The Animal “Kingdom of the Dead”

The last photo of J32, right, taken on Nov. 29 just before her death.  © Melisa Pinnow, Orca Network
Far right is the young female whale nicknamed “Rhapsody” or  “J32.” It is likely the last photo of her, taken in the Salish Sea on Nov. 29, just before her death. © Melisa Pinnow, Orca Network

By Deborah Jones
December, 2014

In early December a young, pregnant and dead whale was found near Vancouver Island off Western Canada. Her carcass was towed from the water and left on shore to await the researchers who would perform her necropsy. Soon afterward, under the cover of night, somebody visited her body, hacked at her jaw, and took away several of her teeth.

Orcas are a kind of dolphin, but due to their impressive size and smarts, close family bonds, ferocity, and black-and-white haute couture pelts, people view them as superstars, animal celebrities in league with pandas and polar bears and elephants. We know them as Killer Whales, Blackfish, Grampus, Wolves of the Sea, and also by the fantastical label Orcinus Orca, the taxonomical name given them in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus, which refers, bizarrely, to “kingdom of the dead.” Orcas feature worldwide in our sea lore, from ancient myths to modern movies and news. And so, when the researchers arrived and reported the mutilation of the whale corpse in Canada, massive media coverage ensued.

The desecration added insult to the injury of the death of the 18-year-old whale, dubbed “J32” by scientists and nicknamed “Rhapsody” by the general public. “It’s just a senseless, illegal act,” Paul Cottrell of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans told the Canadian Press. It is illegal in Canada to possess parts of endangered animals, though charges are rare and the maximum penalty of $250,000 and/or five years in jail is almost unheard of. “It’s a crime against science; it’s a crime against her and the respect to Rapsody,” Marcie Callewaert of the Victoria Marine Science Association told reporters

The violation of the corpse seized public attention, for a while.

But if the swift passage of all previous stories about orcas is any guide, all that attention will soon fade, and the story of Rhapsody will be just another old news story. This is partly because it’s easy to summon interest and outrage over a thief in the night who plunders a corpse. It’s more difficult to parse the complicated factors that caused Rhapsody’s death in the first place. And it’s downright tough to summon sustained outrage when all of the evidence in her death, and the grim fate of her kind, points to actions by almost each and every human as a perpetrator.

Rhapsody/J32 was one of the last few fertile females in a group known as Southern Residents, a distinct and unusual population of orcas that is officially endangered, even as other orca populations thrive. Southern Orcas are called “urban whales,” because they roam the populous coastline between northern California to the Haida Gwaii islands off British Columbia.  Rhapsody was the fourth Southern Resident whale known to have died in 2014. Just 77 of her kind are left in the world. 

Orcinus orca skeleton displayed at the Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. Creative Commons
Orcinus orca skeleton displayed at the Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. Creative Commons

Early reports from the necropsy said the prime cause of Rhapsody’s death was infection that set in when she  failed to expell her dead calf. She was also starving. “J32’s blubber layer was relatively thin and dry of oil is consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period, and there was very little fecal material in the intestines,” reported Kenneth Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Washington State. “The cause of death was a result of in utero fetal loss with secondary bacterial involvement,” Canada’s fisheries department reported on December 16. Samples of the corpse were sent for further analysis to eight labs throughout North America.

Scientists suspect those lab tests will be consistent with other findings over at least two decades: whales like Rhapsody are not only malnourished, their poisoned bodies contain record-high levels of toxins including polychlorinated biphenyls and flame retardants, which make them more susceptible to disease and reproductive and neurological problems. Domestic and industrial waste, from cosmetics and cleaners flushed down toilets to paint poured into drains and landfills that leach into the ground, end up in the oceans, and in the whales who are the top predators within the  food web. The toxins are stored in their fat — and in times when food is scarce and they use those fat stores, the poison threatens not only their ability to reproduce, but their survival. As Balcomb wrote in his necropsy report, “These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Southern Resident whales thrived for untold thousands of years eating only salmon, noted Howard Garrett of the Center for Whale Research in an interview. Today they face competition from human fishing, and decreases in fish populations, for reasons linked to human destruction of inland spawning streams, pollution of the oceans, and changes in ocean temperature and acidity linked with climate change. Research also shows  noise pollution, from shipping traffic to whale watching boats, causes them to move more and eat less.

Southern Resident whales have been unable to change their ways fast enough to deal with the challenges posed by people — not least because if they were teenage humans, they’d likely be diagnosed with eating disorders. “They’re picky about what they eat,” notes Garrett. Orca populations elsewhere in the world have learned to survive by being omnivores, devouring sea lions, seals, birds, and all manner of fish. Southern Residents, research shows, eat only a very few kinds of fish, and they insist on a diet that’s mostly Chinook salmon — a species that is also in crisis.

Southern Residents also suffer the lasting effects of early hunting by European newcomers to the Pacific Northwest, and the 20th Century capture of their young for commercial aquariums for in live trained-animal shows.

Certainly controversial killer whale shows in places like Florida’s Sea World (investigated in the 2013 documentary Blackfishhelped elevate orcas to their superstar status. They also receive massive attention in periodic news stories, such as the tales of two orphans, Springer in 2002 and Luna in 2006. But all this attention has done no more to save  orcas like Rhapsody than it has helped to slow pandas and polar bears and elephants on their own slides toward extinction.

