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Orcas and Life after Menopause

Orca grandmothers lead pods, as matriarchs of their family units.  Science has discovered that only  some whale species, and humans, have a long life post fertility. Many other large mammals –primates, elephants—may be fertile into old age.  I wonder how you know a whale is female, much less post-menopausal, but I trust there are experts in these matters.

Fifteen years ago I took a whale-watching ride with my boys off Port Townshend in Washington, by the San Juan islands.  The orcas delighted us by showing off for the tour boats, surfacing, breaching, playing in and around the boats.  Now, in 2020, we are told northwest orca pods are in dangerous decline, as salmon are depleted and all the challenges of living in highly trafficked boating areas, with environmental damage, takes its toll.

There is also evidence that elderly females, of both species, live longer when providing child care, per news stories.  I am not sure that is the right conclusion.  Elderly females may live longer when assigned meaning, purpose and regards – which up until recently, at least for humans, meant traditional roles within the family unit.  As an orca, a grandmother may remember remote fishing grounds that were a resource in tough times.  As a human, you may counsel about the stretch of history, and the memories you can share of memories.  My grandmothers were born in the 19th century; my grandchild might see the 22st century.  That is a long stretch of human experience to share as a storyteller and mediator, and yet we are formed by those decisions of a hundred years ago, just as we will inform the future.

Other women have served as sage elders for all of us.  I think of Georgia O’Keefe and her painting in the southwest light into her 90’s (she died at 99).  Ursula Le Guin wrote into her 80’s; until I moved to Portland and learned about her pioneering constructs for gender and race imagined on different worlds, I had “dismissed” her as a science fiction writer.  We could add to a long list of women and men who continue to nurture us, and provide us with direction, from the body of their work we have shared or known as close to our spirit.

Earlier this year an orca made world-wide news when she carried her dead calf with her, nosing it to the surface or balancing it on her back, for over two weeks. She was in mourning, perhaps not just for her calf but for the health of her pod.  Like many other species of plants and animals, the more we understand and observe, the less distance between us.

I could adopt the orca as my spirit animal – although I read you are chosen, you do not choose your spirit animal.  The internet shaman guides are probably as trustworthy as any other internet marketers; I mean who would rather be a bat?

We the grandmothers, the elders, of our species, are figuring out how to navigate for our pods in changing currents.  I’ll gladly claim orca sisterhood.

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