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.

Share story

It’s been more than 10 days since the orca Tahlequah, also known as J35, began carrying her dead calf near the San Juan Islands. The story and images have captured the Pacific Northwest, and people across the world.

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. Some shared poems, others shared art and one group shared a killer-whale ballet. But the common theme among the responses was profound grief over this mother whale, her dead calf and the state of our southern resident killer whales.

“I can’t stop crying. I can’t sleep,” wrote Enza Amendola. “My heart is aching and I am powerless to help.”

Some readers empathized deeply with the mother whale, responding with stories of their own grief and loss, while others saw a silver lining in the spotlight the story has shined on the bigger, more dire issues facing the southern residents.

“It’s terribly upsetting and yet at same time uplifting,” wrote one commenter. “I think the orca family is doing this to bring attention to their plight. They are very intelligent. I hope humans care enough and find a way to restore their natural wild salmon resource. It’s right thing to do.”

Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda Mapes has been covering the southern residents for 20 years, and says she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of responses to this story.

“This is hitting people very hard. It channels our own grief about our own losses,” she told ‘The Overcast” podcast. “It forces us to confront the plight of these animals, and it’s not a plight that’s unconnected to us. They’re in a habitat that we have been altering for 150 years. What’s happening to these animals is not random.”

Below is a look at some of the responses we’ve gotten.


READERS SHARE THEIR ART

“Whales in the Bay”

The herring are plenty, the whales eat well today
See the mothers with their young frolic in the spray
Whales in the Bay, Whales in the Bay

Their spouts are blowing tall as their bodies rise and fall
As they patrol the Oceans, they’re mighty creatures all
Whales in the Bay, Whales in the Bay

They say whales speak a language that we do not know
It echoes o’er the Oceans, where the briny breezes blow
Whales in the Bay, Whales in the Bay

The gulls are winging homeward, the wind is from the lee
Tomorrow will bring a big rough sea
Whales in the Bay, Whales in the Bay.

Nancy Walsh

“See Me”

How do we know
if a killer whale mourns?
Just look at the mother
with her deceased newborn.
How do we know
if killer whales cry?
Their tears disappear in salty waters
that will never dry.
What can we ever do
to soothe their distress?
Breach the dams, empty the tanks
and fix this human mess!

— Johanna Sherman

Wars have been fought
Again and again
Over the status of
Women and men;
Enslaving people
Down through the ages;
Power and greed
Throughout history’s pages.
A crisis is coming
Impacting us all,
We must make decisions
To stand, or to fall.
Disasters occurring
More frequently,
Should send the message
To you and to me.
This war is not new;
It’s over your soul,
About who you worship,
And Who’s in control.
Look up, and listen.
The trumpet will blast
Our Precious Redeemer
Is coming, at last.

— Joan L Philbin

Painting by Lori Christopher
Painting by Lori Christopher

“Orca Pushing A Dead Calf”

In the days following tragedy,
A mother orca grieves
In the only way
She knows how to do,
Refusing the inevitability
Of a death too horrible
For her to accept
And instead pushing her calf
Into the waterways
As if it was still her baby,
Still her responsibility
To present to the pod
A reason to go on living
Despite the salmon reduction,
The water quality depletion
And the habitat decimation.

The orcas are dying;
They have no future
In an uncaring world
Where tankers and containers
Rule the waterways
With constancy and domination
In straits and channels
Of the blue, blue Puget Sound,
Facing an uncertain future.

Should we cheer her obstinacy
Or shake our heads in chagrin?

It is not the orca mother
That needs our sympathy;
She deals with despair
The only way
She knows how to do.
We humans, however,
Must examine our culture,
To see where we are headed.

We must change a way of life
That threatens other life
By the very fact of our existence;

Or, we will join the parade,
Pushing around our children
Even though they are already gone.

James Nystrom, Bothell

“Orca mom carries baby for ninth day, as its body starts to decompose”

So much depended
on this black
and white body
now limp, borne
on her mother’s head
or carried
in her mouth
through rough seas.

“. . . orcas are on the knife’s edge of
extinction due to a variety of factors:
pollution, boat strikes, and, most of
all, a depletion of Chinook salmon,
orcas’ main food source.”

This mother will not allow
her daughter’s body to sink
out of sight
beneath the Salish Sea,
but carries it
the way any mother
would wear her grief—
on her own body,
like a scar.

As she swims,
she sings a deathsong
bigger than one small being.

“They’re at the very top of the food
chain in the Salish Sea, and if they’re
starving, if their bodies are so
toxic they have to be treated as
hazardous waste when they die,
something’s really wrong with
our ecosystem.”

She mourns:
her child’s body
is her voice.

She wants us to see
what we’ve done.

