Stars blink back at me through the top of my bedroom window, but I feel dawn coming. I pat my night table just as my phone’s alarm vibrates. I’d been waiting all night, my sleep fragmented in knowing I was not allowed to use the bathroom. My mouth, too, tacky with thirst. There was no water on my nightstand because the test instructions had forbidden it.
So as not to disturb my sleeping husband, I tiptoe to the bathroom and flip the switch, which starkly reveals the awaiting blue box from the Great Plains Laboratory labeled: GPL-TOX Profile. In parentheses next to the acronym: 173 Toxic Non Metal Chemicals.
I am not new to this test. We have a history, a story I shelved but picked up again because I was reminded by the most unlikely of reminders—another female mammalian body swimming through the waters of the 21st century. Her name, Tahlequah. Global millions watched with me back in 2018 as Tahlequah, the orca also known also as J35, swam for 17 days, pushing the decomposing body of her dead baby through a thousand miles of Salish Sea.
Tahlequah is now back in the news. The cetologists who spot her through heavy binoculars celebrate because the male calf that Tahlequah gave birth to last fall is still alive. His official pod identification is J57 and his birth offers a spark of hope for the Southern Resident Killer Whale population listed as endangered in 2005. In drone photos, the new babe frolics beside his mother. The celebrations, though, belie the weight of Tahlequah’s story—and summon my own, still unfinished.
The same summer of Tahlequah’s “Tour of Grief,” I booked my first appointment with a locally renowned osteopath. I was done with my pregnancies and my children had stopped nursing and toddled away, but my body no longer felt mine. I had symptoms swirling out of control: brain fog, hand rashes, weight gain, and recurring climate disaster nightmares that woke me regularly in cold sweats. I saved over a year for the appointments my health insurance wouldn’t cover. The first tests yielded no conclusions. No abnormal hormones or alarming blood numbers or parasites or excessive exposure to mold. Then there was the heavy metals test. I swallowed gray pills the doctor called chelating agents before that urine sample. Two hours later, I staggered to my living room and, steadying my head with one hand, reached for my phone to call my osteopath. “What’s happening to me? My body feels heavy and slow, like I’m swimming, or sinking, in a black cloud.”
I remember the pause on the other side of the line. Then I was assured the reaction wasn’t dangerous—though maybe telling. That’s when my osteopath added the test for 217 chemicals to my checklist. A month later I called.
“Shouldn’t those results be in?”
“Oh, you’re home?”
“Just arrived. I thought you said you’d upload those test results to my patient portal…”
The doctor knew I was prone to over-investigation of my reports. That it was my style to arrive with a binder full of color-coded and bullet-pointed questions penned in .05 mm ballpoint.
“We do have your results back,” she said. “But we knew you were out of town and we thought it better if you came to the office to discuss them. Can you come in… today?”
In 2018, 75 percent of Southern Resident Killer Whale calves were dying. They called it the SRKW Dead Baby Boom.
Tahlequah is one of 73 “resident orcas” whose ancestors have known the Salish Sea of Washington and British Columbia as home for over 700,000 years. She is identified by the unique swirl and color-tones of a patch on her back, right behind her dorsal fin, which functions like a fingerprint for the cetologists who take notes. It was this “saddle patch” that identified Tahlequah when she gave birth to the female calf in 2018. She had carried the babe in her belly for roughly 18 months. It was the first birth in the J-Pod family in three years.
I imagine the calf before she died. Her unblemished ink-black skin and white patches on her belly and chin mirroring those of her mother. Her tiny two-lobed whale’s tail—a perfect replica of Tahlequah’s flukes—propelling her small body to her mother’s side for the half hour she lived. If we, those obsessed with her death, had accepted the reality of the statistics, we might have been prepared. In 2018, 75 percent of Southern Resident Killer Whale calves were dying. They called it the SRKW Dead Baby Boom.
I pee in the cup for the follow-up chemicals test. It’s a task I’ve mastered from the 28 months comprising my four pregnancies (two successful, two not) in which each trip to the obstetrician began with a plastic cup and sharpie pen. But this time I’m not pregnant and the instructions for the chemicals test are concise: The sample must be yellow in color. Because this test is looking for mycotoxins which congregate in the urine of a dehydrated body.
