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.
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.
The funereal procession itself certainly takes a lot of additional energy, and experts are already worried about the state of her physical and mental health. Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and the research director of Wild Orca, told The Seattle Times: “She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female and we need her.”
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists the southern population as “endangered”, stressing that a “variety of anthropogenic threats” including environmental contamination, the reduction in quality and quantity of prey, and physical and acoustic disturbances are proving particularly problematic. All “have the potential to prevent recovery or to cause further declines.”
Another young orca, J50, is in bad shape, with its emaciated skull also pointing towards a lack of food. She's currently being closely monitored by NOAA; although we're all focused on the plight of J35, J50 appears to be the primary focus of conservationists at present. Unfortunately, she's ultimately likely to perish.
J35’s story is sad, but it’s a microcosm of an accelerating, large-scale disaster – but it’s not an entirely hopeless situation.
As explained by NOAA, there are certain things people that live in the area can do. If you wish to help preserve the salmon's habitat, then make sure you conserve both water and electricity, cut down on your pesticide and fertilizer use if they are at risk of running off into waterways, and make sure to keep boats away from the pod.
You can even volunteer with local groups to remove invasive species and clean up litter if you have the time – and, as ever, spread the word. When people are armed with the correct information, it’ll reduce the likelihood of scientists seeing the likes of this awful procession in the future.