Deborah Miranda

Painting by Heather Weller
Painting by Heather Weller

The Seventy-Five

Computers and machines to keep people alive
But we cannot feed the Seventy-Five?
Smartphones, Drones and a Dual Hard Drive
But we cannot save the Seventy-Five?
Nuclear Weapons increasing in pace
But we cannot save a noble and worthy race?
Where is the empathy for a mother in pain?
And who will be blamed if we never see them again?
What good are brains, or our capacity to strive
If we cannot save the Seventy-Five?
We want them to live. We want them to thrive
Come up with the answer to keep them alive.
This is our appeal to Humanity:
FEED the Seventy-Five!

Debbie Bailey

“I HAVE NOT SLEPT IN DAYS.”

It has broken my heart, made me angry, and made me lose sleep at the thought we could lose an iconic whale population forever.

Anonymous commenter

I lost my mother very suddenly at the end of June, and am still very emotional. Tahlequah is a visceral reminder of what I’ve lost, of loss in general, of love, and of pain. I’ve found comfort in empathy for Tahlequah. I marvel at the notion that grief is a community of species, and sense that the primal expression of her will speaks to the oldest parts of us in a way that can be felt deeply, but not articulated. I knew that the Times’ coverage of Tahlequah was popular, but I did not know that others shared such emotional reactions. We use superlatives too freely in our noisy world, but I think it is accurate to say this is truly mythic stuff.

Anonymous commenter

I have been deeply affected by this — checking several times a day for updates. As a mother of young children, I find myself moved by her grief and behavior. While I know what she is experiencing is of her own species’ response to the loss of a calf it has helped me I see her as intelligent with deep bonds to her offspring. But, I am now extremely concerned about her health and well-being. I have called our elected officials’ offices to plead for immediate action to help SRKW population, including Tahlequah. I cannot fathom our region without our local orcas. I am very grateful to the newspaper and to Lynda for covering this every day. It is profoundly moving. It is a stark contrast to the recent taking away of living children from their parents by our government.

Sarah Hale, Seattle

Reader photo of a shrine for the grieving mother orca. (Ines A Dahne-Steuber)
Reader photo of a shrine for the grieving mother orca. (Ines A Dahne-Steuber)

I am actively trying to find ways to get involved in saving the resident orcas. I have researched about the four dams on the Snake River that need to be removed and donated to The Whale Museum in honor of J35. I have composed an email of resources and simple action steps that can be taken now to share with friends and family. As a Seattle native, these pods feel more like family. Seeing them in the wild is an incredible experience! They are simultaneously gentle and powerful, as well as absolutely beautiful. My heart aches, but I am trying to turn my sadness and frustration into positive action.

— Krystle B., Seattle

As an orca advocate, poet, and author of two children’s books about orcas, it has affected me greatly. I have not slept in days, looking for updates on Tahlequah, her baby, and Scarlett constantly, and fear Inslee will do nothing to help them.

Debbie Bailey, San Diego

Our middle daughter was stillborn six years ago. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. I think every baby-loss parent I have ever met relates to Tahlequah. We all wish that our society and culture would recognize how deep this loss is felt and how it changes you down to your core. I wish I would have had a week or more to spend with my daughter instead of a few hours. Her sadness breaks my heart.

Cori McKenzie, Fort Wayne, Indiana

I feel truly saddened by this. They are such beautiful, intelligent and caring beings. Seeing her pain is difficult for me because I wish I could help her. No parent should have to face the death of their child. I wish I could give her a hug and let her know it will be OK. She is a great mother who shows self-sacrifice, strength and love. I can only hope to her pod grow again in the future.

Ryan Wilke, Redmond

PERSONAL STORIES

Just two days before she gave birth, I was sailing with my wife and daughter and saw this pod of orcas just off Orcas Island. We just let them pass, but as we sailed away (very little wind, but we had turned the engine off to not bother them more), the animals were in the midst of a gantlet of two-dozen boats that followed their every move, racing to leapfrog in front of them once they passed. These boats come every day, from Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Edmonds, Anacortes, Sidney, Orcas, Friday Harbor and more, and are joined by innumerable pleasure boaters. I cannot imagine a worse existence for these orcas, and I am hoping that this story is so horrific and tragic that someone finally organizes a solution that keeps these magnificent animals alive. We have long given up chinook salmon (orcas staple diet) in hopes that more is left in the water for them to eat (for those fishermen who object to this, we’ll happily buy — and even pay more for — your other fish if you let us know that you too ban chinook fishing).

William Dock, Seattle

This has been horrible for me to watch. I was on San Juan Island for a whale education conference called SuperPod6 for a week and left just days before J35 birthed and lost her calf. I’m almost glad I didn’t see it in person, I’m not sure if I could have kept myself together. I’ve seen these whales multiple times over the past five years, and each year I go back there are less and less of them. It’s just heartbreaking.

