Off the waters of Washington state live the most magnificent, beautiful, and intelligent creature on the planet. A species that has learned to exist without wars or visible disputes of any kind. They maintain a peaceful, complex, and intricate social structure with bonds that we cannot even begin to fathom. And it is all in danger, of vanishing forever. For many it’s already too late. Like Rhapsody, whose body has gone to science in the hope of finding out what ended her life.
It is all so chilling because it’s not the first time that this story’s been told. In the serene and beautiful waters of Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles to the north, the same tragedy is playing with a 20-year head start. The genetically unique AT1 Transient pod, that has lived, stalked, and hunted within the sound for generations is just years from extinction as it comes up on three decades without a successful birth. For AT1, the prognosis is simple and obvious. On good Friday, 1989, the whole pod swam, unknowingly through the lethal slick of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They have not reproduced since as friends and researchers like Eva Saulitis watch the pod disappear one by one, a slow tear jerking countdown to zero.
For the southern Residents, it’s more complicated. For decades they’ve endured live captures, bullets, overfishing, and the toxic runoff of the increasingly urban Puget Sound. In many ways it’s miraculous they’ve persevered for so long. They can still lay claim to, “Granny.” An orca that was born the same year the Titantic sank and is still seen every year off the San Juan Islands, a talisman to the resilience of the community. And yet, Orcas are dying that shouldn’t be. When Plumper (A37 of the northern Residents) finally vanished from the lab’s view in August 2014, there was such a finality to what we were seeing. It was his wake. His time had come, and all of us, including him and his brother Kaikash seemed to know it. But sweet 18-year old Rhapsody shouldn’t be washing up in Comox. She should be with her mother, siblings, Grandmother, and Aunts, with one or perhaps two calves to her name. This wasn’t her time and it’s hard not to feel guilt, knowing that our species shoulders the blame for her demise and dozens just like her, whether from captivity or PCBs.
The southern Residents are at 77 individuals. The time has come for drastic action before the genetic bottleneck tightens anymore. So that in 20 years, we’re not watching the last of the pod fade into darkness, leaving the waters of the San Juans and Puget Sound in great silence. How empty and desolate it would feel. Imagine Orcas Island with no Orcas. It’s not impossible, the only place in California you can find a brown bear is on the state flag.
It may mean sacrifices on the part of us as human beings. To surrender the pleasure and joy that only comes from watching a line of dorsals materialize off the bow of your boat or kayak. Or perhaps going without Chinook salmon in the freezer this winter. Or maybe as simple as riding the bus to work and reducing the carbon exhaust pumped into the atmosphere.
These aren’t tigers or elephants, we can’t just start captive breeding programs and reintroduce them. But they do need help, and we have a chance, maybe not to make amends, but to right some of the wrongs that we’ve brought against them. To even the playing field as best we can for a species that doesn’t deserve the cards we have dealt. North American progress, american history as a whole, has been filled with extinctions, manipulations, and destruction. We’ve hunted the Gray whales, sea otters, wolves, and now the Orca. But today sea otters again bob in the waters off of Monterey Bay, wolves run through the forests of Yellowstone, and North Pacific gray whales represent one of the healthiest and strongest whale populations in the world as they continue their amazing recovery from industrial whaling.
I don’t think it’s too late for Rhapsody’s kin. But it is time to try something different, because whatever help we’re giving them clearly isn’t working. They need time, space, and most importantly, the salmon that make up more than 90 percent of their diet. Save the whales doesn’t have to just revoke memories of Greenpeace and the 70s. The war is not over, and it is our time to fight for the animals we love.