June 12, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

The Essays We Are All Writing about the Grieving Orca Mother

“Date: July 26, 2018
Media Release: For immediate release
Center for Whale Research
Subject: Newborn Orca dies

We are saddened to report that a baby Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) died a short time after it was born near Victoria, British Columbia, on July 24, 2018. . . . The baby’s carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island, USA. The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead baby whale throughout the day until at least sunset.”

• •

Essay 1: We are all writers, and we write essays about the orca mother and her dead baby

We are all writers, and we are writing essays about a whale. Specifically, the orca mother named J35, who recently carried her dead calf in a “tour of grief” across the Pacific Ocean for seventeen days. We were driving to the grocery store, and we heard the story on NPR. We saw the pictures of those iconic black-and-white fauna on the Internet, when we should have been writing our novel. We read it in the Washington Post, which is still delivered to our door, because, as writers, we believe in print media. However we learned of it, our response was the same. We felt a magnificent and horrible rumbling at our core, and we said to ourselves: that’s my subject.

We are not in any avant garde here. From the book of Jonah to Moby-Dick, the whale has long been a muse for us. In fact, the very first writer who ever saw a whale tried to throw her pen at it like a harpoon. She knew that she had found the perfect vessel.

Inside of every whale is a story about longing. A story about loss and vastness and depth. A story about the unknown and God and hubris and depression and about humans; always when we write about whales we are actually writing about ourselves. Whales are large (larger even than Walt Whitman), so they can fit all of this. And more. Because when we write about whales, we are also writing about climate change and pollution and the death of the oceans and evolution and science. The sea is where the scientific meets the metaphysical. It is the first and the last frontier, and the whales are its mysterious megafauna, unnerving us with their presence, full and empty at once, like a black hole that watches us back.

We, we writers, only wish we could be so large and inscrutable.

We envy the whales their vastness and also their range. They go down to the depths, where the truest truths live. And then they come back up. They breach, like a poem, dragging the unseen into the light for just a moment, glinting. They leap and slap their enormous bodies onto the surface of the water, tearing it up, sending ripples, saying: there are creatures below. Then they are gone.

When we see this mother orca, J35, holding up the flop of her calf’s corpse, raising the dead, we recognize immediately her craft. She’s a poet, mucking out the deathful expanse. In an epic that spans one thousand miles, she tells us: there was a creature below, and now that creature is dead. Line after line.

And now that creature is dead.
And now that creature is dead.
And now that creature is dead.
For seventeen days, till she herself is nearly dead, too.

We are writers, so we have a hard time believing in death. We see it as metaphor. We are not scared of it. We chase it. We are whalers, then, hoping to capture a shank of flub from the calf, a bit of that mystical oil from the mother. We’ll happily be dragged behind by the rope of our harpoon. Take us with you, wise beast of the sea. We’ll drown in your wake, if only for the story.

We are all writing our essays of the orca mother, J35, and her dead, unnamed calf. And these are the essays we write.

• •

Essay 2: We are all orca mothers who have lost a child

The whales can hardly hear a thing over the roar of human contraptions. The sonar waves sent from military and commercial fishing vessels overwhelm their directional senses, the engines drown out the songs of their family and friends. They are everywhere bombarded by plastic garbage and nets, by an ocean emptied of its fish and filled with clamor.

(What racket fills your ocean?)

J35 watches her baby, who grew in her shrunken belly for seventeen months, live without a moment of silence. When the calf dies, she tries to sing her grief, but her song is cut short by a freighter. The body is sinking. But death must be called out to the world somehow; it must be witnessed, so J35 pushes her forehead into her calf and heaves.

(Whom have you lost?)

Now J35 has lost another sense. She is blinded by corpse. Disoriented in her own ocean, still she pushes upward. Her child must again touch air. She repeats this dance of mourning, bringing the baby up, and letting it drop down. Up and down.

(How do you grieve?)

Utterly exhausted, she occasionally drops her burden altogether, and it is picked up by another member of her pod. Sometimes, her friends bring salmon to feed her. But mostly it is just she and her child. Up and down, for seventeen days. One day for each month of gestation.

(Who cares for you when you cannot care for yourself?)

And then, finally, she hears something above the din of the engines, and she sees something beyond her child’s body. Its noise is a rising hum, its color is purple. This thing, it ascends and descends with her in rhythm. She is so tired, perhaps this thing is death, she thinks. It grows all around her, warm and calm. An end to her grief.

(What can you hear over the din? What can you see beyond your own grief?)

J35 lets the decomposing calf fall from her face, and for a moment she feels the sunlight on her nose, she sees subtle waves lapping against the sharp fins of her family. She’s lighter than she’s ever been, and she hears nothing but the peaceful lapping of water against her oily skin. For just a moment.

