The grieving mother of an orca whale has continued to carry her dead newborn around on her back for two days, something researchers say is common among cetaceans.
The first calf born in three years to the endangered southern resident orcas died on Tuesday in the waters near Victoria, and as of Wednesday night, the calf's mother was still carrying it.
Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, says the newborn orca was seen being pushed to the surface by her mother, known as J-35, about a half hour after it was spotted alive.
On Thursday, the center said in a statement that the calf's carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island in the U.S.
The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead whale toward Saturna Island until at least sunset Wednesday, according to the centre.
Balcomb says the whale probably knows her calf is dead but is reluctant to let it go.
Killer whales and dolphins have been known to support and transport their dead calves for as long as a week, which the centre says is a testament to “the amazingly strong” mother and offspring bond.
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, with the Vancouver Aquarium, says killer whales have a very strong family bond, and offspring stay with their mothers for life. He says mothers are often seen grieving the loss of their calves.
“They often carry it around for hours or days, and it’s a really sad thing to see. It’s heartbreaking,” said Barrett-Lennard. “When you see that there are no words, there’s no way to understand that except that there is this love or affection, whatever you want to call it…there is a very strong social bond between the mother and her calf.”
Balcomb said Wednesday that the calf didn’t have blubber and when it kept sinking, the mother would raise it to the surface.
The death represents another reproductive failure for the salmon-eating southern resident killer whales that typically show up in Puget Sound waters from spring to fall.
The southern resident orcas have struggled since they were listed as an endangered species in the U.S. and Canada over a decade ago and now there are only 75 left. They are not getting enough chinook salmon and face threats from toxic pollution and noise and disturbances from boats.
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