Grieving Mother Orca Still Carrying Her Dead Calf as Researchers Begin to Fear for Her Health

J35 was first seen carrying her baby after its death on July 24, in what scientists call a mourning ritual

Photo: Michael Weiss/Center for Whale Research

It’s been more than two weeks since a mother orca was first spotted carrying her dead calf off the coast of Seattle, and she shows no signs of stopping in what scientists call an “unprecedented” period of mourning.

On Thursday, researchers with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service said the grieving mother, her calf and their pod were spotted in Canadian waters around 1:30 p.m. PT on Wednesday.

“We’re obviously concerned, and monitoring the situation,” Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist at NOAA, said during a status call with the media. “We’ve seen this sort of situation before, unfortunately.”

According to Hanson and his fellow experts, the top concern right now is the mother’s desire to forage and feed. The longer she goes without doing either, the greater the chance she’ll lose her foraging abilities.

Dawn Noren, a research biologist at NOAA, said that it’s possible the orca — named J35 — has podmates who’ve been foraging for her and giving her food. The fact that her body was likely prepped for lactation, too, means she has extra lipids in her blubber that will sustain her for a while.

“A female killer whale … could probably fast for about four weeks before it gets into a detrimental state,” Noren said. However, the energy the mother is expending to push the calf is a concern as time goes on. “If this goes further, we might have an issue with her condition,” she added.

The calf died not long after its birth on July 24. As its body fell into the water, the mother hauled it to the surface and began carrying it in on her nose what some scientists call a mourning ritual. One week later, members of her pod were seen taking turns holding the calf.

Much of the observation of J35 is due to the fact that another of her podmates, J50, is ailing, and researchers are trying to intervene with that whale’s medical care. However, human intervention with J35 and her calf is off the table for now.

“Obviously the connection [the pod] has formed with this calf is substantial and is something that we do have to take into account — what or how that might impact the whale from her behavioral state,” Hanson said.

Killer whale research scientist Sheila Thornton said removing the calf would be a “very, very difficult decision” that it would come down to the health of the mother.

“The connections between these animals are very strong, and to remove one from her familial group would have serious repercussions,” she explained. “I think there are many species who do undertake this sort of behavior. They are very intelligent animals, and the loss of this animal is quite profound.”

For now, researchers and veterinarians working to treat J50 will continue to monitor J35, looking closely at her for skin lesions, any changes in the way she swims or surfaces or major changes in her breath, which could indicate that she is metabolizing lipids. Thornton added that the calf is still “surprisingly intact.”

The orca’s plight represents a larger problem: The Southern Resident killer whale population, to which J35 belongs, has not had a successful birth in years. In about 20 years, only 25 percent of the population’s newborns have survived.

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