Salmon are scarce as Star tries to take care of her mother and brother
Photo credit:  Center for Whale Research
Polaris's New Calf
By time the body of Polaris's second calf had washed up on Dungeness Spit in 2013, Star was nearly four and learning to hunt the Chinook salmon that supply the Southern Resident orcas in the spring and summer.
Life appeared stable,  and in 2015 eight new calves bolstered the population, creating hope that the Southern Resident orcas were on their way to recovery.
One of the expectant mothers that year was Polaris, and Star was soon a big sister. Polaris' new  calf was named Dipper (J 54) by the Whale Museum after the Little Dipper constellation where the star Polaris sits.
Observers the following spring reported that Star and Dipper looked robust, and Star was often seen playing boisterously with the other older calves. Even though Polaris was thin, having never regained fitness after Dipper’s birth, it looked like this celestial family was doing well.
And then everything changed. 
Polaris Continued to Lose Weight
Chinook salmon runs were at a record low that year and the whales had to adopt new strategies to survive. In over 40 years of observations never had the whales returned to the Salish Sea so late in the season, and when they were present, the Southern Resident orca clan often cleaved into small family groups and spread out to hunt.
They spent little time in the larger gatherings that are normal for them in the summer.
The stress of low prey availability may have contributed to Polaris’ struggle to thrive - she doted on Star and Dipper but appeared to rest and move slowly at times. At other times she seemed to have a burst of energy and hope rose among whale watchers that she might still recover.
Polaris Disappears
She was determined to help her calves survive, and naturalists speculated that Polaris knew she was fading, that somehow she would have to prepare Star and Dipper for life on their own, and soon.  Eventually Polaris couldn't sustain the energy it took and as the days shortened into fall she became too weak to forage.
It fell to Star to be the family provider.
Star was the equivalent in maturation to a child in first grade, yet with the help of her aunt Tahlequah (J35) she hunted fish for her mother and tried to feed pieces to little Dipper.
She worked hard to keep the family supplied with fish but the situation became grim.
The indentation behind Polaris' blowhole is characteristic of undernourished whales, giving them a "peanut head" appearance.
Photo credit:  Center for Whale Research
By mid-October naturalists and biologists had to blink back their tears as they witnessed the whale family’s desperate situation. NOAA Fisheries decided not to intervene, and devotees could only watch helplessly for weeks as Polaris and Dipper spiraled towards death.
The frigid water and the metabolic cost to produce milk for Dipper drained Polaris’ blubber layer. Even with the fish that Star provided, Dipper began to show the sunken "peanut head" that his mother had as they lost weight.
Some time between the 21st and 23rd of October 2016 Polaris was no longer with the calves she had so diligently cared for, having succumbed to complications due to Dipper's birth. She had disappeared into the depths of the cold Salish Sea, leaving six year old Star and ten month old Dipper alone. 
Star Tries to Take Care of Dipper
Star struggled to keep Dipper alive but what fish she could find wasn’t enough. Had Dipper been well nourished and the salmon plentiful he might have had a fighting chance, but he was thin and likely laced with contaminants.
As Polaris had drawn on the last of her blubber, the milk she produced would have increasingly contained the toxins that are normally stored in fat deposits so it’s likely that what nourishment Polaris had been able to provide to Dipper had been toxic.
True to Southern Resident orca matriarchal  societies, Star's ever-decreasing extended family did what they could to help her find fish and care for Dipper.  But with the limited resource and energy needed to round up what fish they could detect, her grandmother and aunt had to focus first on their own calves.
As he continued to lose weight, it wasn’t long before Dipper, like his mother before him, lost the natural buoyancy that had been provided by his blubber.
Star fought to save her little brother as his situation became dire. 
Star cradled her dying brother, helped by her cousin Notch (J 47) on the other side. 
Photo credit: Mark Malleson
Together with family members Star struggled to keep Dipper afloat.
At times they grasped him by their mouths to bring him back up to the surface to breath, leaving the same type of rake marks on Dipper’s dorsal fin that the newborn calf bore when he was found on Dungeness Spit a few years earlier.
​Dipper began to sink, likely delirious from hunger and the toxins that had entered his body through the milk Polaris had produced at a great sacrifice to her own compromised health.
Dipper took a final breath, lost consciousness, and disappeared below the surface, joining Polaris in an untimely death. 
 As Dipper's energy faded, Star and their cousin Notch had held him afloat on the surface, easing his struggle to breath. 


Living With Her Extended Family
Only six years old, Star became an orphan with an uncertain future.
With the scarcity of Chinook salmon, her grandmother and aunt may not have been able to provide for her had she not become independent. But Star had grown up quickly and courageously fended for herself, her mother, and her little brother.
Now eight, she continues to 'Star' within her extended family, however she is seen less frequently.  The Southern Resident orcas come to visit their favored grounds of the inland Salish Sea less often and arrive later in the spring, hopefully finding enough Chinook salmon elsewhere. 
The tragic losses that devastated this orca family parallel what scientists have discovered about the severe consequences of food shortage, consequences that interact with contaminants and anthropogenic noise to blossom in a deadly suite that even survivors like Star may not be able to withstand when they become mothers.
There are now only 76 of these whales left.
But one of them is Star, the strong, resilient little whale with a courageous spirit.
Her message is clear—the time to restore salmon stocks is now. She has shown us that with a little help from us this treasured population of killer whales can rebound.  
Can we give them back what was taken from them? Perhaps not, but we can give them a new lease on life and an opportunity for the population to recover.
They need your help, from signing petitions to volunteering to donations.
What You Can Do Now to Help
"Scientists have identified three main causes of decline for [Southern Resident Killer Whales] today: lack of sufficient prey, toxins, and vessel noise. It is the lack of an adequate prey base throughout the year, however, that is broadly recognized as the most important factor and one that must be urgently addressed in order to protect this apex predator from extinction.
The links below connect to orca and salmon organizations that can use your time, energy, or contributions in helping these iconic orcas to survive.

Restore Salmon

Support Orca Research

Photo credit:  Center for Whale Research

US and Canada


Photo credit:  NOAA
Sources for this story :
Brutal year sets back orca recovery  

Erin Heydenreich, Deborah Giles, and Ken Balcomb

 / January 1, 2017

Population growth is limited by nutritional impacts on pregnancy success in endangered Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca)  

Samuel K. Wasser ,Jessica I. Lundin,Katherine Ayres,Elizabeth Seely,Deborah Giles,Kenneth Balcomb,Jennifer Hempelmann,Kim Parsons,Rebecca Booth ​

Published: June 29, 2017

The Center for Whale Research 

NOAA Fisheries
Save Our Wild Salmon
Pacific Whale Watch Association