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As she carried her dead calf day after day, for more than 1,000 miles Tahlequah the mother orca opened the eyes and hearts of people around the world last summer. Her journey raised uncomfortable questions about why the calf died and why her extended family is struggling to survive.

The Seattle Times will continue to explore and expose the plight of the southern resident killer whales, among the most-enduring symbols of our region. We’ll examine the role we have played in their decline, what we can do about it and why it matters.


PART ONE: Orcas thrive in a land to the north. Why are Puget Sound’s dying?

Northern residents enjoy a sanctuary created just for them, where the whales enjoy rubbing their bodies on the smooth stones of the beach. (Image courtesy of Explore.Org)
Northern residents enjoy a sanctuary created just for them, where the whales enjoy rubbing their bodies on the smooth stones of the beach. (Image courtesy of Explore.Org)

PART TWO: How a generation of killer whales was taken from Puget Sound

Lolita, the last surviving orca taken from Puget Sound, is loaded for transport by truck. “She would follow you with her eye,” says Terry Newby, who tried to soothe her on the ride. (Courtesy of Dr. Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.)
Lolita, the last surviving orca taken from Puget Sound, is loaded for transport by truck. “She would follow you with her eye,” says Terry Newby, who tried to soothe her on the ride. (Courtesy of Dr. Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.)

PART THREE: HUNGER: The decline of salmon adds to the struggle of Puget Sound’s orcas

Scientists are worried orca grandmother J17 won’t live through the year. Here, she has lost so much fat that the curve of her neck shows, a condition called “peanut head.” (Courtesy of The Center for Whale Research, under NMFS permit 21238 and DFO SARA permit 388)
Scientists are worried orca grandmother J17 won’t live through the year. Here, she has lost so much fat that the curve of her neck shows, a condition called “peanut head.” (Courtesy of The Center for Whale Research, under NMFS permit 21238 and DFO SARA permit 388)

PART FOUR: THE ROAR BELOW: How our noise is hurting orcas’ search for salmon

Orca L87 plies the Haro Strait as a ship approaches. Killer whales must raise their voices to be heard, and they forage less in the presence of vessels. Noise disturbance is identified by scientists as one of the three main threats to the survival of the endangered southern residents that frequent Puget Sound. (Capt. Alan Niles / Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching)
Orca L87 plies the Haro Strait as a ship approaches. Killer whales must raise their voices to be heard, and they forage less in the presence of vessels. Noise disturbance is identified by scientists as one of the three main threats to the survival of the endangered southern residents that frequent Puget Sound. (Capt. Alan Niles / Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching)

We have a lot of reporting planned, and we want you to be part of the conversation. Here’s how you can join us:

• Text the word ORCA to 206-429-4613 or enter your cellphone number here:

↓ MORE COVERAGE ↓

Namu, displayed on Seattle's waterfront, sparked worldwide interest in killer whales. As for the pop-music single? "I know I didn’t make any money, but it was fun," said the studio owner. He said he got the idea after he heard a recording of the orca singing.

July 14, 2018.   Southern resident orcaís off of the west side of San Juan Island.  206917 206917

Canada has adopted a suite of measures intended to improve orcas' access to food by reducing commercial and recreational fishing for chinook salmon and quieting vessel noise. Some of the policies go further than laws just adopted by Washington state.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, surrounded by lawmakers, tribal members and others, signs the first of several bills designed to help the Pacific Northwest’s endangered orcas on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Olympia, Wash. The measures include requiring more oil shipments to have tugboat escorts to prevent spills, allowing anglers to catch more walleye and bass that prey on young salmon, and giving state agencies the authority to ban toxic chemicals in consumer goods. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte) RPRL105 RPRL105

The legislation grew out of recommendations made by Inslee's orca recovery task force last November. Researchers say the orcas are on the brink of extinction due mostly to a lack of their preferred prey, chinook salmon.

The Lower Granite Dam near Almota Washington is the first of four dams on the Snake River as the river flows west from Idaho toward the Tri-Cities and the Columbia River. 

 The Snake River, between Idaho and the Tri-Cities, provides water and transportation through a series of dams to bring products, grown with water from the river, to market. Photographed on February 6, 2019.

Folks whose jobs depend on four federal dams in southeastern Washington say that pleas to breach the dams are forcing them to speak out in defense of their economy and their way of life.

Researchers suspect that huge runs of pink salmon, which have boomed under conservation efforts and changes in ocean conditions in the past two decades, might interfere with southern resident orcas' ability to hunt their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.