(What happens when you let go?)

• •

Essay 3: We are all murderers and we are killing the baby whales

The scientists at the Center for Whale Research don’t name the newborn babies. No, they don’t even get an alphanumeric name. Not K39, nor L13. These scientists have learned not to put the hope of a name into an orca baby prematurely. Let’s wait a few weeks on this one, they say.

Because they know: Seventy-five percent of newborn orca calves in this region have died in the last two decades. One hundred percent of orca pregnancies in the last three years have failed. Sixty percent fewer chinook salmon, the orcas’ main food source, in the region than there were in 1984 when the EPA started tracking. The whale scientists know these numbers; it is their job.

And they also know that a malnourished orca baby doesn’t float. It will struggle for a few days, or maybe just a few hours, to keep some distance between its bony figure and the ocean floor, and then it will stop. Fins limp, rolling to the side, it will begin to sink. And sink.

For hours maybe it will sink, a thousand feet, and then a thousand more. The long descent into pressure and blackness and to a graceful, soft landing; a million floor-bound critters will feast for one hundred years in this spot. Unless, of course, mother.

The mother may take the baby on her nose and, using all her might, because she, too, is malnourished, she may push the baby to the air. Breathe! It does not breath. It sinks again, and again the mother may propel it up to the surface, the dead blubber of her baby pushing into her eyes. Breathe! It does not breath.

The scientists will watch. They will write press releases. They will repeat again and again the numbers: seventy-five resident whales left. Only seventy-five! They will record a video, put it up on their website. Then, one day, they may get a call from a reporter. “I want to know about the mourning whale.” Ecstatic, but still cautious, because they are scientists, they’ll invite her to come talk and they will tell her, “What exactly she’s feeling we’ll never know. But the bonds between mothers and calves are extremely strong. Everything we know about them says this is grieving.”

“But why has this happened?” The reporter will ask.

The scientists might pause for a moment as they clench their fists and furl their faces, because inside their heads their brains are screaming, “Why? You want to know why this is happening? It is happening because we don’t give a shit about other creatures until there’s a spectacle. We are in the midst of the sixth Great Extinction, and you are asking me why a single baby orca has died? It’s happening because we are the worst!”

But, the cautious scientists instead would say to the reporter, “There are many causes, and we can’t know the exact cause of this calf’s death.” And then, like a criminal, the reporter might whisper, “But if you want a single culprit, look to the Snake River dams.”

The reporter may do some research and discover that there are four large dams on the Snake in eastern Washington. Since salmon must make the arduous journey upriver to spawn, each of these dams creates a nearly insurmountable blockade. The Snake used to provide about half of the region’s salmon. Now, just 1 percent of the river’s salmon make it to spawn.

Further investigation would reveal to the reporter that an adult orca whale eats an average of 18-25 full-grown chinook salmon each day just to survive. There are, simply, not enough fish. But there is an average of 1,075 megawatts of electricity heading from the Snake River to the homes of the greater Seattle area.

The utility companies don’t calculate their rates in salmon or orca whales. Their customers receive bills with dollar signs, small graphs that show their average use over time. They can opt to pay 10 percent more to support wind or solar (the reporter and the scientists all pay the extra 10 percent). When the utility company’s customers think of electricity, they think of these windmills and solar panels. They think of light bulbs and air-conditioning and laptop computers and Thomas Edison. They don’t wonder how long it takes a dead baby orca, who has not been given a name, to sink to the bottom of the sea. That is not on their electric bill.

Those who get their electricity from the Snake River are to blame, the reporter might think. But the rest of us, residents of Utah and Philadelphia and Ottawa and Japan, we can’t wipe our hands so quickly of the matter, the scientists would respond. “The calves’ milk is poison.” They’d sigh the words in defeat, though they will never give up.

Pollution trickles down, only to trickle back up. For a good chunk of the twentieth century, we humans were dumping polychlorinated biphenyls and DDT into the ocean, thinking it would dissipate into nothingness. We couldn’t see it, after all. And it did dissipate, at first. But then it started to reaccumulate, to work its way back up the food chain. These are hungry molecules: they love fat; they are fat soluble. They built up in the invertebrates, and then in the fish, and then in the flubber of these, our favorites, the whales.

The pollution has worked its way to the very top of the food chain where, like a rain accumulated in a cloud, it must pour back down again. This time, it’s in the milk. The scientists will explain to the reporter, “The adult mothers detox through their milk. The already malnourished calf then drinks the concentrated PCBs and DDT, which has been working its way around the ecosystem ever since it was banned back in the ′80s.”

