A letter written to our nieces after the death of two Southern Resident orca whales. And in the wake of a long and troubling election ...

Dear Erica,

This letter is meant for Anna and Grace, too but because what I have to say regards “your” adopted whale—Star, I address it to you.

All earthly creatures are special. As you know, I harbor a deep love for the orcas. One thing that makes the orcas unique is that they are the apex predators of our world’s oceans. This means that no other animal in their environment hunts them. In fact, humans are their only threat and by adopting them each year, you directly help conservation efforts to ensure that they thrive in the wild and remain free. Uncle Tor and I are so proud that you are a part of this effort with us.   

Mom Polaris & Baby Dipper  (Photo by Dave Ellifrit, courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

Mom Polaris & Baby Dipper (Photo by Dave Ellifrit, courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

Erica, your whale, Star has had a difficult year. Her mother, Polaris became very ill this summer after giving birth to a male baby named, Dipper. As her mother’s health dwindled, Star was seen by researchers hunting Chinook salmon to feed her mother and baby brother. Sadly, mom Polaris passed away at the end of October. This put young Dipper in grave danger; he was still too small to survive without her milk. Whale observers reported that after their mother’s death, Star continued to care for her little brother—hunting salmon for him, even pushing him to the surface so he would not drown (orcas can stay submerged for several minutes but then must resurface to breathe). Despite all of his sister’s efforts little Dipper passed away, too. Researchers say that it is likely that 7-year-old Star will now be adopted by her grandmother, Princess Angeline or her aunt, Talequah.

Big Sister Star & Baby Dipper (Photo by Dave Ellifret, courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

Big Sister Star & Baby Dipper (Photo by Dave Ellifret, courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

Even though this is a sad story, it also contains a crucial and beautiful lesson. When faced with tragedy Star did not waver but instead—she showed incredible strength. She put the welfare of her mother and brother first; she worked hard to save them and never left their their sides. Her actions are a wonderful example of nobility—the quality of being selfless, generous and putting the needs of others before ones own. I think of Star as a hero.     

Scientists are careful not to “personify” the animal kingdom. Referring to their behavior as having “human-like” qualities or motivations is not considered beneficial to the work of studying them. There are practical reasons for this but still, I cannot help but feel that orcas are capable of emotional reasoning. There is some scientific evidence of this, too. Neuroscientists have discovered that orcas possess a special cell in their brains—one related to deep emotion and social bonding.                     

I hope that you find Star’s story inspiring in some way. If you encounter someone in need—someone suffering or being hurt or bullied—perhaps you will recall how Star used her strength and noble spirit to protect her family. Maybe you can use the same powerful energy to defend and nurture others, to “push them to the surface” when they are in trouble. I have no doubt that you girls are capable of being heroes, like Star.

With love,

Aunt Richele + Uncle Tor