And that brings us to the fact that Rhapsody’s story is one small part of a far bigger saga: the Sixth Great Extinction in the history of the world. 

Caption: African elephant (Loxodonta africana), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), and warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) gathering at a waterhole at Tembe Elephant Park, which is a protected area part of the Maputaland Pondoland Albany global biodiversity hotspot. Photo by Enrico Di Minin for Nature, © 2014
African elephant (Loxodonta africana), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), and warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) gathering at a waterhole at Tembe Elephant Park, which is a protected area part of the Maputaland Pondoland Albany global biodiversity hotspot. Photo by Enrico Di Minin for Nature, © 2014

“The sixth great extinction spasm of geological time is upon us, grace of mankind,” wrote Wrote biologist E.O. Wilson in his landmark 1992 book The Diversity of Life. “Earth has at last acquired a force that can break the crucible of biodiversity. The creation of that diversity came slow and hard: 3 billion years of evolution to start the profusion of animals that occupy the seas, another 350 million years to assemble the rain forests in which half or more of the species on earth now live ….   Species are disappearing at an accelerating rate through human action, primarily habitat destruction but also pollution and the introduction of exotic species into residual natural environments. I have said that a fifth or more of the species of plants and animals could vanish or be doomed to early extinction by the year 2020 unless better efforts are made to save them.”

Was Wilson correct, 22 years ago?

“Population sizes of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2014. “In other words, those populations around the globe have dropped by more than half in fewer than two human generations. At the same time, our own demands on nature are unsustainable and increasing. We need 1.5 Earths to regenerate the natural resources we currently use; we cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than oceans replenish, and emit more carbon into the atmosphere than forests and oceans can absorb.”

In November the science journal Nature attempted to summarize the overall damage. “Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi,” wrote Richard Monastersky.” Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.”  There are many unanswered questions, he added. “The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways … At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.”

Not all of the news is as devastating. On December 19, the journal Science published a landmark finding that re-wilding appears to be working in Europe, where large carnivores are coming back from the brink. Populations of brown bears, Eurasian lynx, gray wolves, and/or wolverines are stable or increasing in one-third of European countries. “The reasons for this overall conservation success include protective legislation, supportive public opinion, and a variety of practices making coexistence between large carnivores and people possible,” said the report. “The European situation reveals that large carnivores and people can share the same landscape.”

And even the authors of the most dire predictions hold out hope. Their catch: the fate of other creatures depends on humans being willing to change. “All is not lost,” insisted the WWF 2014 report.  “We can still change course.”

“Why should we care? What difference does it make if some species are extinguished, if even half of all the species on earth disappear?” asked E.O. Wilson in his book. This is how he answered those questions:

New sources of scientific information will be lost. Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light. It is fashionable in some quarters to wave aside the small and obscure, the bugs and weeds, forgetting that an obscure moth from Latin America saved Australia’s pastureland from overgrowth by cactus, that the rosy periwinkle provided the cure for Hodgkin’s disease and childhood lymphocytic leukemia, that the bark of the Pacific yew offers hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer, that a chemical from the saliva of leeches dissolves blood clots during surgery, and so on down a roster already grown long and illustrious despite the limited research addressed to it…

It is easy to overlook the services that conserved ecosystems provide humanity. They enrich the soil and create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the remaining tenure on Earth of the human race would be nasty and brief. The life-sustaining matrix is built of green plants with legions of microorganisms and mostly small, obscure animals—in other words, weeds and bugs. Such organisms support the world with efficiency because they are so diverse, allowing them to divide labor and swarm over every square meter of the earth’s surface. They run the world precisely as we would wish it to be run, because humanity evolved within living communities and our bodily functions are finely adjusted to the idiosyncratic environment already created. Mother Earth, lately called Gaia, is no more than the commonality of organisms and the physical environment they maintain with each passing moment, an environment that will destabilize and turn lethal if the organisms are disturbed too much. A near infinity of other mother planets can be envisioned, each with its own fauna and flora, all producing physical environments uncongenial to human life. To disregard the diversity of life is to risk catapulting ourselves into an alien environment. We will have become like the pilot whales that inexplicably beach themselves on New England shores.

If there is hope for life on earth in general, it may already be too late for some species that have been hard-hit, or unable to adapt fast enough to the changes wrought by humans. There are 4,529 species of mammal, bird, and amphibian now at risk of extinction, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Will Orcas like Rhapsody be amongst the creatures we drive to extinction? In 2002, when I last reported on the Southern Resident orca population, their population was 78, one more than today. At that time a research biolgist at the Vancouver Aquarium told me, “they may be a dead-end deal.”

 Copyright Deborah Jones 2014




photocrati gallery 


Further reading:

The Diversity of Life, by E.O. Wilson

The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Company, 2014

Living Planet Report 2014, World Wildlife Fund:

J32 Necropsy results, Center for Whale Research in Washington State

Science journal:  Success for Large Carnivores? (subscription required)

Biodiversity: Life — a Status Report, Nature

Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

Site of the movie Blackfish



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