FILE – In this June 27, 2012, file photo, a sockeye salmon, left, swims pass a chinook salmon, center front, and shad, above, at the fish counting window at the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks, Ore. Federal officials say changes in how dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are operated are needed to improve migratory conditions for protected runs of Snake River chinook salmon and steelhead. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The 2018 State of the Salmon report by the Governor's Salmon Recovery Office paints a sobering picture.

Seattle Times graphic artist Emily M. Eng takes you through the process of making a 3-D model of an orca so we could better explain the animals in an ongoing series about them.

Friday, July 13, 2018.  Speak to a photo editor before publishing:
A southern resident killer whale breaches near other members of it’s pod in Haro Strait, just off San Juan Island’s west side. 206917

Where do they live? What do they eat? What can we do to help them? Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda Mapes answers common questions about the region's orcas.

FILE – In this file photo taken Tuesday, July 24, 2018, provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. Whale researchers are keeping close watch on an endangered orca that has spent the past week carrying and keeping her dead calf afloat in Pacific Northwest waters. The display has struck an emotional chord around the world and highlighted the plight of the declining population of southern resident killer whales that has not seen a successful birth since 2015.(Michael Weiss/Center for Whale Research via AP)

The orca Tahlequah, also known as J35, has now carried her dead calf for a ninth day. Experts say grief is driving her, but others urge caution about projecting human emotions on animals.

Blake Shelafoe, Duwamish tribal member, and others gathered in Occidental Park respond to a prayer offered to J50 (recently declared dead) and the living endangered Orca pods.

 Mourners in a funeral procession for dead orcas marching from Occidental Park to the Federal Building to place momentoes and rally for dam removal on the lower snake river.

Friday Sept 21, 2018

Orca champions have joined forces with dam busters, bringing new energy to an old fight to take down the Lower Snake River dams.

Lolita is the star attraction at Miami Seaquarium, a marine park that employs 250 people and grosses more than $10 million a year. Shot for Pacific Magazine, 1994. 

1994 photo

The Lummi Nation wants to retire Lolita to a sea pen in the Sound, where she would be fed chinook and be in her home waters again, and in acoustic contact with her family.

The southern resident killer whales have struggled to reproduce over the past several years, and lost three members just this year.

File – In this April 11, 2018 file photo, water moves through a spillway of the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Wash. The House has approved a bill Wednesday, April 25, 2018, that would effectively reverse a federal judge’s order to spill water from four Pacific Northwest dams to help migrating salmon reach the Pacific Ocean. The bill’s sponsors say the four Snake River dams provide hydropower, flood control and other benefits while allowing record salmon runs. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios, File)

The EPA had issued draft permits to the state Ecology department for review, but yanked them last week -- effectively stopping the state's effort to regulate water quality at the federal dams.

J35 without calf

Tahlequah, the mother orca whale whose plight captivated people around the world, is no longer carrying her calf.

Southern-resident orcas depend on a wide diversity of chinook-salmon runs throughout a big geographic range, according to the analysis by NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sandra Pollard of the Orca Network wore a button and ribbon to honor the whales at Deception Pass Park’s Bowman Bay, where a gathering took place over two days for a vigil to remember the dead baby Orca and her mother Tahlequah, as well as the plight of other orcas, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. 207790

Attendees criticized NOAA for coordinating the now-canceled rescue effort of the orca J50 with SeaWorld, the entertainment park that had for decades profited from capturing the animals for use in its aquariums.

J35, known as Tahlequah, seen in the foreground, is no longer carrying her dead calf, and appears to be vigorous and healthy. Her ordeal of carrying her dead calf for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles is over. (Ken Balcomb / Center for Whale Research)

The Canadian government has recently moved to nationalize the expansion of the controversial pipeline. But the ruling Thursday by the Federal Court of Appeals is requiring the government to assess the project's possible impact on southern-resident killer whales, which use transboundary waters of the Salish Sea.

J35, known as Tahlequah, seen in the foreground, is no longer carrying her dead calf, and appears to be vigorous and healthy. Her ordeal of carrying her dead calf for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles is over. (Ken Balcomb / Center for Whale Research)

The lawsuit alleges that the government had agreed in February 2015 that expanding the protection zone for the orcas was "warranted," but has since failed to take action, putting the orcas at greater risk of extinction.

Scientists say saving the southern resident orcas is going to take a variety of solutions, from quieting vessel noise to fishing cutbacks, to restraint on development in what habitat remains for salmon and even breaching the lower Snake River dams.

Researchers will next determine whether to proceed with feeding, depending on conditions and location of the whales.

An emergency plan aims to medicate and feed J50, a struggling young southern resident killer whale scientists fear may not have long to live.

We asked you how this story was affecting you and what questions you had about orcas in the Puget Sound. More than 1,000 readers responded, flooding our comment sections and inboxes with tales of how Tahlequah's story has impacted them.