It’s been two days now that a mother orca whale has carried her dead calf on her head, unwilling to let it go.
The mother is known as J35, and is a member of the critically endangered southern resident family of orcas. She gave birth to her calf Tuesday only to watch it die within half an hour.
All day, and through the night, she carried the calf, and she was seen still carrying the calf on Wednesday by Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research.
“It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, who has witnessed other mother orcas do the same thing with calves that did not survive.
Robin Baird, research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, in 2010 watched L72, another of the southern residents, carry her dead newborn in 2010.
“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,” Baird said.
“You could see the calf had not been dead very long, the umbilical cord was visible. When we were watching, all the rest of the whales were separated by a distance, and they were just moving very slowly. She would drop the calf every once in a while, and go back and retrieve it.”
J35 is doing the same thing, carrying her calf by balancing it on her rostrum, just over her nose. She dives to pick it back up every time it slides off.
Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, also watched L72 carry her dead calf, following her at a distance in her research boat until the light faded and it was too dark to see.
“Same thing, it was hours and hours,” she said of that whale. “But I have never heard of this,” she said of J35. “More than 24 hours.
“It is horrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being. It understands the social bonds that it has with the rest of its family members. She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn’t want to let it go. It is that simple. She is grieving.”