Today I’d like to talk about Grandmother Orcas, those sleek black and white whales that are so beautiful. But before I get to the Grandma part, let me say a few words about the orca part. First, these incredible whales have been given some pretty derogatory names by homo sapiens. They are called orcinus orca (orcinus means “from hell”), orcas (derived from the Roman god of the underworld), and killer whales. What an injustice to these magnificent creatures! How did they get such terrible names?
One reason is because orcas are so huge. Adult males average 30 feet in length and weigh over 17,000 pounds. Adult females average 18-23 feet in length and weigh between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds. Because they are so big, orcas require 500 pounds of food (fish, seals, sea lions, and even other whales) each day to survive and stay healthy. Unfortunately, their simple need for lots of food can look like rapacity or even malice. Hence, humans dubbed them “killers”—which implies criminal intent in their behavior. But orcas are no more killers than the robin hunting for worms in your back yard or you sitting at the table eating a bacon cheeseburger! I wish someone would start a movement to rename orcas—a name befitting their beauty and mystery. Any takers? (End of sermon!)
Now let’s talks about the Grandma part of orcas. Female orcas share a trait with female homo sapiens that is rare among mammals: they go through menopause. This means they stop reproducing in their 40s—yet they can live for another forty or more years. To appreciate what they do with the rest of their lives, we must remember that orcas live in family groups called pods. The older females stay in their pod and are literally the grandmothers to many of the younger orcas. It’s different with the males. Male orcas in one pod mate with females in another pod. After their liaison, they return home to their original pod—until the next mating season. There are two consequences of this behavior: First, orca calves don’t know their fathers. Hence, orcas in a pod don’t know their grandfathers either. Secondly male orcas stay with their mothers their entire life! This is very rare in animals although it is sometimes observed in homo sapiens…
What role do Grandma orcas play? In short, they boost the survival rate of the orca calves as well as the survival rate of the pod itself. Because they have more years of experience than their daughters, they often know where to find salmon when food is scarce. These grandmas also care for the calves while their mothers go and hunt for fish. Orcas communicate with each other. Each pod seems to have a unique dialect. Grandmothers help teach the young orcas the dialect of their pod. Scientists finally have data to measure the effectiveness of these grandmothers’ presence in whale pods. (It’s hard to collect data on orcas because they spend 95 percent of their time under water!)
Scientists examined 40 years of data on the survival of 378 orca calves off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. They found that offspring whose maternal grandmothers had recently died, had a mortality rate 4.5 times higher than those with living grandmothers! Scientists also found that adult male orcas whose mother dies also have a higher rate of mortality. And yet sometimes we humans dare to say that animals don’t form significant relationships with one another or they aren’t affected by the death of their kin!
What does this have to do with us? It can make us appreciate the role of grandparents in our own lives. Grandparents can be “wisdom figures” for their children and grandchildren. They can pass on valuable experience to the next generations. Often they pass on information about their particular human “pod” or family—for example, the history or customs of their family. In addition, grandparents often help care for their grandchildren while parents are out seeking a living. Grandparents also expand the circle of love surrounding their grandchildren. Their very presence says, Yes, Mommy and Daddy love you—but so do Grandma and Grandpa! That’s a lot of love!
I’m suggesting we take a few minutes to reflect on grandparents. These questions might help:
What do you remember about your own grandparents? Is there anything you learned from them or admire about them?
If your grandparents are deceased and you could somehow ask them one or two questions that you didn’t ask them while they were alive, what would you ask them?
If you are a grandparent, what’s the best part of being one? Do you pass on information or skills to your grandchildren? How do you show your love for them? Do you ever talk about God to them?
PS: I sent this blog out Sunday, March 20, at 3:00 pm (ET) to see if you would get it on Monday, the 21st.
I found this lovely grandmother song from our Native American (First Nations) tradition. It is called “The Grandmother Song” or “The Grandmother Medicine Song,” and it is sung here by Sheffy Oren Bach. The words are simple, repetitive, meditative:
“I hear the voice of my grandmothers calling me… I hear the voice of my grandmothers’ song… Give birth, give life… Listen, listen… Teach them. Be Wise. Grow… Listen, listen… Wake up, child… Listen, listen… Women, stand in your power…” The paintings are exquisite too.
For those who wish, here is a short video entitled “Europe Stands with Ukraine. It is the National Anthem of Ukraine played by orchestras across Europe as a way of showing their solidarity with the people of Ukraine:
I invite you to respond to anything in this reflection. Comment on something… or add your own thoughts… We love hearing from you!