Tahlequah the orca inspires partnership of preservation
An orca named Tahlequah, or J35, is photographed by a drone as she surfaces with her male calf. SR3/COURTESY
DES MOINES, Wash. – Oklahoma isn’t a destination state for watching whales – even orcas.
Setting that aside, the city of Tahlequah now has an attachment to an orca, or killer whale, named Tahlequah who is the object of study in the waters of the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington State.
On Nov. 16, a video conference was held between representatives of the Kirkpatrick Foundation of Oklahoma City; the city of Tahlequah; Save the Illinois River; Des Moines, Washington; and Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research to announce their Oklahoma Killer Whale Project partnership. It makes Tahlequah a sister community to support the health assessment research of Southern Resident orcas conducted by SR3. It also gives lovers of the ocean in landlocked Oklahoma a connection to the Salish Sea.
“In Oklahoma, we recognize the connection between our own Tahlequah – a city where environmental and animal protection has a vibrant history – and the endangered Southern Resident killer whales,” Ed Brocksmith, STIR secretary and treasurer, said.
In 2018, the orca Tahlequah made international headlines after her calf died shortly after birth. She refused to abandon it, carrying it for 17 days.
In 2020, Tahlequah – also known as J35 – gave birth again, and is raising a male calf that seems in superb health.
Tahlequah Mayor Sue Catron had heard the stories of the orca, who is often seen near Des Moines and studied by SR3 as part of the Southern Residents. Catron put her signature to a proclamation.
“I became aware of Tahlequah the whale after reading the news stories that she had lost her calf,” Catron said. “In short order, a proclamation was produced to form a partnership with Des Moines, Washington, in support of orcas and revitalizing a species nearing extinction.”
The partnership includes a double match fundraising endeavor to help SR3 research. Donations will be matched by the Kirkpatrick Foundation up to a $20,000 total and an anonymous donor is matching contributions up to a level of $40,000.
“Forging connections like this is an essential part of maintaining healthy marine ecosystems,” Casey Mclean, SR3executive director and veterinary nurse, said. “It is heartwarming to see people from across the country coming together to protect this special population of whales. I think it shows how we can still change course here, and that should give us all hope.”
Speakers for the partnership and media members joined the Nov. 16 Zoom conference.
Dr. Holly Fearnbach, SR3 marine mammal researcher, said the Southern Resident population now numbers just 74 orcas, and that they face additional pressure due to their specific preference for Chinook salmon, which itself is a species under stress with declining numbers.
“I always said they do family better than we do, which is what drew me in to researching them,” Fearnbach said. “They were listed in 2003 as an endangered species. I think it’s a beautiful thing to reach people who may live hundreds of miles from these whales. No matter where you live, everyone has a role to play in protecting our ocean. If we can protect it as a whole, we are not only protecting the ocean, but ourselves.”
The speakers from Washington clarified that the idea to name J35 “Tahlequah” arose from a dock in Puget Sound also named Tahlequah – but the dock was named long ago for Tahlequah, Oklahoma.