To Begin Again…Orcas, Grief, and Writing

By Neva Knott

Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded the plane to Maui. Tahlequah, an Orca whale, had birthed the first calf born to her pod in three years, but the calf lived only hours. As the world watched, Tahlequah carried the calf for seventeen days, constantly nudging it to the surface of the water. Finally, she dropped the calf and let it descend to the depths of the Salish Sea. 

Whale researchers tagged Tahlequah’s pod as the J-pod, one of three pods of Souther Resident Killer Whales that inhabit the waters offshore of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, BC. J, K, and L pods total just 75 whales in membership. They are starving. Experts at the Center for Whale Research estimate these Orcas have just five years to reproduce, to bear enough calves to maintain life. Only 25 percent of the calves birthed in the last 20 years have survived.

Pacific Northwest native tribes consider the Orca relatives. The Lummi tribe of coastal Washington state interpreted Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” as a “wordless warning from whales that, environmentally, time is running out.” It is clear that Orcas are facing extinction, as are the Chinook salmon they depend on for sustenance. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are dependent of the vitality of females, of Tahlequah.

Tahlequah, in translation, means “just two,” derived from the meeting between elders. Though the calf she carried was not an elder in the literal sense, it seems that Tahlequah’s carrying of the calf was a meeting of “just two,” one that symbolized both wisdom and mystery unknown to humans. The mother Orca carried her grief for 17 days and 1,000 miles—an exhibition of grief “beyond what experts have seen.” The symbolism of the fragility of life was not lost on people across the globe watching her.

Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded a plane to Maui, a trip I planned to relieve my own grief. I had not lost a child, but a lover. A friend. A man who’d influenced my life greatly for thirty years. I, like Tahlequah, had been carrying my loss. I knew that Maui and the ocean there would allow me to drop what I was carrying.

On the plane, I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Like Tahlequah, Lincoln, in his grief, carried his son. He sat in the mausoleum and wept, holding the small body of his offspring. His tour of grief was private except for the ghosts who narrated the story, explaining, from their side of the veil, what it means to have passed on, what it means to watch the living grieve. 

One passage in the book has stayed with me, a narration of the lives the ghosts had lived, had left behind, what they grieved. The ghost narrators explain the contributions they’d made to community, family, the roles they’d held in life, and how their lives were cut short, disallowing them to fulfill their potential in these roles. 

Tahlequah knew the death of her calf held this magnitude, that the loss of the calf’s life was a loss of potential, that the calf was the hope of continuance for the species, hope for the relatives and elders of the tribes along the Salish Sea.

What potential will be lost if the life of Orcas as a species is cut short? 

What potential was lost when Andrew died? 

What potential would be lost if I had kept carrying my grief?

In Hawaiian Native tradition, it is custom to take one last swim with a deceased loved one. Tahlequah took her last swim and I took mine. 

“In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet.” Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

On my last day on Maui, I stood in the ocean. I spoke to Andrew. I narrated the for him the intertwining of our lives via our long friendship, our sense of “just two.” I reminded him of all that he’d inspired me to do, I thanked him for saving me when I was a lost twenty-something girl looking for a place in an unfamiliar city. I told him how proud I was of him for living his truth, his dream. And I acknowledged what had been lost by his life being cut short.

I dropped my grief and let it descend to the depths of the Pacific. 

Shortly after Tahlequah dropped her calf researchers observed her chasing a school of salmon with her pod mates, though she and her pod still struggle to thrive.

Abraham Lincoln went on to command the Civil War and abolish slavery.

Now, I will begin again, to put words to the page, to tell positive stories of the environment.


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