I was supposed to get the follow-up test two years ago but didn’t because, after eight months of detoxing, I gave up on the prescribed regimen. I was sick of the rotten egg smell of detoxifying glutathione slipping down my throat, out of funds to fill the pill box with supplements separated by morning, lunch, and night, and scared of the niacin that flushed my face red and made me feel faint. I was over the drippy cod liver oil packs wrapped with plastic wrap around my belly, done boiling coffee for enemas and locking myself behind the bathroom door, and over the paleo diet clashing against my vegetarian palate. The replacement of all my mercury dental fillings had put me into debt. I suspect I also quit because I didn’t want to know the results. Afraid my money and time and efforts would amount to nothing. Or everything. Afraid of more evidence shaking in my hands.
What most people don’t know about Tahlequah is that she miscarried another baby in 2010. She might have lost more. A 2017 study of killer whale fecal samples revealed that 69% of pregnant Southern Resident Whales lose their babies before, or soon after, birth. But just as human miscarriages and birth defects and incomplete pregnancies are reserved for whispers, orcas’ perinatal losses go mostly unobserved. Many obsessed with Tahlequah also don’t know that her sister likely died from birthing complications. Tahlequah assumed care for her sister’s infant, J54. The young calf starved to death soon after. One could assume Tahlequah was new to death given her 17-day demonstration of grief. But she was already too familiar.
Though they tried, researchers could not find the body of Tahlequah’s baby for the investigation they hoped would provide more answers. But I keep thinking of what we do know. That Tahlequah would not let the calf’s body sink. She put her head under her infant’s limp body and pushed it to the surface. I think of what it required to carry the sinking near-400 pounds of her dead baby for 17 days. Unlike humans, breathing for orcas is not a reflex, but a conscious act. Tahlequah had to ascend at least once every 12 minutes. She didn’t just ascend. She made the decision to go up for air. She went up. She took her baby’s body with her. She took a breath. And this gets me. She decided each time again: I’m not done.
The tests concluded my flesh was steeped in heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Mercury, lead, and uranium I could at least pronounce.
At the osteopath’s office, in our appointment in which they preferred to “review the results in person,” the toxicology report shook in my hands.
The tests concluded my flesh was steeped in heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Mercury, lead, and uranium I could at least pronounce. I scanned only the acronyms next to the chemicals presenting dangerous levels in my body: MTBE, a gasoline additive; PGO, a styrene used in plastic manufacturing; PERC, a chemical used in explosives and fertilizers; DDP, a flame retardant; NAPR, a solvent used for metal and dry cleaning and foam gluing; 2,4-D, an herbicide that was part of Agent Orange used by the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Together the small acronyms were assaulting my body as neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, human carcinogens, and central nervous system and reproductive toxins. It was, the doctor concluded, the likely terrain of brain fog, rashes, and anxiety disorders. It was also the territory of miscarriages and fetal birth defects. Both of which were checked on my chart.
The doctor explained that I couldn’t take more chelating agents or “just burn fat” because if the toxins and heavy metals didn’t have a clear path out of my body, they would recycle through my bloodstream and lodge in more dangerous places—like my brain. The other way fat is released from the female body is through breast milk. The “biological transfer of contaminants” is what it’s called, this breastfeeding of toxins from mammal to infant.
I couldn’t look up from the reports in my hands when I said, “I nursed my children, each, for a year. Were these metals and toxins in my body then?”
Despite the lack of eye contact, the doctor’s answer still found me: “Probably.”
When I recounted the abandoned metal mines I live near in Colorado, the well in Oregon I drank water from as a child, the smog in India I breathed for two years, the polluted waters I’ve swum in—my doctor just shook her head. “I know this is hard, but I recommend you focus on getting the toxins out. The investigations rarely yield answers. The fact is, modern humans are swimming in environmental toxins.”
