A remarkable life and early death
J32 was born during the winter of 1996 into the Southern Resident Community of orcas, which consists of J, K, and L Pods. She joined a very close-knit family including her mother J20 (Ewok), grandmother J10 (Tahoma), uncle J18 (Everett), and aunt J22 (Oreo). She was named ‘Rhapsody’ in a naming contest through The Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Some definitions of the word rhapsody include “an expression of ecstatic enthusiasm,” “rapturous delight or ecstasy,” and “a composition free in structure and highly emotional in character.” Over the years, Rhapsody continuously lived up to her name and was a delight to all who knew her. She was an exuberant young whale and was often given the nickname ‘the breacher’ due to her apparent joy in repeatedly jumping from the water.
Little J32 suffered more than her share of adversity in her young life. Her mother died when she was only two years old. Fortunately her extended family continued to care for her. She traveled in close proximity to all of her family members but seemed to have a particularly strong bond with her uncle ‘Everett’ who appeared to take a protective role in the care of his young niece. She was also lucky to have a playmate in her infant cousin J34 (DoubleStuf), Oreo’s son, who had been born the previous winter. The two young whales were close companions, often seen playing and cavorting together. They grew up as siblings – a strong attachment that continued throughout Rhapsody’s life.
The sight of this young orphan being cared for by family members was a heartwarming one, and displayed evidence of the lifelong bonds inherent in orcas. But in the spring of 2000, misfortune struck again. On March 18th Everett’s body was found in the waters near Vancouver B.C. A necropsy was performed and results indicated that he was full of toxins and was suffering from a severe bacterial infection which, at least in part, contributed to his death. Sadly, Rhapsody’s grandmother Tahoma was also missing from J Pod at that time and it appeared that she had died some time earlier. This close-knit little family had been torn in half in just under two years.
Over the years aunt J22 (Oreo) continued to act as a surrogate mother to her niece and in 2003 Oreo gave birth to her second son J38 (Cookie). Rhapsody appeared to have overcome her unfortunate beginnings and was a very active and energetic whale, continuing to play with her cousins and breach on a regular basis. As she approached her teenage years she was seen more and more often in the company of new mothers in her extended community, seemingly helping to babysit the infant calves. There was increased hope that she would soon have a calf of her own. In 2011, photos of Rhapsody led to speculation that she was pregnant but she was never seen with a newborn swimming next to her. In the summer of 2014, photos of Rhapsody doing her trademark breaching again triggered rumors that she was pregnant, and people began to look forward to the arrival of a new member to the family.
Unfortunately orca enthusiasts never had a chance to meet this long anticipated baby whale. Rhapsody’s body was found in the waters off British Columbia on December 4, 2014. She was pregnant with a near full-term female calf that had died an unknown time earlier. The resulting infection from the deceased fetus caused Rhapsody’s death.
The loss of this vibrant young orca who had been such a favorite was a terrible blow. She was just entering her prime reproductive years making her vitally important for the future of the Southern Resident Community. With only an aunt and two male cousins remaining, the death of Rhapsody and her unborn daughter may mean the end of this particular family line. Listed as endangered in 2005 the population, currently consisting of only 78 individuals, has been rapidly declining. The major threats have been identified as prey depletion, contaminants and vessel effects. Recent research shows that the lack of Chinook salmon, primary prey for Southern Residents, appears to be the leading cause of decline and may be responsible for a high rate of miscarriage in the whales. The restoration of Chinook salmon is imperative if this population is to recover and thrive. The removal of the four lower Snake River dams will help reestablish salmon runs that are significant to these pods and may provide the prey necessary to recover the population. We owe it to Rhapsody, her unborn calf, and the entire Southern Resident Community of orcas to give them this chance.