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When Science and the Unexplainable Collide: A Southern Resident orca story

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

"They were acting like they knew. That's all I can say. My objective observation was, it was like they knew." ~Howard Garrett

On August 17, 2023, Howard Garrett was standing in line at his bank on Whidbey Island. He pulled out his phone and decided to check the live webcam at Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island, about 3 hours to the north. As the co-founder of the Orca Network, Howard has devoted over 40 years of his life to the study of the whales in the Pacific Northwest. Like his late brother, famed whale researcher Ken Balcomb, Howard shares a passion for the endangered J, K & L pods, the Southern Resident orcas of the Salish Sea, and knows them well.

Both transient and Southern Resident orcas frequent the waters off Lime Kiln and the live webcam offers whale watchers and scientists the chance to view the action remotely. What Howard saw on the live cam that day however, struck him as unusual and caught his attention. A gathering of orcas was thrashing around, behaving irregularly.

"They were acting really strange, like they were disturbed, like they were disorganized, like they didn't know what they were doing."

Howard shared these words at a recent gathering at that very spot at Lime Kiln State Park on a gray and blustery day that vibrated with a certain expectant energy. Howard is intimately familiar with the tight-knit, matriarchal orca pod families, their routines and behaviors, but what he witnessed on the live cam that day was behavior he had not seen before. Even with his vast knowledge, he was stymied, and his mind went through a list of possible explanations for what he was witnessing.

"They certainly weren't foraging. They weren't conducting a ritual in a kind of lined up way or anything coordinated or synchronized. They looked bothered. And it went on for a couple of hours. And they didn't travel. You know, orcas tend to travel, no matter what they're doing - you know, they're trending one way or another. Well, they didn't. They just kind of circulated going in all different directions doing a lot of really strange stuff."

Unbeknownst to Howard and his colleagues, at that same time nearly 3,400 miles away in Miami, Florida, Tokitae the captive orca and a member of the Southern Resident L-pod, was dying.

Tokitae was taken from her family in the waters of Washington state in 1970 and forced to perform for over 50 years at the Miami Seaquarium. Efforts had been underway for years by the Lummi Nation to free their "relation under the waves," Sk'aliCh'elh-tenaut (Tokitae). Those efforts, with the help of Howard, Ken, and others committed to reuniting her with her orca family, were finally fruitful and she was set to return home to her 97-year old mother, and her family in the Salish Sea. But just before that dream could be realized, the unthinkable happened.

"I had no idea what it was, and then the next day we found out that Toki had died. In Miami. And at the same hour that the whales were here, behaving very weirdly, she was in her last hours. She was dying."

This devastating news reverberated across the Pacific Northwest, and spread around the world. That collective gasp, that grief was palpable, and with so many losses to the Southern Resident community in recent years, the news was nearly impossible to take. The effort to bring Toki home had been ongoing for so many years, and the permission to release her was so unprecedented that despite the logistical challenges, spirits were high and hopeful. This news then, seemed inconceivable.

Speaking personally, my daughter/business partner and I didn't know what to do with our emotions. The plight of the Southern Residents had gripped us for years, and we had focused our company mission to the protection and preservation of these icons of the Pacific Northwest. As a mother myself, my heart went out to Toki's own mother who saw her young daughter ripped away from her family, and who most certainly grieved that loss every day. Coupled with the unfathomable ways that humankind had failed Toki, it's fair to say that I drifted into depression.

Ultimately, Toki's ashes were returned to her Lummi family and scattered in a private ceremony in a sacred location in the waters of her birth. Toki is home, but to many, her loss still feels like an open wound, tender and raw.

In an act to promote healing, salmon ceremonies were held recently in the region to honor Tokitae, and to celebrate her life. We were in need of some sort of closure. We needed to hear from her tribal family and from the scientists and advocates who have devoted their lives to the preservation of the Southern Residents and to bringing Toki home. We needed their wisdom, and their guidance for how to navigate a way forward.

