A note on conservation mythology
Conservation myths are not retellings of mythologies tied to a particular cultural group or history. Entirely of my own imaginings, I tell these stories with a heavy heart, and also a hope, that the natural world I am currently witness to does not always remain in peril. Conservation mythology is based on scientific research, highlighting the threats to survival facing different species. Unlike origin myths, these tales tread close to being extinction myths.
Much of An Orca Wails is inspired by the endangered Southern Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest, a clan I have had the honor of being in company with in the wild. At the time of writing in March 2022, the population is at 74 members.
Scarcity of salmon is the biggest threat facing the Southern Resident killer whales, deepening the impact of other threats. Vessel noise makes it harder for orcas to find what little fish is available. When they don’t get enough to eat, they metabolize more of the toxins stored in their blubber from pollutants accumulated over time by consuming toxic prey, which then endangers their developmental, reproductive, and immune systems. Nearly 70% of Southern Resident orcas lose their calves before birth.
Here are what orca calls sound like. Different killer whale groups each have their own dialect, and a babbling calf selectively learns only the calls their mother makes. Some calls are shared across orca clans, some across pods, and some remain unique to a matriline, but acoustic similarity reflects shared ancestry more than it does social association, which is why neighboring pods of killer whales may share no calls with each other despite proximity. That fact, alongside research that suggests call types are indicative of whales’ emotional states rather than specific behaviors, is what propelled this particular myth. If a new call was heard across all orcas, defying genetic differentiation, then a universal danger was at play. Unlike human language, orca calls are not relaying units of information, but are more likely expressions of emotional states, in the case of the myth, a cry, a grief, a plea.
I am indebted to the scientists and conservationists whose work inspired and informed this series, but more importantly, who do the hard work to understand how we can truly conserve creatures vital to an interdependent world. Taking action remains critical; here is how.