Awok Whale

The 40-foot female gray whale called ‘Momma’ by some, was buried in Klamath on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011 after she died from unknown causes. / Photo by Ashla Tylor.

Messenger Comes and Goes

By Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune

The awe inspiring mother gray whale that spent 53 days in the Klamath River died at 4:19am last Tuesday morning, August 16.

Her presence and passing invoked a plethora of feelings for hundreds of visitors and life-long residents of Klamath. One sentiment stands out—she was a messenger.

No matter how tirelessly scientists and others tried to lead her out of the fresh water and into her native habitat, she would not go. She did not leave until her message was heard.

But, what was her message? And, was it heard?

Yurok elder and member of the Trinidad Rancheria, Joy Sundberg recalls whales in the River—the Klamath and the Sacramento.

When Humphrey the Whale swam 69 miles up the Sacramento River in 1989 Sundberg was a radio announcer at Humboldt State University’s KHSU.

“He was there to warn people about what they are doing to the ocean and the harm that will come if we don’t change our ways,” she said.

She spread that message on the air every week, just as her friend and well-known Wintu Medicine Woman, Florence Jones instructed her to. Jones, a widely respected practitioner of Indian Medicine died in 2003 just days before her 97 birthday. What if she were alive today? What would she tell us?

Perhaps she would say we need to listen better.

If the whale carried a warning message, scientists might be able to help decipher it. A team of federal, tribal and academia biologists took samples of the whales skin and tissue—a process known as a necropsy which is the same as an autopsy, but on an animal, not a human. The tissue was sent to several labs throughout the country that specialize in different analysis. Results are not expected back for at least another two to three weeks.

Much more will be known about the whale’s life and death when the results are in. Perhaps the message she brought is in the test results. Perhaps not.

Humboldt State Professor of Zoology, Dawn Goley spent 53 days intrigued by the gray whale. She said there’s no explanation yet as to why the whale died. But there are a number of factors that could have played a role.

It is possible that the whale spent too long in fresh water.

“It could be like one of us, a human, drank nothing but sea water for 53 days. We would throw our system off,” she said. “Maybe even die.”

She also said there was no evidence of prey in the whale’s stomach. She added, that doesn’t mean she starved to death, but that perhaps her body was out of balance with the combination of excessive fresh water and no food.

Goley said that the whale’s skin had been significantly altered from being in fresh water for an extended stay.

“Anything’s possible at this point,” Goley said. “The necropsy will help tease apart some of the underlying issues.”

Although greatly saddened by the whale’s death scientists unanimously agree that the opportunity to study the gray whale up close and personal for 53 days was priceless. They hope to now be better equipped to effectively intervene in future events that may be similar.

Another Yurok ceremonial leader, Chris Peters said he is still searching for an explanation of the whale’s extended stay about 3 miles up the Klamath River.

“This is perhaps a message of something still more foreboding to yet to come. A signpost in time—when the ocean is polluted with human waste and the sonar sounds of US Navy testing invade the oceans,” he said. “As I think about the spiritual significance of such a large mammal—a very close relative—choosing to give her life in the Klamath River, I can only assume that it’s a sign—a very important sign that we all need to take not of and prepare for change to come.”

Yurok Tribal Chairman, Thomas O’Rourke, drums and sings to the gray whale on July 26. All attempts to coax her back to the ocean failed. / Photo by Ashala Tylor.

The female gray whale and her calf were first noticed in the Klamath River on June 23. After several weeks, the calf swam out to sea separating itself from its mother. She spent most of her final days just below the Klamath River bridge about three miles from the mouth of the Klamath River. She attracted hundreds, if not thousands of visitors, some of whom played music, sang songs and prayed with her. Her time in the river will long be remembered.

“We need to take a good look at ourselves,” Sundberg said. “Unfortunately, people do not do anything until problems begin to affect them personally. We’re [humans] poisoning the oceans. I hope the hundreds of people who visited her think about her. She was in her death throws, and she was desperate to send her message.”

As traditionalists say to show respect and sympathy for a loved one’s passing, Awok.


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