t make it.
GIRL: What is it about these Orcas that make me grieve them? … They didn’t have a chance.

JULIA: We were all there because we loved these Orcas. And because we identified with them. Some people identified with Tahlequah as mothers. Others identified with her grief -- she reminded them of their own losses. And then there was another kind of pain.

GARY DOOR: For us, we’re talking about loss of a culture

JULIA: This is Gary Door – a Nez Perce man from Idaho.

GARY: We are here as Native Americans to take care of the resources for the seven generations behind us. We can’t allow ourselves to get to the point where we’re just talking about something like the Dodo Bird to our grandchildren.

JULIA: Most of the organizers of this event were indigenous people. And there were attendees from tribes all around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I spoke to a man from the Sannich First Nations up in British Columbia.

CHEOKTEN: I am Cheokten. English name Paul Wagner. I’m here in the land of the Duwamish People.

JULIA: The native people of this region know that when the Orcas suffer, so do we.

CHEOKTEN: And the Duwamish have a prophecy that if the [killer whales] were ever to be absent from [the puget sound, the salt water,] so would the humans be absent from the land. We, as indigenous people here, made sacred promises to every living being out there. We’re here today to uphold those sacred promises. I do not want my grandchildren to fight these kinds of insane fights until the end of time. There won’t be anything left.

JULIA: The people I talked to reminded me that the Orcas still have a chance. If we got them into this mess, we can get them out of it. We have to. If we let these animals disappear, who’s gonna be next?

SINGING: When I’m gone… when I’m gone… you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone...You’re gonna miss the way I sing… You’re gonna miss everything...You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. *DRUMS*

JULIA: This episode of Going Forward was produced by me, Julia Drachman, and Ula Kulpa. You heard music from Evan Drachman, Phoenix Glendinning and Blue Dot Sessions. The singing at the memorial was led by Jennifer and Ayanna Fuentes of Indigenous Sisters Resistance.

Thanks to: Karen Davis, Gary Nakamura, Janet Conger, Anders Rodin, Michelle Seidelman, Mel Phares, Nobel St. Claire, Kelly Greenwood, Johnny Krueger, Meg Cornell, Colby Lamson-Gordon, and Christine Lamson. Special thanks to Jonathan and Paula Drachman.

Find us online at goingforwardpod.com. You can support the show on Patreon at patreon.com/goingforward.

If you want to learn more about Orcas or find a way to support the J-Pod, you can find links in the show notes.

Thank you so much for listening! See you next month!