Orca tragedy: mother still carrying baby 16 days after it died

J35, a killer whale, has been carrying her dead calf for 16 days. The baby died 30 minutes after birth. Photo by Center for Whale Research

Vancouver, BC – A grieving killer whale is still carrying the body of her baby 16 days after the calf died a half-hour after being born.

Her plight has been observed since July 24 off the coast of BC when the Orca, known as J35 or Tahlequah, lost the baby a few minutes after birth. Since then J35 has been carrying the dead calf in a “tragic” show of grief that has moved people world-wide.

The Centre for Whale Research said J35 was last seen on on August 8, still carrying her dead calf.

Teams spotted J35/Tahlequah today and the heartbreaking sight of her still carrying her dead calf. It has been almost two weeks since she gave birth,” scientists monitoring the Orca’s behaviour said.

There is concern for the mothers health because it’s not known if the mother is feeding or getting tired from carrying the dead baby for such an extended period.

Baby Orca seen shortly after birth. But the baby died a few minutes later. Photo by Michael Weiss – Center for Whale Research.


The calf born to J35 was female. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

While the tragic and extended show of grief continues, scientists at the whale research centre say an even bigger tragedy is that 100 per cent of pregnancies among the endangered species off the coast of BC and Washington State have failed to produce viable offspring.

“Regrettably, approximately 75% of newborns in the recent two decades following designation of the Southern Resident killer whale (orca) population as “Endangered” have not survived, and 100% of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring,” the centre said.

“We are saddened to report that a baby Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) died a short time after it was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24, 2018. The newborn whale was reported alive and swimming with its mother, J35, and other members of J pod near Clover Point on the Victoria shoreline in mid-morning,” the group said.

“A Center for Whale Research team was on the water in Haro Strait at the time and immediately responded to photo-document the newborn calf for the long-term census study we maintain for the US and Canadian governments. 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 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, USA,” it stated.

The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead baby whale throughout the day until at least sunset.

It’s known that Orca mothers carry their dead babies for a few days. However, the period J35 has carried the baby may be a record.

Why Orcas exhibit this behaviour is not entirely clear. But a resident of San Juan Island reported a what appeared to be a funeral ritual.

“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 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,” he told the whale research centre.

“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.”

A further observation was made on July 25.

“As of sunset last night, July 25, J35 was still pushing the dead calf near East Point, Saturna Island, Canada. Killer whales and dolphins have been known to support and transport their dead calves for as long as a week – a testament to the amazingly strong mother/offspring bond and caring.”

There are fears that unless the stock of Chinook Salmon increases, and human interference of the natural habitat of these Orcas ends, they’ll go extinct.

“The SRKW population cannot survive if it is unable to reproduce, although with the naturally long life-span of living whales of this species we may be able to see the survivors for a while.

“The ultimate cause of the SRKW population decline and poor reproduction is food related: the primary prey species for these top marine predators is Chinook salmon, with most spawning populations also listed as “Endangered” and many already extinct.”

Scientists at the research centre continue to monitor the health of the mother.