The image of an orca mother pushing her dead calf through the ocean for 17 days is etched in the minds of many.
Raw, painful, heart-wrenching.
As she mourns the death of her child, other orcas in her family come to support her, taking turns holding up the body of her baby, honouring and holding space for her grief.
This is, according to those who study whales, a common ritual. But this recent embodiment of a mother’s pain apparently went on longer than usual. So long that, through technology, the whole world witnessed her grief – empathizing, puzzling, marvelling, questioning.
Observers wondered when she would stop. Would her grief kill her?
Some pundits could be heard discussing how this prolonged ritual was evidence of orcas’ ability to feel ‘human’ emotions. Evidence of how these mammals are highly ‘evolved.’
Others commented on the size of orcas’ brains, how intelligent they are – compared to humans.
One opinion – one that would align with what indigenous people have been living for millennia – struck home.
This orca was going to display her grief until humans would notice, really notice, what they are doing to the waters her baby was born in.
Notice how orcas have among the highest levels of pollution of marine mammals, their blubber laced with PCBs, pesticides and other chemical toxins. Notice how orcas can’t reproduce and ultimately survive in oceans that are home to sewage, chemicals, plastics, oil and more. Notice how malnutrition is becoming more common due to a decline in salmon. Notice how orcas, with complex dialects and echolocation, can’t forage and communicate properly in competition with vessel noise.
Notice how plans to continue down the path of oil – with its accompanying warmer oceans and inevitable spills – are deadly.
Notice how her babies, how human babies, how all living creatures are going to keep dying if humans don’t put the Earth at the centre of every single decision made.
The grief of this orca mother may not be visible anymore, but the image she etched in our collective psyche must remain if our collective life on this planet is to continue.
Martha Wickett is a reporter with the Salmon Arm Observer.