As a volunteer at The Seattle Aquarium I try to engage people in the uniqueness of Puget Sound marine life.
Things like our incredible mesmerizing Giant Pacific Octopus, diver-friendly Wolf Eels, mysterious Six Gill Sharks, and our resident Orcas.
The Orcas are not like any other Orcas in the world. They live here year round, cavorting in the waters shared by Washington and British Columbia called the Salish Sea. They are the most studied Orcas in the world due to their wonderful accessibility. Scientists have been studying them for decades and as a result have identified all the individuals within the pods and the unique behaviors associated with them. Each Orca has a distinctly patterned saddle patch, the area directly distal of the dorsal fin. It’s the Orca equivalent of a fingerprint. This gives all of us that take an interest in their lives the opportunity to know each one as an individual.
They are a family unit known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales and are distinguished further by “pods” the technical term for a clan. They are smaller in size than “transient” populations and unlike transients are matriarchal societies. Similar to elephants, the Southern Resident Orcas are led by the eldest female. Their life is dominated by the search for food, as they live almost exclusively on Salmon. An unfortunate preference that puts them directly at odds with the demands of the human population.
Three pods live here: J, K, and L pod, they collectively total 78. It was 79 until a week ago when 18 year old Rhapsody was found dead on Vancouver Island with her full-term calf in her uterus. I’m very distraught and heartbroken over the loss of this beautiful animal. Her death is indicative of the hazards and terrible odds these animals are facing here in their native habitat. Orca infant mortality is 90% in their first year. This is due largely to the consumption of poisoned food and polluted waters. Biologists continually find fatal doses of chemicals like PCB’s in beached and stillborn calves passed on from the bloodstream of their mothers. What will become of them? The odds of a calf surviving are really bad. And thus, the odds of the pods sustaining their existence are tragically dismal. Like many non-human denizens of this planet, they are in a steady decline.
I have to write this or I will implode. The overwhelming helplessness that I feel at their plight dominates my thoughts anytime I hear of another tragic death. Maybe Rhapsody died of complications from the birth, not by human influence. Until the planned necropsy is finished, we won’t know for sure. I really hope it wasn’t because of us. Either way though, it’s a tragic loss.
In conclusion, all I can say is that I love these animals, and that Rhapsody’s death resonates with me as though she were my own family.