It’s not just Seattle, then, the reporter will realize. It’s everyone who was born before 1980, who sprayed insecticides into the suburban air and used Xerox machines and car coolants. And for those who were born after 1980, their murder is ancestral. They witness the death meted out by their parents and grandparents and, for some of them even, their great, great, great, great, great grandparents who first disrupted the indigenous lifeways of the Squamish, Salish, Snohomish, Skagit, Twana, Kallam, Semiahmoo, Lummi, and others, people who put no concrete in the Snake River.

The scientists will look at the reporter with a cold ocean in each eye. “We are murderers,” they’ll be thinking. But the scientists are cautious, so they will say nothing as they turn back to their blinking surveying equipment.

• •

Essay 4: We are all dead baby whales being carried by our mothers

We’ve died.

We overdosed on fentanyl in the bathroom just before dinner. Our mother had made our favorite: lasagna with extra cheese.

We died in the classroom, huddled under a desk, shoulder to shaking shoulder with the bullies and the outcasts alike. We died after being deported back to El Salvador, where the gangs found us. We died with our hands up. We died because we couldn’t afford a doctor. We died, and there was nothing our mothers could do.

We were born weak, in a dying ocean; we were never bound to survive. And yet, they kept us alive for a few hours, a few days, even a few years. They are so strong, our mothers, so fierce. They snuck us across borders and rubbed our backs at night and told us stories where the heroes were just like us. They did everything to keep us alive, and even now, after death, they continue carrying us.

They speak with dignity and rage on the evening news. Watch how their tears do not interrupt their words, but punctuate them. Watch how loss pulsates in their muscles like adrenaline. Watch how they live doubly for us. Watch how they organize. Mothers Against Drugs, Mothers Against Gun Violence, Anti-racist Parents, Mothers Against Senseless Killings, Mothers Against Police Brutality, Parents United Against Lead, Mothers for Peace.

Our mothers have dropped us now. They’ve let go of their grief, but not their memories, and they’ve picked up something else. Something stubborn and truthful and beautiful. We can sense this, even as we sink lifeless to the great floor a mile below. The currents are indomitable, and they never stay the same for long.

• •

Essay 5: We are all seekers who seek meaning from the beautiful whales

In Leslie Jamison’s 2014 essay, “52 Blue,” she writes about a blue whale whose frequency is too high for his fellow cetaceans to hear: 52 hertz, instead of the normal 15-20. The whale roams the Pacific Ocean, unable to find a mate, calling again and again into the lonely abyss.

His call was picked up by naval oceanic monitoring equipment, and then by (cautious) scientists. Eventually, the story made it to viral blogs and to the New York Times. Jamison’s essay is less about the whale himself than it is about the “people who identified with the whale or hurt for him, hurt for whatever set of feelings they’d projected onto him.”

Jamison found a twenty-eight-year-old medical actor in Michigan who says that it makes sense for the whale to be lonely “because he had a prophet with him, inside of him, and now he doesn’t.”

She talked with another woman who, in the midst of a life-threatening illness, had felt deeply connected with 52 Blue. “I was like him. I had nothing. No one to communicate with. No one was hearing. No one was hearing him. And I thought: I hear you. I wish you could hear me.”

Another person she met suggested that the whale might be God. “How do you know that he wasn’t sent here to heal us, and his song is a healing song?” she asked.

We are seekers, and the whale has always been a sought creature. What’s strange, then, about J35, is not that we seek her, but that she reveals herself. That she wants to be found.

Blue 52’s enigma is his only presence: a blank, whale-shaped space held open by a song that, were we floating in the ocean, we would not even be able to hear. He exists only in Navy instruments and our own projections. A God, we say. A friend. A lonely mammal, just like us.

J35 allows us no such projection. She erupts our imagination with each breach, presenting to us her black and white, her fin, and her song. Loud and clear we hear her, in the frequency of tragedy. Even the scientists, ever cautious, admit: “What exactly she’s feeling we’ll never know. But . . . everything we know about them says this is grieving.”

We had come to the shore seeking meaning in its emptiness. We secretly hoped to see nothing, a dorsal fin at most, maybe a few seagulls. We wanted to contemplate the unknowability of the water, the strangeness of unseen creatures beneath the waves; we wanted the sea to hold that space for us so that we could cast our own story into its depths, see ourselves in the foamy tides. But there she is, J35, pushing her dead calf into our vision again, relentless, saying: this is my story, not yours, and you better damn well listen. We shuffle our feet, look away. We hope she doesn’t see us here, in our hoodies, acting whimsical.

None of us will call J35 God. She is not here to heal us. She is no friend of ours. She is the seeker, we are the sought, and we have been found.

Photo of Easton Smith
Easton Smith is a writer and community organizer based in Salt Lake City, Utah, land stolen from the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Northern Ute people. His work has been published in the Sonora Review, the Columbia Journal, and online at Brine Waves.