Twenty years ago the Samish Nation gave J37, a newborn Southern Resident Orca calf, the name Hy’Shqa. From the Coast Salish language, the name translates to “blessing” or “thank-you” in English. Hy’Shqa was born in January 2001 to Samish (J14), and in 2012, she gave birth to a calf of her own, T’ilem I’nges (J49).
In early 2016, Hy’Shqa’s mother, Samish (J14), was declared missing and presumed dead at the age of 42. Later that year, Hy’Shqa’s great-grandmother, Granny (J2) passed away after living for an estimated 110 years. In 2018, Hy’Shqa’s half-sister Tahlequah (J35) made international headlines as she carried her dead calf for seventeen days and a thousand miles. Throughout these tragedies, J pod mourned together, supported each other, and moved on as one.
The plight of the Southern Resident Orcas is horrifying—they are slowly starving to death, living in constant noise and pollution, and the death rate in their closely-knit family is outpacing the birth rate. But to those of you who feel helpless, I would encourage you to look to the whales themselves for hope. The intricate family bonds between individual orcas can remind us of our connection with not only the orca but with all beings on Earth—rather than being separate from them, we are one with them.
The catchy and often denigrated tagline “Save the Whales,” can remove us from the core understanding of the issue. When we take steps to protect the orca, we also building resiliency for ourselves and all other life. Reducing shipping through the Salish Sea would lower the risk of catastrophic oil spills as well as the underwater noise pollution that affects whales. Restoring salmon populations to historic levels would save an endangered keystone species of the Pacific Northwest, honor indigenous treaty rights, nourish inland forests, feed currently starving orcas, and over time, restore the lost fishing economy of the region.
Putting ideas into action is often the most difficult step of activism. It requires momentum, purpose, time, and the political leadership to create better solutions- even if they are hard decisions that not all stakeholders will be happy with. But out of activism comes stronger communities, deeper connections, and a better world.
Hy’Shqa’s life is filled with pain and grief, but it is also dotted with joy, like that of a humans. Just as her name reveals how she and her family are blessings to us, we must reciprocate; it is a gift to live alongside the orca, so it is our responsibility to be stewards of their futures just as we need to be stewards of our own.
Saving the southern resident orcas is still within our reach. These iconic beings of the Pacific Northwest are more than just symbols—our lives are tied to those of the orcas. And I refuse to imagine a future without them.
by Kaia Olson, high school junior
Photo above by Mark Gardner