The Orca whale mother is now moving on in her grief over the death of her offspring. The mother carried her deceased baby for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles, but now she has released it and seems to be returning to normal.
She was seen Saturday with fellow members of her pod, chasing a school of salmon. She was no longer carrying her baby, and it was reported that she looks healthy.
“Her tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky,” according to a statement on the Center for Whale Research’s website.
The mother orca is commonly referred to as J-35, but she is also known as Tahlequah, a name she was given as part of the adopt a whale program at The Whale Museum on Washington’s San Juan Island.
NPR’s Colin Dwyer reported that her recovery is important, not only for her but for the rest of her pod. Dwyer said that ”given the fact that orcas move in matrilineal groups, dependent on mothers and grandmothers,” Tahlequah’s death would put her adult son and others in danger.
There hasn’t been an orca born in the past three years that has been known to survive, according to the Center for Whale Research. So when Tahlequah recently gave birth, it was so exciting to many researchers. Her calf died just 30 minutes after it was first spotted by a whale watch operator on July 24.
The Center for Whale Research keeps track of every single known orca, and as of December 2017, the population contains just 76 whales.
According to NPR’s Dwyer, the population of orcas, previously known as Southern Resident killer whales, has decreased by about a quarter in the past 20 years. This is largely because their food source, the Chinook salmon, has also seen a dramatic population decline.
Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum, said that Tahlequah’s grieving period was unusually long. Typically, Atkinson said, researchers have seen mothers carry stillborn calves for “a day or so.” But Tahlequah’s baby was not stillborn. “She carried this for 17 months before it was born,” Atkinson said. “And we know that it swam by her side … so there is a part of me that believes that the grief could be much deeper, because they had bonded.”
Atkinson said she understood why Tahlequah’s grief generated a global response. “Orcas … are charismatic megafauna,” she said. “You’re going to feel that pain of grief — particularly if you’ve gone through grief in your own life.”