That Orca Mother Is Still Refusing To Let Go Of Her Dead Calf 16 Days On

A pair of orcas seen in the Northwest Pacific. Rennett Stowe/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

J35, the orca that’s carrying the decaying corpse of her calf, is still doing so more than two weeks later. The calf, which died 30 minutes after being born on July 24, is – as of August 8 – still being balanced and pushed through the waters off the coast of Washington state, per CBC News. Every time it slips away, she dives down and picks it up again.

It’s all rather grim stuff, for more reasons that you may think. At the surface, it’s easy to empathize: This orca is almost certainly grieving, probably because she is refusing to accept the death of her newborn. This is a feature observed not just in a plethora of toothed cetacean species, but throughout the animal kingdom.

As noted by Earther, however, there’s a deeper story to all this. It’s unclear what killed the calf, and scientists intend to retrieve it once the mother lets go to find out. Nevertheless, it’s likely that this extended family of orcas – the Southern Resident killer whales, who make offshore British Columbia and Washington their home – is suffering from nutritional depletion.

These orcas rely on the presence of Chinook salmon, and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), two species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, while seven others are listed as threatened. Said threats include habitat degradation and loss, commercial and recreational overfishing, and everyone’s favorite Big Bad, climate change.

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Those problems don’t look like they’re going away anytime soon, which means that the J pod population of orcas don’t exactly have a bright future ahead of them.

A good, sustainable population number for these whales is around 300, but there are currently only 75. Pregnancies in this group are failing at an increasing rate, and there hasn’t been a successful birth in three years.

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