Grieving Orca Whale Finally Lets Dead Calf Go After Carrying Body For 17 Days

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Orca carries dead baby on her forehead.Center for Whale Research

After an agonising display of grief, the orca whale that continued to carry her baby calf on her forehead for 17 days after its death has now finally let go.

20-year-old orca Tahlequah – also known as J35 – gave birth on July 25. This should have been a joyous occasion, being her pod’s very first live birth since 2015.

Sadly, within around half an hour of entering the world, the 400-pound female calf died; having been born without enough blubber to survive cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

Tahlequah would have been expected to let the body drop to the bottom of the ocean. However, unable to part with her newborn baby, the grief-stricken mother continued to balance the body on her forehead; carrying it with her as she follows her pod.

Marine biologists following Tahlequah and her pod became worried about her mental and physical health. Although this show of grief has been seen among other orca mothers, the length of time Tahlequah carried her dead daughter was unprecedented.

Tahlequah’s pod covers dozens of miles of ocean per day, but she steadfastly refused to abandon the body. She was seen repeatedly picking it back up whenever it started to sink, even pushing it up above the surface to breath.

There were concerns Tahlequah’s dedication to her dead calf would lead to her falling behind the rest of her pod, becoming weak and unable to forage for food.

Killer whale biologist from the University of Washington, Deborah Giles, told The Seattle Times:

Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her.

[She] cannot be getting the … nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus.

Tahlequah has since been seen without her dead calf, although it is unclear whether she made the deliberate decision to part with it or whether it simply deteriotated.

Founding director of the Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb, told The Seattle Times:

J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy.

The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness.

According to Balcomb, she has been eating and thankfully shows no symptoms of ‘peanut head’, a condition where cranium bones begin to show due to malnutrition.

Balcomb added:

The reason J35 lost her baby and the others are losing their babies is there is not enough salmon.

Hopefully we will do something about that.

Tahlequah’s story has resonated with people from all across the world, who have expressed their empathy through mediums such as poetry and art.

One person shared a watercolour of the mother and baby, alongside the comment, ‘we don’t own grief’.

Another tweeted, ‘It’s heartbreaking to see any mother grieve’.

Her pain is yet another reminder of the emotional intelligence of orcas, with their capacity for complex feelings, relationships and – it appears – maternal love.

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