The Last of the 36s

Every four years or so a new catalog comes out. Not a clothes catalog or card catalog but a whale catalog. A yearbook of sorts. Every whale in the Northern Resident Population represented. Their face is their dorsal and saddle patch, organized into neat, orderly matrilines that define their lives.
The previous catalog came out in 2010 and was never out of reach on the Hanson Island observation deck. Its pages tattered and folded, annotations and revisions scrawled in black ink noting deaths, births, and disappearances. Over time the ringed binder that held the thick pages together began to fray and tear until the page holding the A5 pods tore at the plastic binding. Surge, Fife, Havannah, and the others threatening to tumble clear of the book and onto the wooden planks.
The time to retire the 2010 catalog has arrived. The updated 2014 edition sits on my computer now, hogging a considerable amount of disk space, documenting all 298 of the northern resident orcas. The first page of the report has always been reserved for the A36s. But as I scroll to the matriline a hollow emptiness fills the page. There’s just one whale left. Kaikash, A46. The tell tale cut on the top third of his dorsal. I can hear his calls echo through the white, unblemished page where two other six foot dorsals used to stand. His brothers Cracroft and Plumper have passed on, leaving Kaikash as the lone surviving grandchild of A1, better known as Stubbs.
Having a bond to an individual whale may seem silly. But when you know them all by name, their history, their voices, it’s hard not feel a connection. Even though they have no idea I exist. But those three brothers; Plumper, Kaikash, and Cracroft kicked my anthropomorphism into overdrive. Kaikash and Cracroft were the cool ones, the lady killers. Plumper, with his less imposing name, the awkward middle child. But they stuck together. Plowing up and down the strait, massive dorsals held high. The boys club, not a female in sight, persevering without mom.     That’s how they looked to me on a rainy August day in 2007. I didn’t know who they were yet but it didn’t matter as they swam past me and my kayak, making me forget all about basketball shoes and hardwood glory. Turning my life upside down. Leading me to OrcaLab, to whatever it is that I do with myself.
Cracroft past away in 2010. And last August Plumper struggled against the tide in Blackfish sound, gave up, and drifted back the way he’d come, his brother following loyally. Which left Kaikash to fend for himself. The death sentence for most orcas, unable to survive without mom, brother, sister, and cousin. But here he is. That dorsal still defiantly displayed on page one, the final relic of the A36s, of my rebirth, of my story. I can’t imagine there’d be a blog without those three.

Last summer I hammered away at the chopping block near the lab. As the tide rose and the sun beat down a kayak group pulled into the back of the cove. I stared in amazement. Hundreds of miles of beach and they have to pick the one that’s inhabited? I keep swinging, halving and quartering the rounds, wooden shrapnel flying left and right. After lunch an older man picks his way across the beach and boldly walks up to the wood shed.
“Excuse me.” He calls, waving his arms.
I pull out my headphones, sweat running down my face. “Yeah?” He better not be asking me to wait until they leave to keep chopping.
“This is OrcaLab right?”
I nod, “sure is. I’m not sure where Paul is right-”
“Oh that’s ok. I know you’re all busy. I just wanted to ask one question. Years ago my family adopted a whale through a foundation, I think he swam around here. He was A5.”
“That was Top Notch.” I answer.
“Was?”
“Yeah… he died, quite awhile ago, shortly after his Mom. That’s how it usually happens unfortunately.”
He bites his lips, eyes on the ground like he’s dropped something. “I figured,” he mumbled, “thanks.”
So it goes in the Orca world. Friends we barely even know saying goodbye. Vanishing. No wakes, no farewells, just an empty spot on the page, and a greyed out square.

I move past Kaikash’s lonely spot and keep flipping through the catalog. “298 is a lot of whales,” I think, “more than there’s ever been since the study started.” I reach the page with the A4s, and my melancholy vanishes. There she is. Springer, A73. The miracle whale. From death bed to motherhood. Her baby Spirit’s picture just below, a strong black line connecting them. Nearly every pod has young calves, a good sign. More stories to be told, more memories to be made. Death just as much a part of living as birth. They all start out like Spirit. I smile and close out of the catalog.
“They’re just like us,” I think.

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2 thoughts on “The Last of the 36s”

  1. The A36s hold a special spot in many people’s hearts, including mine. They were the first whales I ever saw live, recognizing them from many months of being glued to orcalive. I hope I always retain the memory of those magnificent boys patrolling the strait. Thanks for your story about them and welcome back to the lab.

  2. As Kathy says above, the A36s cast a spell on many of us finding OL online for the first time many years ago. Who could not be moved by the sight of those three dorsal fins slicing through the water? All orcas move me, but those three took my heart. ~~~/\/\/\~~~

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