There was some sad news to end July with, as the story of a grieving orca hit the headlines. The female orca, which is part of a pod that lives in the Pacific Ocean (around the West coast of North America), was mourning the loss of her baby.
Scientists know this, because when the calf (baby) had died, the orca carried it with her. She would keep the baby afloat, mostly using her head to keep it at the surface. This behaviour is grief – the orca can’t let go. It has been observed before, but not usually for such a length of time as this, which at the time of writing, is four days.
Orcas are incredibly intelligent and emotional animals and have strong social bonds. They communicate through the water using sounds that they make, sounds that are different for different pods and for populations in different parts of the World. This grieving behaviour is yet another example of this emotional intelligence and communication, and can be observed in other social, intelligent animals, such as elephants and primates.
Different populations of orca around the World are at risk and are suffering due to human and environmental threats. The population to which this orca belongs, is the Southern Resident Killer Whales. This is a famous population that lives along the West coast of North America (Canada and the USA). This population is listed as endangered and is protected. In the 60’s and 70’s individuals were taken from this population to supply the captive trade (seaparks and aquariums). Taking animals like this has since stopped for this population, but it now faces other serious threats.
The population is in decline, and it is thought that one of the main reasons for this is a decline in their main prey species – Chinook salmon. Different populations of orca eat different things, and the Southern Residents are fish eaters; they particularly like the Chinook salmon because it is large and fatty, so provides them with lots of energy. Unfortunately the salmon has been in decline, and so the orca have less to eat. Other factors impacting on the health of this population include noise pollution, water pollution from chemicals, and inbreeding.
The sadness of this story is twofold: it is upsetting that an orca has lost its baby; it is devastating that this has been caused, at least in part, by our actions on the environment that they rely on. The cause of the decline in salmon is unknown but could be due to overfishing and climate change, both of which have been influenced by humans. The constant threats to the quality of their environment is entirely our fault, and the decrease of their population in earlier decades was caused by selfish actions simply to provide us with entertainment.
When we see a mother grieve our heart goes out to her. The question is, will we respond to this display of grief – will we try to change things for the better? If your answer is yes, and you would like to know more about whales and dolphins and how you can help, head the WDC website for loads of facts and conservation information.