Caught in the Act: Orcas Performing an Astonishing Mourning Ritual


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One of the things that many people believe separate people from animals is that we recognize our own mortality. That is, we know that one day we will be no more. It’s a deeply disturbing thought. And human cultures over the world have come up with stories and rituals to help us cope with it.

But humans aren’t the only animals who mourn their dead. And we’re far from the only animals that have rituals, that is, a predictable, formal set of activities to mark an event — in this case, death. Death and mourning rituals appear to be a hallmark of animals with higher intelligence. Elephants guard their dead and dying, as do dolphins. Chimpanzees grieve by carrying and grooming their dead until the departed begins to decay. And corvids — crows, jays, magpies, and ravens — hold funerals, as you can witness in the video below.

And now a new species has joined the ranks of animals that honor their fallen.

An Orca Funeral

At the end of July of 2018, the staff at the Whale Museum in Washington, DC, noticed something strange and touching. Off the coast of Kellett Bluff, WA, a mother orca was tending to a recently born and recently deceased baby. This was a sad occasion for some reasons. First, the orcas of this area are endangered. Also, this particular population hadn’t seen a successful birth since 2015. Finally, you don’t have to be a parent to recognize the tragedy of the death of a newborn.

Orcas and a sunset
Image: CC0 by Seaurchin, via Pixabay

The museum staff noticed the baby because of its mother’s behavior. The mother was pushing the baby to the surface as if to encourage it to breathe. Orcas, like whales, breathe air and must rise to the surface periodically to do so. According to Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist with the Centre for Whale Research in San Juan Island, Washington, this is a mother whale’s first response when she detects a problem with her baby.

However, when the baby failed to revive, the mother kept up this behavior. And it went on for more than nine days, with other orcas helping out. It went on for so long that scientists even became concerned for the mother’s health.

Two orcas
Image: CC0 by skeeze, via Pixabay

According to Balcomb, scientists have witnessed others orcas tending their dead in a similar way. However, the behavior usually only lasts a few hours. This was something new. It went on for more than a week. And Balcomb believes it could very well be a funeral or mourning ritual.

Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, calls this ritual a sign of deep grieving. She also said that although scientists have witnessed numerous sea species around the world carrying their dead, such mourning rarely exceeds 24 hours.

Why Are Washington’s Orcas Endangered?

Orcas thrived in this area for a long time. The cool waters and abundant salmon made it a perfect place for them to live, hunt, and breed. However, over the past forty years, overfishing has changed that. Wild-caught chinook salmon is highly sought-after and fetches a good price. But humans’ appetite for this delicacy has caused a food shortage for orcas. As a result, orca pods like the one who performed the long funeral, are starving. And they’re suffering miscarriage after miscarriage. Even when babies are born alive, they die shortly afterward.

A fisherman holds a wild-caught Chinook salmon
Image: CC0 by Public Domain Pictures, via Pixabay

Pollution from Canadian and American agriculture and mining operations hasn’t helped. And there is a third factor as well. Noise from whale-watching boats is disrupting the orcas’ sonar. They use their sonar to locate food. So not only is food scarce but even when it’s there, the orcas are having a hard time finding it.

Canada’s government has announced that they’re going to lower the amount of chinook salmon that fishermen can take by between 25 and 35 percent. Also, Canadian and U.S. officials are looking at limiting boat traffic in the area to try to help.

Will these measures be enough to save the orcas? We hope so.

What Now?

Officials from the United States and Canada have agreed to intervene and help the grieving mother. Also, they have noticed that another calf in the pod is starving and dangerously weak. The U.S. – Canadian partnership is planning to assist the calf with food and medication, with the hope that it will get better and thrive.

How You Can Help

There are two simple ways you can help Orcas like the one in this story. First, limit your intake of chinook salmon. Chinook salmon is the main food for the orcas in this area, and overfishing is starving them. A vegetarian diet has many documented benefits for your health and the environment. But even if you don’t want to go completely vegetarian, limiting the amount of wild-caught chinook salmon you consume will help this population of orcas.

Also, if you’re thinking about going whale-watching, think first about the noise and disruption that whale watching boats create. There are plenty of places in the United States, from California all the way to the north of Washington, where you can watch whales from the land. Whales are magnificent, intelligent and beautiful creatures. Try to enjoy them in a way that is safe for them, as well.

You can learn more in the video below.

Featured Image: CC0, by skeeze, via Pixabay

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