The Sacrificial First

Click to read The Sacrificial First, a conservation myth inspired by the endangered Southern Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.

A note on conservation mythology & the Southern Resident orcas

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. Based on scientific research, the myths highlight threats to survival facing different species. Unlike origin myths, these tales tread close to being extinction myths.

My first series 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 October 2022, the population is at 73 members.

Nearly 70% of Southern Resident orcas lose their calves before birth or soon after. I wrote The Sacrificial First after discovering an even graver fact: the best chance a whale has of giving birth to a calf who survives is after having a miscarriage. If timed correctly, losing the first pregnancy offloads a significant amount of pollutants from the whale’s body. Then, if another is conceived quickly enough without time to accumulate as many toxins, there is the highest chance of a live calf birth. Of the 35 pregnancies detected in Southern Resident orcas over a 7-year-period from 2007 to 2014, only 11 resulted in a documented birth.

But the danger doesn’t end there. Toxins collected in female killer whales, including the manmade chemicals PCBs, are offloaded in breast milk and make survival rates of calves extremely low. Ultimately, nutritional stress as a result of low abundance of salmon is the primary factor for low reproductive success, and is what amplifies other risks to killer whales. Mothers need to feed well to produce enough breast milk, and calves rely on the quality of that milk to make it through the first few years of their life. 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, immune, and reproductive systems. The Southern Resident population cannot rebuild its numbers without a next generation.

This myth pained me to write, as I carried and miscarried a child at time of drafting. What takes place within a womb and the life growing inside is unique to the two who occupy the space. For however long that union remains, something is borne of the experience.

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.

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