In the beginning, there was a baby that lived just half an hour, and a grieving mother named Tahlequah who carried her for 17 days and over 1,000 miles through the Salish Sea, an inland marine ecosystem on the northeast edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The poignant 2018 journey of Tahlequah, a healthy young female orca, and her dead calf, as told by Seattle Times writer Lynda V. Mapes, attracted worldwide attention, bringing many to tears.
“I am convinced she never actually gave up on the calf,” wrote Mapes. “It was badly decomposed by the seventeenth day, and I think it finally just fell apart.”
And so began Mapes’ further search into the lives of the southern resident orcas and the perils they have faced—from being the object of target practice to being sold for waterfront aquarium entertainment exhibits—and their struggle to find enough Chinook salmon in the polluted waters of these changing times.
Orcas, to be sure, are not the darlings of commercial fishermen, including Alaska longliners who have had their catch of turbot and black cod snatched right off the line. Full grown orcas eat about 550 pounds of food a day, and Western Alaska in fact, has one of the densest resident killer whale populations in the world.
But Mapes notes in her extensive documentation of these southern resident orcas that their plight, and the plight of the diminished stocks of Chinook salmon, is our plight too. And the waters that Tahlequah, and her now healthy new calf share with the salmon are our home too, she concludes.
“It took a grieving mother orca to raise up the plight of orcas and salmon and the imperiled abundance of our common home in a way that is beyond politics or even words,” she said.
To understand the situation thoroughly, Mapes conducted numerous interviews with scientists and Northwest Native tribal members working to find solutions to save the orcas, who are critical to their culture and sustenance.
She also went along on survey vessels with scientists hoping to learn what factors are influencing survival of chinook salmon.
Changing ocean conditions and marine heat waves in particular are bad news for the orcas who rely on eating salmon and for the salmon as well, as warm waters provide poorer nutrition for these kings.
The book speaks intimately about these things too: how each chinook population is one of a kind, about the importance of stream temperature and chemistry, and how the timing of the spring snowmelt that nudges baby fish down river to the sea are all critical to their survival.
The book also speaks in detail of the importance of the whole ecosystem in producing the salmon critical to the southern resident orcas, other wildlife and the cultures and sustenance of the people of the Pacific Northwest.
“The good news is that already we have plenty of evidence from our own experience that when nature is given a chance, life surges back,” Mapes writes. “It’s a matter of doing the work.”
The book is also beautifully illustrated with educational graphics by Eily M. Eng, and photos—mainly by Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman—of the orcas and people who have had a role in their past demise and future hope, from the Coast Salish Native peoples to fisheries scientists and tribal entities working to improve salmon habitat.
Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home is a co-publication of The Seattle Times and Braided River, a nonprofit publishing imprint of The Mountaineer Books in Seattle, Washington. It was published in May.