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Despite hopes, missing killer whale likely dead

Craig Medred
NOAA photo courtesy Jon Sharp

Nature sucks. If you're a killer whale, and you swim far up a river in remote Southwest Alaska, and you get confused as to where you are, you die.

None of the other whales call for a search and rescue. None of the other whales come to look. You don't get saved. You die.

And then you become a national celebrity, while everyone fantasizes about the one that got away. You know, the immature killer whale that somehow could have escaped to the sea to survive when two adults died.

Sorry, nature doesn't work that way.

Usually (television nature shows, anyone?) the young are the first to die. And if the adults die, the young are almost always doomed to die.

Anyone who saw the photographs of the Nushagak River whales earlier this week could see what was coming. They were living in freshwater, and freshwater was essentially eating them alive. The skins of killer whales did not evolve to dwell for weeks in fresh water. They are a saltwater species. After weeks in freshwater, their skins looked like yours would if you bathed in battery acid. A little splashing you could survive. Full immersion? Forget it.

The whales made a bad decision. They paid nature's price.

Who knows why they took off up the Nushagak River. Maybe they were foolishly chasing salmon. Maybe they were just foolish.

Now they are simply dead. Most Alaskans will understand. A lot of us live close to life and death. Who knows what the reaction will be Outside, where many Americans seem to think everyone and everything is supposed to live forever. It doesn't work that way. It's sad. I know. It's painfully sad. But it is the way of life, and death.

Not that everyone wants to accept it. There are still those holding out hope for the missing whale the way some hold out hope for avalanche survivors days after a snowslide. Hope is a wonderful thing. It is also, at times, futile. And it has ways of morphing into less savory behaviors.

SeaWorld, a company which runs marine parks (zoos if you will), is already being attacked for sending a veterinarian to Alaska to aid in necropsying (the animal version of an autopsy) the dead whales. SeaWorld's veterinarians arguably have more experience with killer whales than any veterinarians in the world, but of course there are those who see hidden agendas.

"SeaWorld may hope to somehow ensnare the missing juvenile whale for their amusement parks, and/or they may also hope to gain tissues for their artificial insemination project from the dead animals,” writes Candace Calloway Whiting at SeattlePi.com.

"Hopefully the young whale has managed to return to salt water and has already reunited with extended family members, but at this point no one knows about the type of orcas that went up the river, their culture, or their families."

"Their culture ... their families." Oh, if only nature worked this way. The reality is that the juvenile whale in question would be lucky to be found alive by SeaWorld and sent to live among people who would care for it for the rest of its life. But it is unlikely to be that lucky because the odds are it is dead.

Why? Because this is nature, and the one thing animals of all sorts do in great numbers in nature every day is die.

The only difference between these whales dying and other whales dying is that humans happened to witness their deaths.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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