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Endangered Killer Whale's Heartbreaking Vigil For Dead Calf Continues

A female orca that appears to be grieving has been carrying her dead calf in the water, keeping it afloat since the baby died a week ago. (Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch, taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114)
A female orca that appears to be grieving has been carrying her dead calf in the water, keeping it afloat since the baby died a week ago. (Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch, taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114)

A female killer whale off the coast of Washington state appears to be grieving her dead calf. The endangered orca, given the name Tahlequah, gave birth a week ago and the calf died shortly afterward.

The mother has been keeping its body afloat ever since.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum on San Juan Island. The group has a boat on the water and is monitoring the mother from a distance.

“She’s carried this calf hundreds of miles and hundreds of hours at this point,” Atkinson says. “And her family is helping her.”

Interview Highlights

On tracking Tahlequah

“We’ve been out since Tuesday. Our Captain Taylor Shedd has been out there pretty much 10-11 hours each day. And what he’s doing is just following the family’s movements at a distance and trying to provide a perimeter of protection to give them extra space during this pretty sensitive time. And what we’re observing is that this family … the southern resident community is an endangered population of orcas. They’re pretty much unique to the Salish Sea and the West Coast of the United States and Canada. And what we’ve found is they’re really socially connected. It’s a matrilineal society so they travel with their moms all their lives, and in … a situation like this, we’ve seen them support one another in ways that are just astounding.”

On the unusual length of this whale’s grieving period

“It’s an interesting question because it’s what we’ve witnessed as humans, but what we witness as humans isn’t necessarily the full picture of what they do as a community. So researchers typically watch them during daylight hours, because you can see them. So what we’ve witnessed is a day or so, but it’s often been a stillborn calf. So one of my questions is, I’m not a marine biologist, so one of my questions to biologists is — or anyone — does grief change once you’ve met the being that you’ve carried? So she carried this for 17 months before it was born. And we know that it swam by her side. So there would have been a bonding, a birthing experience — it was not stillborn, it was alive. So there is a part part of me that believes that the grief could be much deeper, because they had bonded.”

On concerns about Tahlequah’s health

“This is a fish-eating population. Their predominant prey is Chinook salmon, which is an endangered and threatened species in the Pacific Northwest. So they’re already having trouble finding enough to eat. It’s a very congested area with a lot of vessel activity from every type, from recreational to commercial to government and military operations. And it’s also pretty urbanized with very toxic waters, so their immune systems are compromised. So any extra energy she’s having to expend means she has to find more food. But if she is spending time carrying this calf, it’s taking away from caring for herself.”

On what Tahlequah’s grief reveals about the way animals grieve

“The first thing it tells me is that grief isn’t owned by humans. If you’ve ever been around animals, you see them do behaviors, it’s a little different than how we express it, but they definitely seem to express concern and care for their offspring. Orcas are particularly socially connected and emotionally bonded. They share their food. They’re involuntary breathers, so they have to remind themselves to come to the surface to breathe. So when they go into deep rest, they’re in physical contact with other orcas in their community and one stays awake to kind of watch out.

“The thing that’s amazing about Tahlequah is she’s been carrying this calf now … today is the eighth day that she has been carrying this calf. But it’s not in one location. They’re traveling the entire inland seas in between British Columbia and Washington state. So they started at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they’ve gone north to Georgia Straight just off Vancouver city. They’ve gone as far south as Whidbey Island, which is just north of Seattle. They’ve come back up through the San Juans. They’ve done this loop three times.”

On the global response to this story

“Orcas, they are charismatic megafauna. You cannot watch them and not feel a sense of awe and joy. Often in our emotions, the depth of what you feel in joy, you’re going to also feel in grief, if that makes sense: The more joy you experience, the more ability you have to understand grief. So I think what people are tapping into is these whales give so much joy when we watch them that you’re going to feel that pain of grief — particularly if you’ve gone through grief in your own life. You understand that depth of pain. Although I too am trying to understand the depth of her pain.”

The Whale Museum has been sharing updates on its Facebook page. The whale recordings in the audio atop this post come courtesy of SMRU Consulting.

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