SCIENCE

Heartbreaking Photo Shows Whales 'Grieving' Over Dead Calf

Research has shown that some marine mammals do mourn their dead.

While diving off Hawaii's Big Island earlier this year, free diver and underwater photographer Deron Verbeck captured an image of something as beautiful and touching as it was tragic. 

"The Procession," as Verbeck calls the shot, shows a male short-finned pilot whale  carrying a dead calf in its mouth while swimming alongside two female whales.

On his Facebook page, Verbeck writes that while there have been many reports of whales and dolphins carrying and "mourning" their dead offspring, this was his first time seeing it.

"It was a pretty heavy and heart wrenching scene as the whales slowly passed by carrying their dead calf," he writes.

At the time of the encounter, Verbeck was working with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry off the coast of Kailua-Kona. Underneath a photo he posted to his own Facebook page, Skerry writes that he and Verbeck understood they were witnessing something special. 

"I felt a bit like an intruder on a solemn moment, almost voyeuristic," Skerry writes in the comments. "I made a few frames, surfaced and let them be, turning my attention back to the mission at hand."

Verbeck wrote in his post that all three pilot whales were identified by Robin Baird, a biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective, as part of the same social group.

What (Baird) believes is that (from top to bottom in the image) the top animal is the adult mother of the bottom animal (although no genetic samples have been taken they have been photographed numerous times side by side since 2008 and mothers and female calves will stay together their entire lives) and the dead calf is the first offspring of the bottom animal. The bull that is carrying the calf may or may not be the biological father (only genetic sampling would have proved that). 

Research has shown that like humans, dolphins and other marine mammals mourn their dead. 

In an email to The Huffington Post, Malia Chow, superintendent of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, confirmed that epimeletic behavior -- when a healthy animal cares for an injured, ill or dead individual -- is common in some toothed whales, as well as bottlenose dolphins. 

Earlier this year, in fact, an adult bottlenose dolphin was filmed off the western coast of Italy seemingly trying to revive the body of a dead dolphin calf. And last month in New Zealand, a female killer whale was seen pushing her dead calf for 22 hours before boaters chased her away from the corpse.

The video below, from 2011, shows the same behavior by short-finned pilot whales in the Philippine Sea west of Tinian, one of the three principal islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands:

 

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