A heartbroken orca whale’s sadness has become an emblem of her struggling population.
The whale carried her baby, who died half an hour after its birth on July 24, on her nose for at least three days, The New York Times reports.
Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, told the Times, “We know it happens, but this one is kind of on tour almost, like she’s just not letting go.”
As the body initially fell into the water, the mother hauled it to the surface, according to CNN. She then swam with it for 150 miles in the Pacific Ocean, from the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, to the waters near the San Juan Islands and Vancouver.
“They know the calf is dead. I think this is a grieving or a ceremonial thing done by the mother,” Balcomb told CNN. “She doesn’t want to let go. She’s probably lost two other calves since her first offspring eight years ago.”
Balcomb added to Times, “I think she’s just grieving, unwilling at this point to let the calf go, like, ‘Why, why, why?’”
“Sometimes she bites the flipper and pulls it up,” Balcomb continued. “The calf sinks because it doesn’t have enough of a blubber layer, and it goes down. She dives down and picks it back up and brings it to the surface.”
The orca’s plight represents a larger problem. The Southern Resident killer whale population, to which the mother belongs, has not had a successful birth in years. In about 20 years, only 25 percent of the population’s newborns have survived, according to the center.
Partly to blame are human actions like harvesting that have negatively impacted the numbers of local salmon, which the orcas eat.
“The cause [of the birth rate] is lack of sufficient food resources in their foraging area,” Balcomb explained to CNN. “There’s not enough food, and that’s due to environmental reasons.”
Another orca exhibiting human-like behavior made the news this year for mimicking human speech. A video showed a whale named Wikie at a French aquarium seemingly uttering “hello,” “bye bye” and “one, two, three” at the direction of her handler.
“Orcas have always had their own complex means of communicating with each other using a language that humans can’t understand, and it’s now been shown that in captivity, they try to get our attention by carefully mimicking human speech,” Elisa Allen from PETA said at the time.