I looked at my hands. The rash had started under my wedding ring as small blisters rising, burning, itching, drying, flaking, moving down the inside of my finger, then up to a patch under my cuticle. Then the subterranean blisters popped up on my other hand. Same finger. Different migration. This time it travelled south, to the outside of my palm, where it was kept in check only by a steroid cream prescribed by a dermatologist who offered nothing else but a shrug.
Orcas know toxins. Or maybe they don’t. But the pathologists who do necropsy on the bodies of killer whales have discovered that orcas often carry as many as 25 times the number of PCBs statistically known to affect health, mortality, and fertility. PCB is short for polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are usually clear or yellow, can exist in liquid forms, and have no taste or smell. They were manufactured by Monsanto in the U.S. until about 1977, the year I was born. But PCBs don’t go away. They accumulate in the bodies of what or whoever consumes them, like plankton and Chinook salmon and seals. PCBs accumulate most in the bodies of apex predators. This is something Tahlequah and I have in common: we are both apex predators.
It’s no secret where an SRKW orca gets her toxins. She gets them from the Chinook salmon that run the rivers to the Salish Sea. And it’s not a secret where the Chinook get their PCBs: from exposure to PCB-contaminated sediments and PCB-contaminated food in waters polluted by upstream shipyards, slaughterhouses, and manufacturing plants. PCB exposure is linked to birth defects in both female orcas and humans. The most observed symptom in humans is rashes.
Orcas share original “resident” status with the indigenous peoples who cohabitated with everything “living upstream” in a 5,000-year-old heritage. That equitable balance ended with the arrival of white settlers. Though under-researched, Native communities are today more at risk for toxic exposure than any other ethnic group in the U.S. One Canadian study in 1997 revealed that some Inuit women have levels of PCBs five times more than the safety threshold.
I feel it in my breasts when I find these words from Inuit mother Lucy Qavavauq: “The idea scares me. The more I think about it, the more scared I get,” she said as milk slid down her grinning babe’s cheek, “I know there is a possibility of passing on contaminants to him…. I can’t imagine not breast-feeding my baby.”
I know the smell of the Salish Sea. The Chinook salmon and I share range. From the Gulf of Alaska coming through my nursery window, from my childhood dropping crab traps and salmon lines off Oregon and Washington coasts, from the Northern Californian cliffs on which I perched as a college student—I know that salted coast breath of chilled kelp, low clouds, and wet pulverized shell. After her migration between the Arctic and Northern California, a female Chinook might swim hundreds of miles to return to her birth stream where she can leave up to 14,000 eggs in a nesting hole. There, she and her mate hover to protect the fertilized eggs. In this very act of guarding their future generations, the Chinook die—before the eggs even hatch.
My dad was obsessed with Chinook. Every April, he let me skip school to drive with him to the Bonneville Dam to watch the salmon climb the manmade fish ladder on the Columbia River. I remember the roar of the river above, and the dank smell of concrete below, in the fish viewing room with its dark window where heaving fish jaws came out of the shadows as frantic tails propelled bodies up cement stairs. My dad would dart his pointer finger from the 60-pounders behind the window to the wall-mounted black screen with white numbers that upticked the official counts of each salmon species. In 1986, when I was eight years old, that spring Chinook count totaled 118,614. Today, two populations of Pacific Northwest Chinook salmon are endangered and seven are threatened. The Southern Resident Orcas exclusively eat fish. They used to feast on Chinook salmon from British Columbia’s Fraser River. A test fishery there that’s been tracking Chinook returns since 1981 reported they only caught seven Chinook in their nets in all of May and June of 2020.
Because Tahlequah and I have shared oceans and rivers, she made me curious as to my own level of exposure to PCBs. A PCB test requires a doctor’s order. I explained to my osteopath, “I grew up 20 miles from a Superfund cleanup site in Oregon where PCBs were identified as a central contaminant. I learned to swim in the Willamette River. We jumped off the docks while my Dad backed up his skiff on countless weekends. My father pulled from those waters the ‘King’ Chinook salmon we ate for dinner. Would that constitute a likelihood of exposure?”