Mariah Kirby, St. Louis

I’m happy to say I have seen the orcas off the coasts of Washington years ago, one of the world’s magical moments that can be burned into memory. My 61-year-old daughter committed suicide two years ago due to years of living with pain and no end in sight. Grieving time for mothers who have lost daughters differs with each of us, it could be weeks, months or years, or never, to live with the loss. May this orca mother come to a point where she can let go and resume life with her pod, be able to create another life and be able to sing again. I am still trying to learn to sing, I’m 85.

Anonymous commenter

This story has affected me because I had a miscarriage in December when I was 16 weeks pregnant. I never held my son or even got to see him. Losing my son was by far the hardest thing I have gone through in my entire life, so I can relate to how this mother Orca is feeling at losing her calf. It is heart-wrenching.

Katie McKeehan Hart, Seattle

 

Seeing orca whales in the Salish Sea for the first time, 20 years ago next month, was one of the formative experiences of my life. It was also one of my last happy memories of time with my dad, who died of cancer a few months later. Little did I understand, then, just how much the beauty and the power of this place had affected me, and little did I suspect that many years later I would return not just as a visitor but, as from a few months ago, as a part-time resident.

But as I write this, I sit on San Juan Island, just a few miles from where this heartbreaking scene of a mother’s grief is playing out. As a parent and as one who has experienced intense grief for a loved-one’s loss, it affects me deeply. To know that we humans, in our blindness, rapacious acquisitiveness and hubris, are responsible for the decline and demise of so many of the beautiful creatures and places in the world is damning, and to know that I am in no sense exempt from these faults fills me with no small sense of shame. But to see the heroic and selfless acts of humans who do care, to do something — however insufficient — to try to help other people, other creatures, and the Earth itself, is an inspiring reminder of the positive aspect of the paradox of our species: That alongside egoism there is altruism, alongside destructiveness tenderness, alongside indifference love, alongside ugliness beauty, and that the good persists even if it is never to be distilled or disentangled from the bad. Meanwhile my heart is with J35, known as Tahlequah, and her family.

We are not alone. We share this world with other beings who love. They, like we, have souls. And they like we are gladdened by the sun’s kiss on the water, thrilled by the arrival of a child, and broken when farewell must come.

— Chris Ray, Bellevue

I was pregnant with twins and had to carry them for an additional week before I could do my self-induced miscarriage at home. Hearing this story of mama orca carrying her calf reminded me of my seven days holding my belly. The day I had to choose to take those pills and induce my miscarriage at home was a tough day. My heart breaks for that mama when she needs to chose to let her calf go. I can’t stop crying. I feel her pain.

— Michelle Brienza, Toronto, Canada


WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?

I have been transfixed by her story and the emotional suffering she must be feeling. Since the story was first reported, I’ve been thinking of ways I can stop harming these creatures through my everyday actions. I now know that the chemicals in cleaning products that I thought were safe are not, so we will be changing them in our house. I’m searching for other ways that I can stop the degradation of their habitat so hopefully another whale won’t have to go through the same trauma.

Mary Hand, Edmonds

 

The profound sense of grief and loss this mother orca in enduring is overwhelming. My two young children have been captivated by her story. Each morning at the breakfast table, we read the update in the newspaper and discuss climate change, pollution, endangered animals, and brainstorm ways we can change our habits and lifestyle to make a difference. This is something my children will not forget. Her story has changed them.

Kate Wesch, Seattle

I can’t stop thinking about Tahlequah and what she must be going through. I have donated money to Sound Watch. I watch for news of her and her family numerous times a day. It has made me even more aware that orcas and their very survival is tenuous and that we must all do something to ensure that these magnificent creatures remain in existence for all time. Not just for my generation, but for those future generations to know and love as we do now.

Deb Gregory, Tumwater

 

Tahlequah’s mourning has forced me to look at the role I play in the orca’s suffering. Before this, I thought that I was your typical sustainably minded PNW resident. I recycle. I compost. I turn off the lights when exiting a room. I use reusable silicone straws and wash my car on the lawn to avoid storm drain runoff. But, the decline of J, K and L pods — and in particular Tahlequah’s tragedy — is a reminder that we all have so much more to do. I wish I had a solution that would provide immediate relief, but I will start by not eating chinook (king) salmon and learning more about what I can do to ensure a better future for the orcas.

— Cecilia Sorci, Black Diamond


QUESTIONS YOU HAVE

What can be done to support them and help try to increase the population? What do we need to do to make the Puget Sound more habitable for the whales?

Sadie Nomoyle, Portland

Why do they only eat salmon and in what other ways do they differ from orcas outside of the region?

Mary Hand, Edmonds

How long before they become extinct at their current rate of decline if reproduction and rearing to adult does not improve?

Chris Mendoza, Olympia

What do we know or suspect about orca intelligence? What is the relationship of an orca and mother like over their lifetime?

Anonymous commenter