– By Steve Kavakos, Iceland explorer at large @stevechristopher__
I sat sipping on a coffee a fellow volunteer brought me. It was hot and burnt the roof of my mouth, but my brain needed caffeine. I stared out over fog covering the mountain peaks surrounding our camp. A man walked past with his German Shepard, the same dog that followed me through town the day before.
I had planned to write about the myths and legends surrounding orcas, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. I knew I had to write about Tahlequah – the orca who carried her dead calf for two weeks, moments after giving birth to it.
Staring across the terrain in Iceland that day, I felt what so many marine biologists have felt their entire lives. Anyone who works in conservation is in awe of these moments, but also loathes them. We feel pain and sorrow, but also a feeling of validation. It’s ironic how ‘I told you so’ is always closely accompanied by the feeling of not wanting to be right.
This was no exception.
Orcas hurt, they ache and they grieve. As humans we look for signs of intelligence in dolphins and whales alike. I sat sipping my coffee asking, what is intelligence? Is it purely judged on IQ? When it comes to orcas and dolphins, is it the amount of tricks they can perform for a crowd? Shouldn’t clear examples of love and loss make this judgment all the more complicated?
If something is intelligent enough to feel pain and grieve loss at the hands of death, is that not enough? Is that not intelligence?
I’ve had people laugh when I told them about orca’s incredible sense of empathy and ability to love. I had someone on social media comment on a post explaining how orcas display emotions saying, “Hang up the boots mate, become a comedian.” Whilst this individual wrote tough behind a screen, Tahlequah reflected what I and so many marine biologists, activists and whale lovers have known for so long: That orcas have gigantic hearts. Mothers love their children like humans do.
Tahlequah made me smile that morning. While it was incredibly heart breaking, she solidified why I have thrown myself into a world of conservation.
She reminded me that It’s the little acts of kindness from people on a beach, who see a plastic bag and pick it up, the marine biologists who work unpaid, traveling country to country, driving boats and fixing punctured tires so they can collect data. She solidified why I am here. Tahlequah, along with the team I have met here in Iceland, continue to make me confident of my choice to begin and pursue a life in marine conservation as a writer. We have enough scientists collecting data, with more arriving everyday. We need people in other industries to put their hands up and help out. From bankers to computer geniuses, the world of conservation is more than stats and figures. Tahlequah highlights why we should care. Why we should ALL care.
There are plenty of cetaceans worthy of fascination. Tahlequah is just a reminder of why I adore orcas and why so many people around the world share the same intrigue. It’s the mystery of orca behaviour, the thirst to know just how similar they are to humans, and how they differ from all their cousins.
We seek a humanised behaviour, and when we see it we should give it the respect it deserves.