By Jan Hare, Ph.D.
Star was born into the J17 matriline in November 2009, the first-born to 16-year-old J28 Polaris. In 2015, Polaris gave birth to a male calf J54 Dipper. Within a month of his birth Polaris was reported to be losing body condition, most likely from birthing complications. By summer 2016 things were looking especially grim given the precipitous decline of Chinook (King) salmon, the primary food for Southern Resident Killer Whales. During that summer alone, seven members of the population were lost. By July it was announced that Polaris was emaciated and with “peanut head”, a clear sign of impending death. Star’s malnourished brother Dipper was a still-nursing ten-month-old, though clearly Polaris was not producing adequate milk. A nursing mother’s nutritional demands are, of course, far greater.
During this time, Star was observed directly offshore from Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island (Haro Strait) bringing salmon to both her struggling mother as well as to her infant brother. Though she was only seven years old, this behavior illustrates well-known family responsibilities demonstrated by female adult Southern Residents. Undoubtedly, Star had help from her aunt J35 Tahlequah and possibly her uncle J44 Moby, but her grandmother J17 Princess Angeline was
also a nursing mother and unable to produce enough milk to sustain both her own infant, as well as Dipper. In mid-October, Polaris disappeared and was presumed dead. Shortly after, Star was seen trying repeatedly to support her dying brother’s sinking body, lifting him to the surface again and again to breathe. His body showed Star’s teeth marks, evidence of her continual efforts to retrieve him. And then he finally slipped away.
Two years later Star again was a helper in
yet another tragedy, one that drew international attention. Her aunt J35 Tahlequah gave birth in July 2018. Because no one actually saw the full-term calf draw a breath, it’s unclear whether the calf was stillborn or lived a few minutes before beginning to sink. Tahlequah, continually retrieved her calf and supported the baby on her forehead, pushing her baby girl through rough waters throughout the day in the company of her family. (Newborn orcas weigh between 300-400 pounds).
There was something unusual that people ashore San Juan Island saw that evening, stating that five to six female orcas gathered at the mouth of a cove in a close circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly two hours. As night fell, they stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved. Perhaps this was a family ritual of grief passed on by generations of matriarchs.
As news outlets everywhere picked up on Tahlequah’s story, millions became aware of the plight of these remarkable animals as this orca mother and members of her family alternated carrying her deceased baby girl on what became known as the “tour of grief” for an unprecedented seventeen days and more than 1,000 miles in the interior waters of B.C. and the San Juan Islands. She was accompanied by the other members of the J17 matriline. After a week, the calf’s body was clearly decomposing, making it more difficult to carry. Other members of the family, including Star and cousin Notch, were seen taking over for Tahlequah to give her an occasional brief rest. On the 17th day the whales finally let the baby go.
When Star was most recently observed in Haro Strait by the Center for Whale Research, she appeared healthy and vigorous. Her family expanded in 2020 when Tahlequah birthed a male calf, J57 Phoenix, who has been seen frolicking with his cousin Star. Despite the lack of salmon, the SRKWs who now are only rarely in their home waters, are finding food somewhere.
Because of the dwindling number of salmon, we have lost many females of reproductive age. Female orcas become fertile in their teens and are believed to stop reproducing in their early forties. These orcas need enough salmon to sustain their pregnancies and for their infants to survive. Having enough food protects orcas against environmental toxins. When they don’t have enough to eat, they metabolize their blubber, releasing stored toxins which then circulate through their systems. This is particularly dangerous to a developing fetus and to nursing calves.
Star’s experiences of struggle and loss lead us to believe she is a resilient survivor. But to enhance her chances of a productive and long life, we must restore the salmon. Time is not a friend to the orcas. The quickest way to repair this human-caused damage is by breaching the obsolete four lower Snake River dams, allowing the river to flow freely. This will increase the spawning habitat for Chinook (King) salmon and reduce barriers at both the beginning and end of the salmon life cycle. Surely, we have it in us to act and hopefully the politicians who are elected to represent us find the courage to use their power for good.
Thank you to all who introduced me to Star through their encounters on the water and from the shore. She is grateful too for your help in restoring the salmon.