A grieving orca whale has been carrying her dead newborn calf for days in a heart-wrenching scene off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia.
“It is unbelievably sad,” Brad Hanson, a biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told The Seattle Times.
The calf was born alive on Tuesday near the San Juan Islands in Washington state, close to the U.S.-Canada border, according to the Center for Whale Research. But it died a short time later of unknown causes.
The center is now monitoring the mother, who has spent days repeatedly nosing her sinking calf to the surface and balancing the small body on her head. She was still spotted Friday with the calf.
Researchers are concerned about the extra effort the mother orca is expending and its effect on her health. She was lagging at the back of her pod, according to Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch, which helps protect the whales from ships and boaters.
The mother whale’s first response was to get her baby to air, said Ken Balcomb, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research. “I’m sure that she’s aware that it’s deceased,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but “she’s reluctant to leave her baby.” Researchers have seen similar orca behavior before, but never so prolonged, he said.
“Having a newborn, there were a few moments of brief, brief happiness, and then followed by disappointment and sadness,” Dr. Anna Hall, a marine biologist with the center, told CBC. “This is a population that is clearly struggling in terms of numbers.”
The orca mother is known to researchers as J-35. She travels with one of three remaining “southern resident” orca pods off the coast of Oregon, Washington state and Vancouver Island.
The area’s endangered orca population has reached its lowest point in decades, and the species is on the brink of extinction, according to the whale center. The population has been decimated by ship traffic, toxins in the ocean, and particularly, the disappearance of the orcas’ main food source, chinook salmon.
The total number of southern resident killer whales is now just 75. The last successful birth in the pod occurred in 2015. A 2017 study found that two-thirds of orca pregnancies failed over a seven-year period. Researchers attributed the failed pregnancies to a lack of salmon.
“During years of low salmon abundance, we see hormonal signs that nutritional stress is setting in, and more pregnancies fail, and this trend has become increasingly common in recent years,” Sam Wasser, a biology professor at the University of Washington and the lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The southern resident orcas were first designated an endangered species in the U.S. 13 years ago.