The calf only lived for half an hour, but its heartbroken mother still refuses to let go. In one of the most stunning mourning rituals ever observed in the animal world, the mother carried its calf’s body around for seven consecutive days.

J35 and her calf. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

She carries it ever so gently, either by the fin or on her head, not to make any dent in the tiny, lifeless body.

The orca goes by the rather unceremonious name J35 — but Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum on Washington’s San Juan Island, prefers to call her differently: Tahlequah, a moniker given her in the museum’s adopt a whale program.

Tahlequah is part of a population native to the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, called the Southern Resident killer whales (orcas are also called killer whales). The Southern Resident group has been suffering from environmental degradation and a dwindling food supply. Biologists also fear they are undergoing a genetic bottleneck, which can be extremely problematic for the group.

Like all orcas, Tahlequah and her family are constantly on the move, and typically bring joy to people watching them from shore. But her current journey, which has taken her some 150 miles around the San Juan Islands and Vancouver, has become a desolating spectacle — an almost perfect metaphor for the killer whales’ plight.

Tahlequah refuses to let go of her calf’s body, carrying with her everywhere she goes. Sometimes she carries it on her head, and sometimes she gently bites its flipper to bring it back up after it sinks. She brings it back to the surface every time, says Balcomb.

“We know it happens, but this one is kind of on tour almost, like she’s just not letting go,”  said Ken Balcomb, founder chief scientist for the San Juan Island-based Center for Whale Research,. “It’s a very tragic tour of grief,” he added.

Grief

It’s not unheard of for an orca to carry a dead calf around for hours. Smart and sociable, orcas have impressive cognitive abilities. They are socially aware and are able to form different types of calls, depending on the nature of the situation. Recent studies have also shown that orcas are able to learn and mimic the sounds of different species, such as dolphins and humans. Orca families also have their own culture, which drives genetic evolution. Grief is also a component of this culture — whales mourn their dead, just like we do. Typically, it lasts for a few hours, sometimes up to a day. Balcomb recalls a report from the 1960s that described a similar ritual that lasted for a week — but in all their combined experience stretching out over several decades, Balcomb and colleagues have never seen anything like this.

“It is unbelievably sad,” Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, tells The Seattle Times. “It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen.”

There’s nothing noticeably different about Tahlequah. She’s a normal, joyous whale, says Atkinson. She’s 20 years old, has an 8-year-old son, and had another pregnancy a few years ago that she didn’t bring to term.
“She has one successful calf, she may have had a miscarriage and now we have a third one that she met,” Atkinson adds. “And I can only imagine, once that baby took breath and swam by mom, that the bond they would have already hared had to have deepened. So maybe that makes this even more painful.”
The behavior is not without consequence. It’s not clear if Tahquelah is eating or not, but she is showing clear signs of emaciation. Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research says you can see the hollowed-out shape of her head behind her cranium, indicating that a great amount of fat has already been wasted. Michael Weiss of the University of Essex, working with the Center for Whale Research, also laments how small she has become, and how she moves around with the tiniest of blows. She is also showing signs of exhaustion, and she is not maintaining her connection to the other members of the pod. In a matriarchal society like that of the orcas, which greatly depends on mothers and grandmothers, Tahquelah’s precarious state can also threaten the others — which could be devastating.

A fading population

The threats to the local orca pods are grave and many, and the situation is unlikely to improve if things continue as planned.

“Southern Resident killer whales are gravely endangered, and they desperately need our help,” the Center for Whale Research homepage urges.

Balcomb and colleagues started monitoring the area’s orca population in 1976. At the time, it numbered 70 whales — after 50 individuals had been taken to become attractions in marine parks. After federal protection measures were introduced, the number peaked at around 100 and then started to decline again. Today, there are 75 individuals in the area — but that’s not the most pressing problem.

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Given these numbers, there should be about nine babies being born each year, to maintain the population. Instead, no calves have been born in the past three years. Functionally, the group is almost extinct, and things may yet be even worse.

Biologists have said that the whale population is decreasing due to noise pollution from ship traffic, as well as waste being thrown into the water. A recent measure would expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries crude and refined oil from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia. This would further increase tanker traffic through the orcas’ habitat, exposing them to more noise, disruption, and potential spills.

But the biggest problem of the orcas is the food — or rather, the lack of it. Nearby populations (such as the Bigg’s killer whales) are doing much better because they eat seals, which are quite abundant. But Southern Resident killer whales feed on Chinook salmon, which are dwindling throughout the area. Listed as an endangered species for more than a decade, the orcas depend on a salmon species which is itself endangered, and that does not bode well. It’s not exactly clear why the salmon population is going down, but two common culprits — climate change and overfishing — are likely to blame.

It’s not like things are without hope. In May, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington signed an executive order to protect Southern Resident orcas, bringing together a group of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials, to help protect the region’s orcas.

“The loss of a newborn orca calf from our endangered southern resident killer whale population underscores what’s at stake as we work to protect these iconic, beautiful animals from vanishing completely,” Mr. Inslee tweeted this week.

Among all this, a grieving mother and her lifeless child, a tragic story and a sign of what’s likely to come. Tahlequah is doing this for her own reasons but maybe, just maybe, she’s also trying to send out a message.

“She’s telling the story far better than I can that these whales are in trouble,” he says.”It’s a message. These are pretty amazing animals. They know they’re being watched, they know what’s going on and they know that there’s not enough food. And maybe they know that we have something to do with it.”

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