Grave concerns for mother orca pushing around dead calf

A grieving mother killer whale, pushing her dead calf around the water for a week, has alarmed scientists holding grave fears that the orca is starving herself.

The mother whale named Tahlequah, or J35, gave birth to a baby southern resident killer whale on July 24, near Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

However, by the time a team from the Center for Whale Research arrived to take pictures of the newborn, it sadly was no longer alive.

The mother was seen repeatedly diving to retrieve its carcass as it was sinking and trying to support it on her forehead while she transported it through rough seas toward San Juan Island and continues to do so a week later.

The newborn orcas southern resident killer whale died shortly after it was born and its grieving mother whale has been pushing the dead calf around for a week.
The newborn died shortly after it was born. Its grieving mother was reluctant to let it go. Source: Center for Whale Research/Michael Weiss

According to the Center for Whale Research dolphins and killer whales have been known to transport their dead offspring for up to a week.

Researchers hold grave fears for Tahlequah’s health, with fears that she is not eating enough food to stay healthy.

“I am so terrified for her well-being,” Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for non-profit Wild Orca, told the Seattle Times on Monday.

“She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female and we need her,” she said.

The mother southern resident killer whale was still pushing her dead orca calf 24 hours after she died (pictured)
The mother whale was still pushing her dead calf 24 hours after she died (pictured) Source: Center for Whale Research/Ken Balcomb

Researchers fear that since the mother was in labour last week, she has not eating properly and continues to not eat while she balances her deceased calf on her head.

“I feel so sad for that family. And for her mental state she must be in anguish. What is beyond grief? I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that is where she is,” Ms Giles said.

The mother is currently surrounded by members of her clan, known as J pod, who stay to support her.

Wildlife biologist for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Brad Hanson has seen this behaviour before and described it as “unbelievably sad.”

The mother southern resident killer whale was seen repeatedly diving to retrieve the baby orca's carcass as it was sinking and trying to support it on her forehead
The mother was seen repeatedly diving to retrieve the calf’s carcass as it was sinking, and trying to support it on her forehead while she transported it through rough seas towards San Juan Island. Source: Center for Whale Research/Dave Ellifrit

High death rate among newborns

A resident who witnessed the grieving mother and pod said at sunset, a group of 5-6 females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a circular motion for nearly two hours.

“As the light dimmed, I was able to watch them continue what seemed to be a ritual or ceremony,” the resident said.

About 75 per cent of newborns have not survived for long after birth in the past 20 years and as a result the southern resident killer whale population has been classified as endangered.

In the past three years all pregnancies have failed to produce viable offspring.

It’s believed the main cause of the poor reproduction and population decline is related to food.

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