Grieving mother orca carries dead calf for days

(Photo by Michael Weiss, Center for Whale Research)

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — A grieving mother orca carried her dead calf for a second straight day on Wednesday, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The calf was born near Victoria, British Columbia on Tuesday. The whale was seen alive and swimming with its mother mid-morning on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, by the time the CWR crew arrived on scene, the newborn calf was deceased, and the pod had traveled several miles eastward of the reported sighting location,” the research center said in a news release on Thursday.

“The baby’s carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island.”

Mother orca still pushing her dead calf on Wednesday (Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research)

The mother orca continued supporting and carrying the dead calf until at least sunset on Wednesday evening, according to observers.

A witness relayed what she observed in an interview with the Center for Whale Research.

“At sunset, a group of five to six females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly 2 hours. As the light dimmed, I was able to watch them continue what seemed to be a ritual or ceremony. They stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved. The lighting was too dim to see if the baby was still being kept afloat. It was both sad and special to witness this behavior. My heart goes out to J35 and her beautiful baby; bless it’s soul.”

Biologist Deborah Giles with the Center for Conservation Biology called the pictures “heartbreaking” and said they show how socially bonded the species is.

“She was grieving,” Giles said. “She knew it was dead.”

The Pacific Northwest’s orca population is facing extinction. Without drastic measures soon, experts warn this could be the last generation.

Since being listed as endangered in 2005, the population has gone down 15 percent. The steps that have been taken so far, including increased salmon hatcheries, voluntary no-go zones and habitat restoration, have not resulted in more whales.

While experts don’t always agree on the approach, they do agree that something needs to be done.

“If we don’t save the orca, we will have let down future generations,” said Stephanie Solien, of Puget Sound Partnership.