A grieving orca whose calf died last month just minutes after it was born was seen this week still carrying the tiny whale’s body around the Pacific Northwest, more than 17 days later.
Tahlequah, referred to by scientists as J35, was spotted Wednesday by Canadian scientists pushing the body of her calf off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. She was seen again Thursday, still holding on to the remains.
Her apparent act of grief has tugged at the world’s heartstrings for weeks and shown the struggles faced by her endangered pod of southern resident killer whales. There are just 75 orcas in the group, and the calf was the first born alive since 2015.
“This is completely unprecedented, and honestly your guess is as good as ours as far as what is going on here,” Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said in a phone interview. “I think it’s really easy to put human emotions on it, but personally I think it’s accurate. I think she is grieving.”
Researchers told The Seattle Times that they have no plans to take the body away from J35 even as they worry about her health. It’s unclear if the whale has been eating, and scientists told the outlet her vast swim could very well be depleting her energy reserves.
But the carcass, which Tahlequah has now carried for around 1,000 miles, is starting to deteriorate, and Giles said her mourning may soon come to an end.
“It’s starting to come apart,” she said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot for J35 to hang on to much longer.”
Another female in the group, a 3½-year-old whale named J50, has also been in peril, and government officials are preparing an emergency plan to save her from starving to death. That plan may include dumping live salmon doused with antibiotics in front of the whale, hoping she’ll eat them.
Giles said the spotlight on the animals, while itself horrible news, has already led to skyrocketing worry about their plight. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee convened a task force earlier this year to address the animals’ dwindling populations, and the group met this week for the first time since Tahlequah’s journey began.
The pod has been decimated in recent decades mainly due to the disappearance of their prime food source, chinook salmon.
“We’ve been saying it for 20 years, the humans who have been studying these animals,” Giles said, before noting that now “the animals themselves in the last three weeks, it’s almost like they’ve taken the torch.”
The researcher said the event may compel Inslee to use some of his political capital to help the orcas sooner than expected.
“The world is watching, and the world is not going to let status quo continue,” she said. “That’s what’s different, we have legions of people around the world that are paying attention.”