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This Killer Whale Grieving Her Calf Is The Saddest Thing You'll See All Day

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Rachel Baxter

Copy Editor & Staff Writer

clockJul 27 2018, 19:35 UTC

The mother whale pushes her calf to the surface. Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research

The youngest member of a dwindling orca population off the coast of British Columbia has sadly died, according to the Center for Whale Research (CWR). Tragically, the whale’s mother has been seen grieving her calf for a number of days, refusing to leave its body.

The Southern Resident killer whale population reside off the coast of North America, in the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean. The clan is made up of 76 individuals as of June this year. The group is classified as endangered, affected mainly by a decline in the food they eat – Chinook salmon – which, like many things in the ocean, have been decimated by us.

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A lack of fish to eat has seriously impacted the whales’ reproductive success. According to the CWR, who monitor the population, 75 percent of calves born over the past two decades haven’t survived. In addition to this, 100 percent of pregnancies in the last three years haven’t managed to produce any viable offspring. The latest death of a young calf adds to this bleak trend. The CWR notes this particular group have an “imminent threat of extinction”.

The solution? We need to manage wild salmon better and allow their numbers to recover. Their populations have been damaged by a combination of habitat degradation, pollution, and over-fishing. Most spawning populations of Chinook salmon are endangered, and some are already extinct.

“[The government] should immediately change policy to emphasize recovery of wild natural salmon everywhere in their provinces and states,” the CWR’s Ken Balcomb told ABC News.

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The grieving female whale, a 35-year-old known as J35, was spotted on July 24. Her calf survived for less than an hour.

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The whale has been mourning her calf for three days. Michael Weiss/Center for Whale Research

“After that the mother pushed the dead baby. She’s still pushing it, somewhere up around Vancouver now,” said Balcomb, ABC News reported yesterday. “She’s not willing to give it up yet.”

Previous research has shown that as many as seven different species of cetacean – including sperm whales, pilot whales, and bottlenose dolphins – mourn their dead, pushing the body up to the surface and sometimes staying with it for many days. You can watch the devastating Blue Planet II footage of a short-finned pilot whale refusing to leave her deceased calf here.

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It’s not just marine mammals that display signs of grief. Elephants will return to a body weeks after their companion has died, perhaps to pay their respects. Various species of primate have also been observed grieving, and even peccaries – pig-like critters from South and Central America – engage in the behavior too. It seems animals are probably much more psychologically complex than we humans give them credit for.  


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