In the summer of 2018, Tahlequah, a member of the endangered Southern Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest, was spotted carrying her dead calf on her head for a journey that ultimately lasted 17 days and 1,000 miles. The news of Tahlequah’s harrowing odyssey rippled outward into a wave of stories across the world. Her display of grief became a symbol of a population—and a planet—in crisis.
Six months later, I attended a panel discussion on Spiritual Ecology in Brooklyn. Among the speakers was Dr. Kurt Russo, a strategist for the Lummi Nation, the indigenous peoples of the Salish Sea who are working to defend the Southern Residents—whom they consider to be their ancestors. Amid a conversation between spiritual elders and thought leaders about how to handle ecological collapse, Dr. Russo recalled the moment in which the world saw Tahlequah mourning her child, citing it as a turning point for the environmental movement. Nature had cried out in the form of this whale, and it seemed that the world had finally heard.
Only 73 members of the critically endangered Southern Residents remain in the wild. They face daily threats in the form of scarcer food sources, noise disturbances from ships that inhibit their ability to hunt, and toxins released in the waters. Their dwindling population is also owed to a wave of brutal captures fifty years ago that nearly wiped them out. Of the generation of whales captured and sent to aquariums and zoos at that time, only one survives—Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut or Lolita, as she is called—and the Lummi are on a mission to set her free.
To the Lummi, the Southern Residents aren’t just whales: they are Qwe ‘lhol mechen, our relatives who live under the sea. “There was a time not very long ago that we shared the Salish Sea with the whales, the salmon, and the Salish Sea was rich with the noise of the natural world. And we were a part of that. We are the indigenous people of this land, and they know our songs,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation. “They are older than us. They were here before us. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut represents the true history of what our people have gone through.”
There is a reason that the story of these whales captured the world’s attention: deep down, some part of us knows that our suffering is not separate from the suffering of the other inhabitants of this world. If Tahlequah’s cry was a wake up call, it’s up to us ensure that her call does not go unanswered. It’s up to us to usher in a new age of ecological awakening.