My doctor explained that PCBs store in fat and exposure is difficult to detect. I was fine with this. One less, expensive test. Do I even need to know if I have PCBs in my body when it’s already confirmed I carry dangerous levels of 2HIB, PGO, PERC, DPP, NAPR, and 2,4-D in my flesh?
So add PCB exposure to my list of unknowns—the evidence of exactly what and how my body became toxic lost, like Tahlequah’s babe, to the blue depths of murky hearts.
Orcas are socially sophisticated. They swam, after all, in Earth’s oceans 11 million years before modern humans. Orcas live in matrilineal pods that include a dominant female and her close relatives who might span four generations. Female orcas experience menopause and can live into their 80s and we have only recently learned that it’s these post-menopausal orcas that guide their pods. The leadership, experience, and knowledge of these “grandmothers” has even been shown to statistically boost the survival of grandcalves.
In an online presentation Lori Marino, neuroscientist and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, projects photos of the human brain next to the orca brain on a wall. The human brain appears pink with plush folds of soft tissues. The orca brain is not only much larger (5,000 grams compared to the human brain at 1,350 grams), but the folds look much more tightly packed. My eight-year-old son leans over my shoulder as I watch the presentation and points his finger at the orca brain: “Wow, that one looks way smarter.”
Even when body size is considered, the cerebrum of orcas accounts for a larger percentage of brain volume compared to humans. With a laser pointer, Dr. Marino circles a part of the orca’s brain in the paralimbic lobe. This part, she explains, is associated with emotion, memory, compassion, empathy, learning, self-awareness, and abstract thinking.
“You see all this section here? All these intricate folds?” she asks the audience as she makes a circle with her red laser. “It’s unique to cetaceans. Humans don’t have it.”
The night before I terminated my pregnancy of a fetus with chromosomal defects, I composed a letter to the pod of women in my life.
During Tahlequah’s tour of grief, someone living near Eagle Cove reported: “At sunset, a group of five to six females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly two hours. As the light dimmed, I was able to watch them continue what seemed to be a ritual or ceremony. They stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved.”
Tahlequah was not the only orca in her pod to push her baby’s corpse. After seven days, other members of the J-Pod allowed Tahlequah to rest. Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island noted, “She’s not always the one carrying it; they seem to take turns.”
The night before I terminated my pregnancy of a fetus with chromosomal defects, I composed a letter to the pod of women in my life. I chose the only words I could muster: “I’m losing the baby.” I had miscarried once already the same year and losing another baby—the anchor in my sea of grief—was too much. I paused before sending the email. Sharing my grief would force me to confront my shock and denial. But I was drowning. I hit send.
I did not expect to be hit back. Hit by cascading reverberations of collective shock and grief and sadness. Letters came back. Photos of lit candles. Lyrics of mourning songs. Images of altars I’d never seen. Poems. Tales of tears in the woods and fields and along rivers. A levity came over me—permission to be relieved from the grieving duty I could no longer carry by myself.
Tahlequah pushed her grief for 17 days and she didn’t do it for the world to see. I know this because I know grief. Tahlequah is a Cherokee word. It means “two is enough.” I still flinch at those who throw the pointed finger of “anthropomorphizing.” But I am not interpreting Tahlequah’s behavior through my limited experience of being human. I am tugging on the DNA strings that bind us but more than that, I’m recognizing the limits of my experience of being human. I don’t feel big. I don’t feel important. This connection with Tahlequah—it makes me feel like a tumbled grain of sand on a planet four and a half billion years old.
In my conversation with Ellie Sawyer, a naturalist who works, lives, and sleeps the Salish Sea, she slipped in a reckoning with such subtlety I’m unsure she even noticed the twisty breach of her own words. “These are not human experiences, they are animal experiences,” she said. Seeing myself in the eye of Tahlequah is more damning than anthropomorphizing. Orcas have large eyes that can focus below and above water. Tahlequah sees more than me.
