This Orca Mother Is Still Carrying Her Dead Calf More Than A Week After It Died

An orca mother (not J35) with her calf, spotted here offshore from South Georgia. Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard about J35, the orca living offshore from Washington that was seen carrying her dead calf through the water, balanced on her snout.

Perishing just 30 minutes after being born, the corpse is, per the Seattle Times, still being pushed about by the mother more than a week on from the death’s occurrence. Observers fear that another young orca in J35’s extended family – J50 – is also likely to perish soon, based on her emaciated cranium.

Orcas – killer whales, to some – are breathtaking creatures no matter which way you cut it. The largest of the dolphin species (and not actually whales), they’re fearsome, prolific predators and widespread explorers, found in waters from the polar regions right up to the Equator.

Orcas are able to use echolocation to hunt and navigate through the darkest nights. They live in familial pods, and – thanks to their ability to use advanced sonic communication – each pod has a distinct, easily recognizable “accent”.

They suffer grief, which can be defined fairly crudely as emotional distress paired with a clear change in usual behavior, according to an anthropologist that spoke to National Geographic. As it happens, they also appear to mourn their dead, just like us, with the very same publication pointing to a 2016 study on what is technically referred to as “nurturant behavior toward dead conspecifics”.

Observational evidence described in the study suggests that, based on 14 incidences spread across three oceans, at least seven toothed cetaceans engage in similar mourning practices: the carrying of a dead calf for a prolonged period of time. These include, aside from orcas, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, Australian humpback dolphins, sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, and short-finned pilot whales.

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