My dad and I sit on the porch at the fishcamp, watching the gulls and seals, looking for whale spouts. I take photos, upload them to my Facebook page, and I see a local friend’s post: killer whales in front of town by the city dock. I excuse myself, jump in my car, and head to town. By the time I get to town I’ve missed them. They’re heading to the Stikine River, likely toward the sealion haulout on Lesnoi Island.
Date: July 26, 2018, Media Release: For immediate release, Center for Whale Research, Subject: Newborn Orca dies.
In Southeast Alaska we’ve seen killer whales (kéet) dive under our boat, check us out, steal our fish. We’ve seen pods pass in front of town. We’ve even welcomed home Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat) to the Dakl’aweidi. We know people with killer whale clan crests; They are family and friends. We live among killer whales, which is why when many of us Southeast Alaskans saw the news about Tahlequah and her dead calf, we grieved. Tahlequah, also known as J35, is a killer whale from a Southern Resident killer whale population in the Pacific Northwest. She kept her dead calf afloat for seventeen days.
Transients, our visitors; Residents, our neighbors. Residents are one ecotype of killer whale (Orca) that eat mostly salmon. The other ecotype, Transients, eat squid, and marine mamals like seal and sealions.
I read that 17 days was a long time for killer whales to carry a dead infant, but we know it’s not. I would’ve carried my tiny nephew for 17 days, the one born and dying with an underdeveloped brain. Seventeen days would not have been too long to hold him and to hold vigil.
Killer whales, especially Resident pods, have similar social structures to matrilineal human cultures like the Tlingit. Like humans, they live in groups and cooperatively hunt and their lifespan is similar to ours.
Humans imagine we are the only ones who are capable of grief and the rituals that accompany it. Sealion and dolphin mothers grieve over the death of their young. The graylag goose, gorillas and chimpanzees, giraffes, elephants, and Western scrub jays all exhibit grief and some even conduct death ceremonies.
At the time of the calf’s death, a half-dozen female killer whales swam in a close circle near Tahlequah and her baby for two hours.
When Tahlequah carried her dead calf around on her forehead, kept pushing her baby through the sea, we knew. We’ve felt it too. I’ve written poems for families of dead children. I’ve comforted a daughter and friends who’ve miscarried. My grandma, Nana, as a young wife and mother, lost her young child, and shortly after she divorced and headed for Alaska to work in Wrangell’s canneries. My childhood friend’s daughter was hit by a car on main street Wrangell, and my young, great-niece recently died here in a car accident. A best friend lost two babies, from two different pregnancies, both at term: I wept with her on their graves. A neighbor lost her baby after only four months gestation. Some friends could not understand why she’d go through naming the child and then a funeral, after all, the baby wasn’t even to term yet. I understood. A killer whale understands.
The Grandmothers — a pod’s female leaders — live into their 80s, and even reaching a type of menopause in their 40s. Females grow to up to 27 feet and can weight up to 4 tons. Grandfathers live into their mid-70s and grow up to 31 feet and 8 tons.
Some scientists say Tahlequah exhibited a refusal to accept death—after all she had carried her dead calf for 1,000 miles—but she saw death all around her — sea lion mothers have been known to wail when a killer whale eats one of its babies. Sometimes our societies, cultures and families, dictate our grieving timeframe for us, though — Mourning rituals vary from culture to culture and species to species. It’s okay to cry out, to keep our loved ones afloat for a time.
Like the matrilineal structure, killer whales form their ‘house-group’ for life with as few as three members to as many as forty: one or more adult males, several females, and children.
In Southeast Alaska we are made up of small island communities. We take care of one another. We celebrate and grieve with one another: it reminds me of a killer whale pod.
[Killer whales are] voluntary breathers, so they have to remind themselves to come to the surface to breathe. So when they go into deep rest, they’re in physical contact with other orcas in their community and one stays awake to kind of watch out. ~ Jenny Atkinson, The Whale Museum, San Juan Island
Once, the world sucked in on me like a silty river whirlpool and time warped just like you see in the movies, when, in the hospital, I thought my toddler son was dying, seizing again and again. My wails could be heard far up the Stikine River. He didn’t die, though, but I suffered from nightmares for a couple years as my mind tried to make sense of my child nearly dying.
And like humans, larger killer whale pods form from within the smaller ones, gathering temporarily for seasonal activities like hunting, looking for a mate, or just being social.
There are times, though, when we can save a baby, a child, when the air moves back into them, when they come back to us, cured, stitched up, happy. I’ve breathed for my son. I once helped rescue a severely abused niece and gave her a second chance at life. Metaphorically, I held her up to the air and told her it was okay to breathe again. She was adopted by family, grew up healthy, and just got married this year.
At birth a killer whale calf weighs around 400 lbs. and is 8 feet-long.
By the time my life and your life is done, like Tahlequah, we will have traveled a thousand miles with grief and with one another. We bring food, we send cards, we wrap woven and buttoned robes around one another, we dance and pray for one another, we hold 40-day parties, the koo.éex, and memorials, funerals, wakes, celebrations of life. In this life, here in Southeast Alaska, there are many things to grieve over and many ways to grieve, but know this: we keep one another afloat. We are not alone; even crows gather and fellow whales circle, holding a dead baby for the mother. Grief is a shared condition for humans and killer whales alike.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.