A grieving mother orca is holding tight to her calf on the fourth day since it died shortly after birth.
By Lynda V. Mapes
SAN JUAN ISLANDS — Researchers continue to keep vigil Friday as an endangered orca mother carried her dead calf for a fourth-straight day in the Salish Sea, a heart-rending spectacle that has drawn worldwide attention.
“It’s tough to watch and hard work, but we won’t give up as long as she doesn’t,” said Taylor Shedd, program coordinator for Soundwatch, who is watching over the mother and her calf.
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Just after 1 p.m. Friday, the orca known as J35 was continuing to carry the dead calf on her rostrum, the area of her head just behind the nose.
“Her breaths are deep and long,” Shedd said. “She takes a few seconds longer to surface than the other animals. I can’t even pretend to imagine what she’s going through, but it must be horrible. There’s not a whole lot we can do for her now, but anything we can do is worth it.”
“To be very clear, nobody would ever take this calf from her, but if she leaves the calf and clearly moves on for an extended period of time, an attempt to recover the calf would be made,” Shedd said. “So that we can have a better understanding of what happened and hopefully come up with solutions or means to never let something like this happen again.”
The orca is traveling with the rest of her family, each within 400 yards of each other.
The younger whales, including her other calf, are foraging, and Shedd said he hoped they may be catching fish to feed her, but he could not tell for sure.
“She is still pushing her calf, but doesn’t seem to be in the pattern that we left her in yesterday. Where she would drop the calf and have to take deep dives to retrieve it. She seems to be traveling in a more ‘normal’ pattern.”
Shedd said Soundwatch is keeping vessels clear of J35 and educating those close by, monitoring her health, and her behavior and if she decides to drop the calf.
The Soundwatch program is run by the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor. The program has educators on the water every day to remind boaters to keep at least 200-plus yards away from marine mammals.
The whale-watch fleet has been voluntarily keeping clear of J35 and her family to give her space and privacy.
Barbara King, emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book “How Animals Grieve,” said the duration and extent of J35’s efforts indicate intense grief.
“This is a real change from baseline behavior, she is laboring, not taking care of herself, not acting the way she normally would in order to keep her baby,” King said.
Alternative explanations, such as that she does not understand the calf is dead, are out of the question, King said. “There is no way I believe that, given what we know about orca intelligence.”
King has documented grief in primates, elephants, companion animals, farmed animals and others. The gathering of other females with J35 on Tuesday evening, which continued for hours, also did not surprise her.
“Grief and love don’t belong to us, we share it with other animals.”
The day-after-day spectacle of the grieving mother brought an outpouring of concern not only for her but for the fate of the southern resident population.
Every calf matters in a clan with only 75 members, said Billie Swalla, director of the Friday Harbor Laboratories of the University of Washington on San Juan Island, where the grieving whale has been the talk of the research campus.
“Everybody is worried about her,” Swalla said of J35. “I am just so sad, and they are in decline so this is just so worrisome. And she is a grieving young mother. This is just very hard to watch.”
The story has drawn interest around the world as news accounts have circulated on the internet.
“I am beside myself about this,” Michelle Connor, CEO of the nonprofit Forterra in Seattle, wrote The Seattle Times in an email.
“This is our family.”