Research & Conservation

Grieving Orca sheds light on the importance of marine conservation

Through the mesmerising world of science, we are now able to penetrate deeper into our oceans and study the behaviour of all animals from new angles and for longer periods, allowing us to seek new insights into their behaviour.

We are now aware that animals have emotions and, just like us can feel happy, or sad. This month the world was jerked to tears when footage of a mother Orca carrying the body of her lifeless newborn calf for a total of 17 days.

The sad site captured on photo. (Image via Imgur)

Scientists tracked the mother, labelled as J35, as she swam more than 700 miles, just off the coast of Vancouver and were saddened to see that she was indeed grieving the loss of her little one. For us humans, grief is something commonly felt and we have to deal with it as a part of life, but this is is a rare insight into the behaviour of a fellow mammal, one that is suffering just as any parent would at the loss of a child.

Her journey also opened our eyes further as researchers noted that the mother had indeed began to lose weight due to her suffering and from not being able to feed properly while carrying her calf.

Her baby’s death has been attributed to malnutrition, which mean that the mother was not eating enough salmon due to shortages in and around her usual swimming path. Scientists also shared news that her family, who was swimming with her was sharing their food with her, so that she could eat throughout the long grieving process. For the previous 17 days she was unable to rest, dedicating all her energy and attention to her little one, who only lived for a total of 30 minutes after birth.

Being a largely endangered species, the death of a calf sends a shiver down science’s spine, and researchers pointed out the lack of Pacific Chinook Salmon, which is being overfished at a phenomenal rate. Nine species of Chinook are listed under the US Endangered Species Act, and this episode proves that a weak link in the food chain can disrupt all forms of life.

An artistic impression of the Chinook Salmon

Furthermore, the low population of salmon is being blamed on the dramatic collapse of the Sacramento River run, which is largely influenced by human interference due to poor water quality and terrible management. 2017 saw the river closed for all fishing activity, such was the shortage of the chinook. Previously parasites infested the waters, hitting the salmon, hurting the once thriving population. Traditionally the river sees tens of thousands of chinook flow through the cold waters on an annual migration, but this number has diminished severely, due to the building of four dams which are now cited for removal to keep the flow active throughout the year which should lead to a re nourishment of the water flow, affecting all walks of life. Elk population will thrive once more as should the Orca population. When such a vital link is affected negatively by human behaviour, all species suffer, from locals living west of the Mississippi river, to our mother-orca, who suffered a horrible ordeal as a consequence. Mindy Roberts of the Washington Environmental Council said that “Frankly the best time to recover Orcas and Chinook was 30 years ago and the second best time is right now” and this story can be a real eye opener.

As with all of our marine environments, we must strive to increase water quality by reducing pollution and toxins, reducing vessel noise and therefore increase prey, otherwise the majestic Orca population might have further reductions.

A calf plays near her mother. This is the world we need to preserve.

Assessing our environment is of crucial importance, and our constant care and affection towards nature will shape our world and prevent instances discussed above.

On the 15th September, nine dedicated team members headed out for a two hour clean up of our shores. We joined the International Coastal Clean Up, a global event created by Ocean Conservancy, who believe “The ocean starts with you.”

We joined in, heading out at sea just near Marsaxlokk, a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Two teams were created. Scuba divers headed to a depth of about five metres and cleaned up the seafloor, while the snorkelling team dealt with surface litter. The result was quite eye opening in the sense that in just over a couple of hours of work, spread over nine participants we cleaned up a huge amount of litter.

The biggest offender: Cigarette Butts, with a total of 54 found. Litter and foam came in second with 27 pieces, while we also collected 21 beverage cans. We’ll leave you to read the list below so you can draw your own conclusions about the state of our shorelines.

A ghost net found off the coast of Marsaxlokk. Picking this up from the sea saves lives.

Cigarette Butts – 54
Balloons – 0
Toys – 0
Fishing Gear – 7
Plastic Bags – 6
Food Wrappers – 10
Containers (Plastic) – 3
Containers (Foam) – 0
Beverage Cans – 21
Bottle Caps (Plastic) – 8
Bottles (Plastic) – 12
Bottles (Glass) – 10
Cups, Plates – 4
Lids – 1
Straws – 3
Utensils – 11
Plastic/Foam Pieces – 27
Personal Hygiene – 6
Other Packaging – 7
Other Trash – 15

As humans, consumption of food and drinks is natural, and sadly for some smoking is also a unshakable habit. I invite you to open your fridge today and have a look at your food. How much of it is packed in packaging which you will throw away immediately after? How many of the vegetables are wrapped in plastic? Will you also be throwing out that plastic yoghurt container?

And as for the cigarette smokers amongst us, where do you dispose of your butts? Too many of them end up on the floor, in our soil and in our seas.

Food often created abroad and then shipped around the world, ending up in our fridges. Trade is vital, and therefore packaging is also of importance. But wouldn’t it be much better if biodegradable packaging was used to transport our food? That way we will reduce our impact on the environment as it will reflect a massive change in our lives.

Another way to help is to shop local. Head out to your local greengrocer and pick out items created in Malta. This will reduce the need for shipping, meaning reducing the number of heavy transportations driving around our oceans and roads. Never pick out vegetables that are tightly wrapped in plastic and always remember to take your own shopping bag. Often, glass jars can be reused and turned into other storing objects for your kitchen.

Have a look inside this fridge?

On the right hand side, in the door, we can find six plastic water bottles, two soda bottles, three cartons and more disposable plastic. This ends up in our landfill, and very often ends up in our sea, as our Marsaxlokk exercise proved – oh and did you see the bottom shelf inside the fridge?

… At least the vegetables are not wrapped in plastic too!