An endangered southern resident killer whale is still grieving her lost calf one week after it died.
Experts with the Whale Museum on San Juan Island have been watching the 20-year-old southern resident killer whale, known as J35, since Tuesday when her calf died shortly after it was born. The orca has been balancing the dead calf on her forehead or pushing it to the surface of the water
“She’s been carrying this calf throughout the inland waters now since Tuesday,” Jenny Atkinson, the museum’s executive director, said. “We believe it’s a sign of deep mourning or grieving. Her family seems to be assisting her through this process. They take turns carrying it.”
Atkinson said the corpse has been carried north of Vancouver and south near Whidbey Island. The last report put the pod between the Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands.
She said other orcas have carried dead calves but never for this long of a period.
“I think everyone is pretty dumbfounded by it and we don’t know how long it will go on,” Atkinson said.
On Sunday, J35 was seen carrying the calf in her mouth, which could lead to the animal being broken down.
“But she seems to be really tender with it as they’re moving through with water,” Atkinson said.
However, Atkinson said they are concerned for J35’s health because by the end of the day, her breathing is more laboured and she swims in more of a deep arch like a humpback whale.
Taylor Shedd, program coordinator with Soundwatch Boater Education Program, has been on the water and watching J35 in the daylight hours to monitor the situation.
“As long as she needs this time, we’re committed to be with her,” Atkinson said.
“There is the eventual hope that she will surrender the calf and the family group will go on and there will be an opportunity to retrieve the calf once she fully lets go of it.”
If the calf is released, a necropsy will be completed to try and determine why the calf died.
There are only 75 southern resident killer whales left in the waters between B.C. and California. The calf was the first in three years to be born to the population.