It was in two such ceremonies that we heard Howard Garrett recount his unusual experience that day. Most recently, it was at the salmon ceremony at Lime Kiln State Park on November 12, 2023, which became instead, a combined celebration of life for both Tokitae and Ken Balcomb.

Kenneth Balcomb passed away on December 15, 2022 at the age of 82, leaving a profound and gaping hole in the whale research community. His knowledge and connection with the orcas is legendary. In spite of the somber reason for this gathering, there was awe and wonder in the air as science and the inexplicable forces of nature collided. There was laughter, fellowship, and celebration for these two lights that shone so brightly and impactfully in their time on this planet.  

In an example of the incredible power and connection of the natural world, across all those miles, it seemed that Toki's family knew that she was moving from this world to the next, and they gathered together in her home waters to mourn her passing. As Howard recounted, the J's, K's and L's were all at Lime Kiln that August day. Somehow they knew.

In an article from Scientific American by Sara Gottlieb-Cohen titled, "Science Means Not Knowing,"* she states, "Scientists are experts at embracing the unknown. It can embrace a sense of wonder but also of disorientation. Acknowledging what we do not know does not always feel good, but it pushes us to seek a deeper understanding of the world around us."

While Howard has the mind of a scientist, he is also surrounded in his work by the spiritually wise and gifted Rosie Cayou James and Raynell Morris. Working in partnership with the deeply connected local tribes, he well knows that there is much that exists beyond our physical seeing and hearing, and it was at this beautiful intersection that Howard found himself that day.

In her blog post, "How Does Nature Communicate with us?"** Sarah Wiseman states, "Our human awareness is just a small part of what is happening here in the universe. When you begin to explore the ways in which nature is communicating to you: animals, plants, elements, both subtle and profound, you begin to experience great comfort and peace in this life."

The Coast Salish elders are no strangers to this understanding. Rosie Cayou James and Bill Bailey led the ceremonies with drumbeats and insightful words - wisdom gifted to those who see with more than their eyes and hear with more than their ears. Being in the presence of Rosie, you get hungry to want to sit at her feet and absorb her measured words, her vast knowledge, and spiritual understanding. Rosie stated that in spite of the circumstances, Toki was home. She shared a message she had received from Tokitae, saying, "I am singing, I am dancing, I am free!" Rosie also assured those present that Ken continues to guide the efforts of those who carry on his work. This is where our healing began.

At the ceremony at Lime Kiln, a powerful testimonial also came from Raynell Morris, a member of the Lummi Nation, who, in the words of Howard Garrett, "knew Toki better than anyone." Her poignant stories brought us to tears. You see, Raynell visited Toki many times in Miami, bringing news and prayers from her family, and spent hours in ceremony with her. And it was said that Toki too, indeed knew Raynell. 

This was the first public ceremony that Raynell had been able to attend since Toki's passing, as the processing of her grief did not allow it sooner. As firm believers in the communication that exists between this world and the one beyond, and in connection that transcends miles or species, my daughter and I hung on Raynell's every word. We were inspired by her grace, her strength and the beauty of her understanding.

So on a windy bluff anchored by a 103-year old lighthouse, in waters sacred to the Southern Residents, there was plenty of room for the scientific and the unexplainable. As Howard stated with a wink,

"I am not prone to woo-woo stuff, but I could not deny the synchronicity. They were acting like they knew, that's all I can say. So that makes these waters, this lighthouse, this place, very sacred to me too."

His joy and awe at being unable to explain how a family of whales could possibly communicate across a distance of 3,400 miles was both palpable and inspiring. For if a man of science can be so humbled and awestruck by the unexplained wonder of the natural world, perhaps we too can lean in to believing in the invisible threads that connect us to the land and the sea, and the hearts that beat there. May we never forget that one without the other, we are lost, and may we fervently renew our desire to protect them.



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