17 days and 1,000 miles later, mother orca Tahlequah finally stops grieving and lets go of dead calf

Tahlequah, who is known as J35, is part of the critically endangered southern-resident killer-whale population which also facing the problem of lack of food such as salmon.

                            17 days and 1,000 miles later, mother orca Tahlequah finally stops grieving and lets go of dead calf
(Source:Getty Images)

The mother orca, Tahlequah, is not carrying the body of her dead calf anymore. The founding director of the Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb, wrote in an email: "J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness."

Tahlequah, who is known as J35, is an animal who is a part of the critically endangered southern-resident killer-whale population. Balcomb has mentioned that Tahlequah had probably lost two calves before this one since she gave birth to a male in 2010. Balcomb had said that the loss she suffered from her most recent calf "may have been emotionally hard on her." 

"She is alive and well and at least over that part of her grief. Today was the first day that I for sure saw her. It is no longer there," he told The Seattle Times in an email. The devastated mother did not show any signs of "peanut head", which is a condition that reveals the malnutrition in orcas when the cranium bones start showing. Balcomb said: "She's been eating."

Many people were stunned by how the orca expressed its grief and were following regular updates of the southern resident orcas as J35 carried her deceased calf, a female, on her journey every day. Another member of the orca pod, a 4-and-a-half-year-old animal known as J50, is also not doing so well physically. Biologists were keeping an eye on her condition over the weekend. The Lummi Nation was standing by with live salmon to feed J50 if the situation arose.

A review made by veterinarians of J50 on August 9 night motivated veterinarians and biologists who had said that the animal's condition was better than what they had anticipated. The female orca, however, still looks visibly thin and extremely malnourished. The lack of food has been linked to the failure of these particular orcas for almost three years when it comes to producing calves.

Balcomb, speaking of the primary food source for the whales, said: "The reason J35 lost her baby and the others are losing their babies is there is not enough salmon. Hopefully, we will do something about that." It had been reported that Tahlequah had finally decided to let go of the baby's corpse because it had started to fall apart. The calf was last spotted on August 9 and by that time the body had already started to decompose.

The mother had held on to her calf because she was so emotional and was even spotted diving down deep to get the dead calf back every time it slid from her mouth. Biologists who had been monitoring her had been worried that she may not be able to get something to eat and that she might be slowly slipping into the danger zone.

The Centre for Whale Research in a press release also quoted a resident of San Juan Island near Eagle Cove as reporting to have seen a sort of ritual with the orcas. The release stated the witness saw: “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. 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 its soul.”

Tahlequah, at 20 years, is a crucial member of the critically-endangered clan of killer whales. She is also considered to be a potential candidate with more years of reproduction ahead of her. This is only if she can get enough to eat. 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. Further, research by scientists has shown that there are at least three problems that are causing the decline in numbers for the southern-resident clan in the J, K, and L pods of orcas.

Loud noises from nearby vessels tend to interrupt their foraging behavior and the orcas tend to release toxins from their blubber when they burn off excess fat due to hunger. Malnutrition in a top predator of the ocean such as the orca, that needs to swim 75 miles a day, is a devastating blow. The hunger makes all of the problems that the animal is facing worse.

This particular mother's behavior was not considered unusual. Orcas, dolphins, and even other mammals like gorillas have been known to carry the bodies of their dead young in what scientists have understood to be a sign of grief from the mothers. Tahlequah's period of grieving, however, was staggering in its duration as scientists had never documented a mother carrying around her young for so long.

The lead orca biologist for the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Sheila Thornton, said that the crucially strong bonds that develop between family members in pods of orcas are what drives their behavior. The southern-residents all share the same food, a common language, and a culture that had developed of eating only salmon. They also have an ecological knowledge of where to find fish in their own home range. The southern-resident clan only has 75 members left and the real question that is facing all the biologists is what can we do to save the species from extinction.