I put the box with my sample for the follow-up test into the overnight FedEx bag. The results won’t be back for two weeks. I might get an updated detoxing protocol, but there will be no answers. Nothing that suffices or explains what we’ve done to ourselves. No answers for the global millions who may have brain fog or rashes or miscarriages but no access to the Great Plains Laboratory. I think so often of the families who hosted me while I worked in Varanasi, India. Of the smog I walked through in the alleys on my way to buy a toothbrush from the corner store or get copies of lesson plans made at the print shop. Smog levels that every fall and winter register in the “Hazardous” maroon level on the Air Quality Index chart and indicate “emergency conditions for the entire population.” Did I get some of the hazardous levels of toxins in my body from that smog? I have a hunch I did. But I don’t know. I left Varanasi. The families that hosted me still live there. Along with 1.2 million others.
On the 17th day, Tahlequah dropped her baby’s body. She went up for air, and then she let the body of her babe drift away, to be reclaimed by the ocean’s blue womb.
A 2021 study evaluated samples of breast milk collected from women all over the U.S. The tests concluded that all 50 samples of milk contained toxic “forever chemicals” (PFAS) at levels almost 2,000 times what’s considered safe for drinking water. Has the U.S., like India, also silently ticked up in pollution levels indicating emergency conditions for the entire population?
“Who wants to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?” was the question Rachel Carson posed in 1962 in her book Silent Spring. Carson’s questions awakened awareness to the interdependency of health on this planet and made her a post-menopausal matriarch in the global environmental movement. But her tenure was too short. She died at 56 of breast cancer.
Have we reached it yet? The point where we circle up and take turns, holding and pushing a collective grief? The day we leave our denial behind and come up for air? On this dimming horizon, with everything on the line, can a matriline rise? Embracing a maternal instinct to protect lives beyond our individual fingerprints, willing to die in the process like the Chinook guarding their eggs? Can we gather like the J-Pod and hold what is precious—centered in moonlight—even as the moon moves?
To the delight of watchers and researchers, the new calf Tahlequah birthed last fall appears both lively and rambunctious. But there’s a long swim ahead. Thirty-seven to 50 percent of orca calves still die in their first year. A year when Tahlequah will nurse the new babe with the stores of fat in her body.
The “biological transfer of contaminants” is what it’s called.
When Tahlequah’s new babe, J57, needed a name, the Whale Museum put the matter to the public. When the votes were tallied, J57’s name was announced: Phoenix—the mythical bird rising from ashes to live again.
My GPL-TOX results arrived this week. This time the doctor uploaded them to the portal. My toxic burden is down. Some of the chemicals in my body have been reduced to the thrilling “Not Detectable.” Other toxins are down 50 or 25 percent, some have stayed steady, one toxin has doubled. Meanwhile, the rash on my hand continues to migrate. Today, the patch of blisters travels down my right palm, above the crinkling heart line, reaching for the cross of my head and fate lines. When the rash burns with impending outbreak, I have the curious urge to bite it.
“It’s a long road,” my osteopath reminds me during our follow-up appointment. The new detoxing regimen she recommends is beyond my financial reach. So the road will be longer.
This time in my consultation, I look into her eyes when I ask again if it’s likely I fed my toxins to my children when I breastfed them. On the Zoom screen she nods solemnly, says, “The bad news is that the largest toxin dump in a woman’s lifetime is often when she breastfeeds her first child. The good news is that those new little bodies are probably better at detoxing than ours.”
Phoenix might actually have a higher chance of survival because a mother orca offloads most of her toxic burden with her first baby and subsequent calves might not have as many toxins passed in utero and in milk. That metaphorical “canary in the coalmine?” The mines might be the bodies of mothers; the canaries—our firstborn.
On July 16, 2021 I went to the Salish Sea for the first time. I got on a boat before I even checked into my hotel. I saw no orcas that day. I noted—with curiosity—that I didn’t expect to. I was content simply riding choppy waves in Pacific-chilled winds.
