As of August 11, J35 – the orca mother known around the world for carrying her deceased calf for 17 days straight – is no longer carrying the corpse. According to a statement from the Center for Whale Research (CWR), she’s been seen vigorously chasing a school of salmon with her pod-mates, and the deceased is nowhere to be seen.
Noting that she had been carrying the calf for 1,610 kilometers (1,000 miles), they explain that her “tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky.” Based on telephoto images, J35 – whose health was beginning to be called into question during her "record-setting" procession – appears to be fine physically. She’s showing no signs of emaciation, implying her nutritional intake is sound.
Scientists planned to obtain the calf after she had abandoned it in order to ascertain why it had perished just 30 minutes after it had been born, way back on July 24. Sadly, there’s little chance of this happening now.
“The carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of these inland marine waters of the Salish Sea, and researchers may not get a chance to examine it for necropsy,” the CWR report adds.
As explained here, the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population of orcas – consisting of J, K, and L pods – are in dire straits thanks to a wide range of largely human-driven factors. According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), these include environmental pollution, a reduction in the quantity and quality of prey, and physical and acoustic disturbances.
Such disturbances are set to increase: As noted by The New York Times, the near-future expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is set to send seven times the amount of oil tanker traffic right through their habitat.
Whatever the causes of death or illness of various specific orcas, plenty of concern here relates to the increasing sparsity of Chinook salmon in the region, the orca’s primary food source. Climate change, overfishing, and habitat loss have pushed multiple species of salmon into the threatened and endangered columns.
This is the primary driver of the population decline and reproductive failure of the population. If nothing is done to ensure the population of this wild salmon bounces back, then these orcas are destined to be wiped out.
J35’s prolonged funereal behavior certainly managed to capture the world’s attention, but cetacean experts have been acutely aware for some time now that this particular extended family is endangered. Her tale is one segment of a far larger story that looks increasingly certain to have a distressing ending.
There should be around 300 of these orcas, but currently, there are just 75. Since 2015, not a single pregnancy has been successful, and in the last 20 years alone, around three in four newborns have not survived.
That’s why attention is not only on J35 – a breeding-age orca necessary for the pod’s survival – but on the entire population. The current focus is on J50, a young orca who’s in a sorry state of health.
J50’s showing signs of emaciation, while also appearing to be generally lethargic. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries site, her poor condition indicates that she “may not survive”.
As of August 9, she was keeping up with her mother, J16, despite being very small, skinny, and weak. Vancouver Aquarium’s veterinarian team has also obtained breath samples that will allow them to see if she has an infection; just in case, they have already administered antibiotics to her via a dart.