Grieving Orca Carries Her Dead Calf For Two Days

An Orca mourning the loss of her newborn calf has been carrying her dead calf on her head for two full days.

The behavior is a common expression of grief for the endangered whales, say marine biologists, who are also mourning the loss of the whale calf.

Orca J35 was still carrying her dead calf for the second day straight after it died. Photo: Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research Collective

“It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

This was the first calf born to the Puget Sound pod in three years.

“On average we expect a few calves born each year,” Hanson told the Associated Press. The fact that we haven’t seen any in several years and then to have reproductive failure is further evidence that we have a severe problem with the reproductive viability in the population.”

“The baby was so newborn it didn’t have blubber. It kept sinking, and the mother would raise it to the surface,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, who tracks and observes whales in the waters. The tragic sight occurred just half an hour after researchers had spotted the orca calf alive.

Female orcas are having increasing pregnancy problems because of a lack of nutrition. The whales are not getting enough food and are starving,  because of  the drop in population of chinook salmon in waters of Pacific Northwest. Noise pollution from boat traffic as well as chemical pollutants are also contributing to the decline in numbers. As result of the stress, many female orca are unable to carry babies to term or having the babies die shortly after birth.

A multi-year study published last year by University of Washington and other researchers found that two-thirds of the orcas’ pregnancies failed between 2007 and 2014. The loss of orca J35’s baby points to a troubling future for the whale pod that numbers just 75.

“The death of the orca calf is a heartbreaking reminder of the urgency we face in saving these iconic animals,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesman Jaime Smith wrote in an email. A statewide task force has been formed to come up with recommendations to help the endangered orcas.