Scientists, animal lovers, ocean enthusiasts, and frankly, human beings in general have long-known about the remarkable emotional and psychological intelligence of orca whales. Some have even likened them to "non-human persons" and have said that it's possible that they're even more emotionally complex than humans.
According to Laurie Marino, a neuroscience lecturer at Emory University in Georgia, “Orcas are probably among the most intelligent of all animals. We see enormous complexity in their brain. These are big animals, but their brain is actually two and one half times larger than normal compared to other mammals', and that includes humans. Orcas have the most elaborated cortex — the part of the brain that involves thinking and higher processes.”
This fact makes a recent story about a Pacific Northwest mother orca carrying her dead calf on her nose for more than three days after its passing all the more poignant. It's so tragic to read about how this mother literally would not let her baby go, at times biting at its fin, trying to encourage it to swim or float. Beyond devastating.
We know that orcas are very deeply connected with the members of their pods, that mothers and children form lifelong bonds, and as youngsters spend long periods of time under the care and protection of their parents. So, keeping this level of emotional attachment and intelligence in mind, to read that this mother orca literally couldn't let go of her baby for days after its demise is truly heart-wrenching.
There is an extra layer to this sad tale. As we've blogged about before here, there has been a profound reduction in the amount of orcas born in the Pacific Northwest over the past several years, leading scientists and environmentalists to wonder what's been going on. There is widespread thought that orcas' fertility is being compromised by chemicals, diminishing food source, illness, pollution, and even noise pollution by boats which affects the whales' ability to communicate with one another (a crucial element in their survival and procreation).
And so as this female orca has clearly been mourning the loss of her calf, there's an additional concern that her level of stress and preoccupation with this loss will affect her future fertility. However, apparently the members of the mother's pod are stepping in to help with the mourning process, taking turns carrying the calf carcass on their own noses, offering the grieving mother some relief.
While of course this is an incredibly sad image, that of multiple orcas taking turns carrying a dead calf, there is an element of hope here-- the tightly bonded pod is coming together to reduce the burden of this mother, perhaps giving her the opportunity to rest and heal after her loss so that she can potentially conceive again. One simply cannot deny the power in this image, the fact that these animals support and feel empathy for one another.
Let's be clear: we can't truly compare orcas to humans. They're still animals and the level of intellect simply isn't there. But the emotional intelligence of orcas is truly profound and touching and frankly, cannot be denied when one reads about examples like this.
To know that throughout the world, and specifically in the Pacific Northwest, the orca population is dwindling, makes us want to treasure these tremendous creatures all the more. They are truly remarkable beings whose loss would be immeasurable.
The bonds of this orca pod, coming together to ease the pain of this mother, tell a story that will stick with us for a while-- the lessons of love, support, and care are myriad here. But moreover, the lessons of conservation are in stark relief as well. These creatures are in grave danger, threatened by so many environmental factors. We can only dream that somehow this mother will find the relief, health, and will to bring another calf into this world-- one of the few successful births in recent years, one glimmer of hope.