Orcas in Peril, Part I: An Ocean Empty of Food

Southern Resident killer whales of the Salish Sea face many challenges, but the threat of death from starvation is especially dire. But there is a solution—and we need to help make it happen.

Summer 2018. This is Tahlequah. This is her dead infant, who lived for half an hour.  She is being carried on a grief tour.
“Tahlequah was showing to the world what the ones that live above the water are doing. Look. Look at my dead baby. Look. Look at my dying ocean. Look for a thousand miles and seventeen days until I put her down.” —Kurt Russo, on the “For the Wild” podcast
Tahlequah is a member of the J Pod of Southern Resident killer whales. There are 75 of these orcas left.
They spend their lives side by side, in tight family units with their own dialects, each led by a grandmother matriarch.
Where Southern Resident killer whales live: As far north as Haida Gwaii in BC and as far south as Monterey Bay, California.
Tahlequah depends on salmon to survive. Her grandmother taught her to travel to the mouth of the Columbia River to hunt for Chinook salmon.
For thousands of years, salmon fed the orcas, just as they shaped and sustained the lives of the people who have lived in the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial.
A Chinook salmon smells its way from the Pacific Ocean back to the Idaho mountain stream of its birth to spawn and die.
This is the most dammed river system in the world. Dams kill salmon in their turbines and hot reservoirs.
The Snake River used to produce almost half of the area’s salmon. Today about 1 percent of Snake River salmon make it home to spawn.
Salmon need access to pristine wilderness and cool mountain streams. The Lower Snake River dams need to be taken out. A recent study showed the power they provide can be replaced with clean resources. And orcas’ survival depends on it.
Orcinus, the first part of this species’ Latin name, means “of the realm of the dead,” probably because they’re dang good underwater hunters. In an ocean empty of food, with their babies dying of starvation, their name takes on a new meaning.
They are calling to us that something is wrong. Will we listen?

This is the first of a series that explains the challenges that Southern Resident killer whales face, including PCBs and shipping noise.

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