Grieving mother orca whale finally lets go of dead calf after carrying the corpse for 17 days for 1,000 miles

by Sheza Naeem

The endangered orca mother whale who had been carrying her dead calf on her forehead for over two weeks has finally let go. 

orca whale carrying dead calf

“The ordeal of J35 carrying her dead calf is over.” (Image: Facebook/Center for Whale Research)

The 20-year-old mother whale, also known as Tahlequah and J35, had touched the hearts of watchers around the globe as she grieved over her dead baby, refusing to let the corpse go. Millions around the world followed the distraught mother’s story as she swam with her dead calf, day after day, sometimes pushing the body above the surface.

Tahlequah gave birth to the baby girl on July 24 near Victoria, British Columbia. The calf died shortly after, on the same day. The grieving mother carried the 400-pound body of the newborn on her nose, pushing it through the ocean.

“We are saddened to report that a baby Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) died a short time after it was born near Victoria, British Columbia.” (Image: Facebook/Center for Whale Research)

On the third day of the orca carrying the baby, the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island told The Washington Post regarding the behavior, “That’s not unprecedented [to carry a dead calf] but it’s the longest one that I’ve personally witnessed.”

The orca continued to amaze everyone as she swam over 60 miles every day, never leaving her child’s side. In a heartwarming ritual of grievance, other members of the pod began to help the mother carry the baby, allowing her to rest and eat.

Artist Lori Christopher captured the animal’s grief in a watercolor painting, See Me. The artwork depicts the heartbroken mother pushing her dead offspring above the water as other whales of the pod look on. Christopher said he was moved by the story and wanted to reflect it in his art.

orca whale carrying dead calf

Lori Christopher’s painting, ‘See Me’, depicting the mother whale’s grief. (Facebook/Lori Christopher)

“Her grief was so visceral … and had gone on for so many days that it was more of a cry out for help,” he said. “When she’s raising it above the water it becomes clear that she’s grieving and she needs help. They all need help.”

Jenny Atkinson, Director of the Whale Museum, told ‘As It Happens’ podcast, “We do know her family is sharing the responsibility of caring for this calf, that she’s not always the one carrying it, that they seem to take turns.”

The Center for Whale Research revealed that this may have been especially hard on the mother whale because she has previously lost two other calves since birthing a healthy male calf in 2010.

orca whale carrying dead calf

The orca whale carrying its dead calf. (Image: Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research)

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, told The Seattle Times, “She is alive and well and at least over that part of her grief.”

Despite grieving for 17 days, the orca has not shown signs of malnutrition and seems to be eating fine; she is ‘healthy and doing well’. She almost lost her pod after falling behind, but seems to be socializing normally again.

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