Q13 FOX Season of Giving

‘Stressed and depressed’ orca researchers reflect on deadly summer

SAN JUAN ISLANDS, Wash. -- The year 2018 started with hope that help was on the way for the critically-endangered southern resident orcas.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order on orca recovery.

"It commits the state of Washington to real action for real recovery for our real treasure," he said.

He formed a team tasked with proposing life-saving solutions for southern residents.

"Nobody is on this task force to talk," task force co-chair Stephanie Solien told Q13 News back in June. "We’re on this task force to take action to help the orca."

But as the task force talked about what actions to take, the population experienced three devastating blows.

In June, researchers said L92, known as Crewser, was missing and presumed dead.

In July, J35, or Tahlequah, lost her calf 30 minutes after giving birth. That first day, she was spotted swimming with her dead calf balancing on her head. She continued her so-called 'tour of grief' for 17 days.

In August, while the world mourned with Tahlequah, attention turned to a sick and starving 3-year-old calf known as J50, or Scarlet. Teams in the U.S. and Canada took unprecedented action to medicate her in the wild, but in September, she was pronounced dead.

Three orcas had died in as many months. For scientists, it was a summer of stress and sorrow.

"I didn’t realize how stressed and really depressed I was until it was over," said Ken Balcomb, founder of Center for Whale Research.

Tahlequah’s tragedy took the biggest toll as researchers watched her carry her dead calf on her head for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles.

"I felt like I had to document it everyday but I felt like I was some sort of messenger of doom," Balcomb said.

Day after day on the water, researchers were cursing and crying.

"There were tears for me and just that nauseous feeling you get when you’re just watching something you didn’t ever to watch," said Michael Weiss, a scientist for Center for Whale Research.

And as soon as the relief swept over them when they spotted Tahlequah foro the first time without her dead calf, worry set in for the endeared 3-year-old Scarlet, who was wasting away.

Spurred by public interest after Tahlequah, the federal government took bold action to save Scarlet, but it didn’t work.

"She’s dead," Balcomb had exclaimed in a Skype conversation, frustration setting in.

Down to 74 whales, time is running out for the region's beloved southern resident orcas.

"We need to see growth," NOAA Fisheries' Lynne Barre said. "We need to see better reproduction."

And we need to see a commitment from the people of Washington to make it happen. Thousands have been speaking out all year and longer with petitions and public comments.

On Friday, the public will learn what actions the task force is recommending the governor take to save the orcas. Still, elected officials in the state legislature will be more apt to pass budgets and legislation in favor of those actions if their constituents continue to communicate what they support.