This past summer, I wrote a post about the experience of trying to save a four-year-old orca in Puget Sound named Scarlet (J-50), who had been observed to be sick and starving. Scarlet was one of the Southern Resident orcas, an officially endangered population that has been ravaged, first by captures by marine entertainment parks in the 1960s and 70s, and now from toxic waters, acoustic pollution and lack of food.
Despite efforts by the rescue team that had been convened by NOAA, Scarlet passed away in September. Her demise came on the heels of the world watching as a young orca mother, Tahlequah (J-35), carried her dead infant for 17 days before finally letting go.
We tend to think of extinction in terms of populations and species, but the experience of participating in an effort to rescue a single individual who was part of an ongoing extinction event led me to realize that it is a very personal experience for the individuals undergoing it. Extinction is getting sick and struggling to live and watching everyone you love going through the same agony. This is where extinction lives: in the heart and soul of each individual animal.
All of this happened during a grim year where the population of orcas in that region declined to just 74 individuals– a 35-yr low. In an ominous statement, Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, has since said he will stop counting when their numbers fall to 70.
Photos of Scoter show his deteriorating condition over two years.
And now more bad news: Two more of the Southern Residents are starving and in failing health. Photos of 42-year old Princess Angeline (J-17) show she has “peanut head” – a loss of fat around the neck and a sign of severe starvation. And the young male Scoter (K-25), who lost his mother in 2017, is failing to feed himself.
Indeed, both whales are in such bad condition that Ken Balcomb says he is confident that “we are going to lose them by summer.” And the fact that Princess Angeline is the matriarch of her family group makes her troubles even more alarming.
“Every member of their society will become aware that their turn will come.”
Shortly after I read the news of Princess Angeline and Scoter, an email from a colleague raised the emotional stakes for me. He wrote that because of orcas’ close family bonds, their complex intelligence and their advanced level of self and situational awareness, “every member of their society will become aware that their turn will come, that they will suffer, as they’ve witnessed with families and friends.” In other words, these orcas may be aware that they are in an extinction event. They may not know the textbook definition of mass extinction or about the science of genetic diversity. But they may know nevertheless that something is happening to all of them and that, at some point, there will be none of them.
There is no way to tell them that we are trying to help: that a task force created by Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has recommended a number of actions that must be taken urgently and immediately. We don’t even know whether these suggestions will be fully implemented, nor whether they will be effective or simply too little too late. Regardless, the Whale Sanctuary Project will be ready to help in whatever way we can, just as we did last summer on behalf of Scarlet. But commercial and political interests may trump the needs of the Southern Residents. And in the end, we can only watch as the state and federal governments, and all of us in the public, decide to let, one by one, the Southern Residents disappear.
Perhaps the urgency of the situation is best articulated by 11-year-old student and marine mammal advocate London Fletcher, who writes: “It’s time to wake up and smell the extinction.”