A mother orca whale who carried her dead calf in an extended show of grief has finally given up, dropping the dead baby after 17 days and a span of traveling more than 1,000 miles.
Tahlequah, the mother orca also known to researchers as J35, is part of an endangered whale population in Washington’s Puget Sound. As the Seattle Times reported, the animal began propping her dead calf on her back and swimming around after the infant’s sudden death.
The act of grief drew international attention, with many news outlets keeping tabs as her display stretched on for days and into weeks. Local whale watchers also saw the mother continuing to carry the dead baby. It was these groups that helped to first spot the mother without her baby this week.
Scientists said that J35 had lost two other offspring after giving birth to a male calf nearly 20 years ago, the report noted. This week, researchers confirmed that J35 has finally let go of her dead calf.
“J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy,” Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, told the Seattle Times in an email. “The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness.”
The report noted that the baby orca’s body was starting to deteriorate in recent days, and it may have become impossible for the mother to continue carrying it. Experts believed that the mother’s act was part of her mourning for the dead baby, which had been born on July 24 and died shortly afterward.
“You cannot interpret it any other way,” Deborah Giles, a University of Washington biologist, explained to the Washington Post. “This is an animal that is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn’t want to let it go. She’s not ready.”
Orca whales have been known to show emotion with one another and have close bonds between family members, just as other large social mammals like elephants do.
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Balcomb said the mother orca was still eating during her mourning period and shouldn’t have any health concerns now that she has let go of her dead calf. The population of orca whales have been endangered due to a lack of food, and researchers have been helping to feed live salmon to some of them. They believe the baby calf died due in part to the lack of food.