“During those 17 days, I knew where Tahlequah was,” said the captain of my boat as he pointed over my shoulder. “She was right there. But I couldn’t take people there, so I took them everywhere but to her.” Over the roar of the boat’s motors, I had stepped close to the captain to hear him disclose this detail. When I registered his words, I stepped back. He kept his eyes on the sea so I’m not sure if he saw me swiping my eyes under my sunglasses. But it’s what I needed in this story: proof that we can stop what we’re doing and change course in response to grief. In an act of dignity.
Ellie, the naturalist on the boat, asked me, “Did you know there was a ‘superpod’ gathering and ‘greeting ceremony’ the day after Tahlequah gave birth to Phoenix?”
When she saw my jaw drop in dismay she continued. “It was the first superpod recorded off San Juan Island in four years. All 73 of the Southern Residents were identified.” Ellie recounted how the whales from all three pods swirled around, diving and rising to the surface, slapping fins and flukes, and breaching “like popcorn.”
“I don’t usually cry while I’m working,” she said, “but that day, I sobbed.”
Over the radio later that day they heard that a new calf had been photographed in the middle of that superpod, at Tahlequah’s side.
That calf was Phoenix.
The super rally of pods—of distinct orca families who have different languages and different diets and different cultures, all communicating by some shared code with the collective objective to gather, meet, and honor the next generation—gets me thinking. Makes me curious as to what lives in those intricate folds in the paralimbic lobe of cetacean brains that Dr. Marino circled with her laser pointer. Makes me wonder how long it took for those folds to evolve. If it was slow or swift. If we humans have hope… for new undulating pathways that can breach in sudden comprehension.
Three days after my trip to the Salish Sea, the Orca Behavior Institute posted an image of a calendar with a hundred red Xs through the months of April, May, June, and July. The image linked to a press release that reported “July 19th marks the 100th consecutive day without J-Pod visiting inland waters, a grim milestone.…”
Maybe I didn’t expect to see the J-Pod during my days on the Salish Sea because I subconsciously knew that, more important than the presence of the “residents” in this story, is their absence.
Tahlequah, Phoenix, and their family did make an appearance in the Salish Sea this summer, but only after an unprecedented consecutive absence of 108 days. Their first visit was brief and they were soon again spotted heading back toward the outer coast. Was the pod checking in on the missing Chinook that fed their ancestors? Has their traditional migration pattern changed? Might they be forced to relinquish their 700,000-year-old heritage as “residents?” In Latin, Orcinus orca refers to “from the underworld” and there are lessons in this story. Messages from a blue world, and a future world, and a range of under and possible worlds, if we care enough to listen. Care enough to act.
“Public will is political will,” Ellie told me. “This isn’t just a fight for the Salmon or for the Southern Residents. It’s a fight for a shared ecosystem.”
This week I tuned in to the live, streaming soundscape of a hydrophone dropped into the ocean by Orcasound Lab. The microphone rests in the Haro Strait, under a kelp bed about a hundred feet offshore and 26 feet deep. I had been listening to the fuzzy white noise of the ocean for hours when suddenly my empty kitchen was filled with snappy clicks and bright whistles. It was the first time orcas had ever passed by the microphone while I was listening. I turned the volume all the way up and leaned back in my chair, filled with stupid joy. Later in the day, the Orca Behavioral Institute posted a photo of a mother and calf under the headline This morning all of J-Pod came back into Haro Strait.
Rachel Carson once wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Nature’s persistence, Carson’s persistence, Ellie’s persistence, and the persistence of every person who pushes for truth despite the stakes—they summon for me the resolve of Tahlequah: She took a breath. And this gets me. She decided each time again: I’m not done.
Christina Rivera has published essays in Orion, Catapult, Bat City Review, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, and elsewhere. She is also the grateful recipient of residencies at Millay Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. Christina credits the fragmentation of her writing to her young children and is currently finishing her first book of essays—a collection of ecofeminist reflections on motherhood in a time of climate crisis. You can find Christina on Instagram (and other social platforms) @seekingsol.
Header photo—J22 Oreo, J46 Star, J35 Tahlequah, and J36 Alki porpoising down Haro Strait from Turn Point towards the west side of San Juan, September 5, 2021—by Elizabeth Sawyer.