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Grieving Mother Orca Carries Dead Calf For More Than A Week, Over Hundreds Of Miles

A female orca that appears to be grieving has been carrying her dead calf in the water, keeping it afloat since the baby died more than a week ago.
Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch, taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114
A female orca that appears to be grieving has been carrying her dead calf in the water, keeping it afloat since the baby died more than a week ago.

A mother orca was still carrying her dead calf in the waters off the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday more than a week after the baby whale died.

The calf was the first to be born in the endangered pod of killer whales in three years, says Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum on San Juan Island. The plight of the mother orca highlights the latest setback for the declining killer whale population off the coast of the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Their numbers have shrunk from 98 in 1995 to 75 today.

Marine biologists with The Whale Museum are monitoring the mother, named Tahlequah, from a distance. The mother orca has been carrying the dead calf on her head in an apparent act of mourning with the help of her group, Atkinson says.

"In a situation like this, we've seen them support one another in ways that are just astounding," she tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Orcas typically carry a stillborn calf for about a day or so after its death, according to researchers. But in this case, Atkinson says Tahlequah may still be carrying the corpse because the baby calf was alive for about a half hour after its birth on July 24. This is the longest period researchers have observed a mother orca carrying a dead calf, Atkinson says.

"One of my questions to biologists is ... 'Does grief change once you've met the being that you've carried?" she says. "So she carried this for 17 months before it was born, and we know that it swam by her side, so there would have been a bonding, a birthing experience. ... So there's a part of me that believes the grief could be much deeper because they had bonded."

Researchers are also concerned about the mother's health. They fear that she may not be eating enough and could be exhausting herself by diving down to retrieve the body when she loses control of it in rough waters.

"I am so terrified for her well-being," Deborah Giles, a research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca, told The Seattle Times. "She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female, and we need her."

Orcas in Puget Sound have been listed as critically endangered since 2005 due to the decline of Chinook salmon, their main food source, among other factors. Puget Sound Chinook have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1999.

In addition to the decline of Chinook salmon, congested waters from whale-watching and other commercial boats have threatened the orca population. Noise pollution significantly hampers whale communication, making them less effective during hunting, according to a recent study.

When whales do find salmon to eat, they often ingest toxins due to environmental pollution, which are passed onto their fragile offspring, Atkinson says. The orca population in Washington normally produces four to five calves per year, but pollution has driven up the mortality rate, she adds.

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to help in recovery efforts for both the orca and Chinook salmon populations. Whale watching alone brings in about $60 million for the state annually, according to a statement released by the governor's office.

Marine biologists are also monitoring another calf in this pod that is "severely emaciated," Atkinson says. Tahlequah has held onto the dead calf as she and her pod continue their migration loop in the Salish Sea from Washington state to British Columbia.

"The first thing it tells me that is that grief isn't owned by humans," Atkinson says. "The thing that's amazing about Tahlequah is that she's ... carried this calf hundreds of miles and hundreds of hours at this point, and her family is helping her."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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