Orca Mom’s ‘Tour Of Grief’ Is Over After Carrying Dead Calf Around For 17 Days

Published August 13, 2018
Published August 13, 2018

Tahlequah carried her dead calf for more than 1,000 miles before finally stopping on Aug. 11 and then rebounding to a surprising extent.

Tahlequah Swimming

Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale ResearchTahlequah, foreground, without calf.

After carrying her dead calf for more than 1,000 miles and at least 17 days, an orca mother has now returned back to normal life.

The heartbreaking story of Tahlequah, also known as J-35, resonated with countless people for more than two weeks. Her calf died just a few hours after being born on July 24, and she carried around her deceased offspring’s body for weeks while in a state of grieving.

However, on Aug. 11 the Center for Whale Research (CWR) confirmed that Tahlequah is no longer carrying her baby and is showing signs of moving on.

“Her tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky,” a statement from the Center for Whale Research said.

According to the CWR, Tahlequah is a part of the J pod, one of the three groups of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that are frequently spotted between northern Washington and Vancouver, Canada. The pod of whales has struggled with infant calf mortality over the past two decades likely because of malnourishment, with 75 percent of their newborns dying shortly after birth. Also, in the last three years, 100 percent of the pregnancies of the whales failed to produce viable offspring.

Given the whales’ extreme reproductive problems of recent decades, the birth of Tahlequah’s calf was a happy occasion. But it quickly turned devastating when a member of the CWR’s team who arrived on the scene to document the historic birth saw that the calf was already dead, and the only thing keeping it from sinking to the ocean’s depths was its mother supporting it with her forehead and pushing it up.

Tahlequah With Calf

Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale ResearchTahlequah pushing her dead calf.

According to Jenny Atkinson, the executive director of The Whale Museum on San Juan Island, it is not uncommon for a killer whale to carrying around their dead calf in grief for a day or two, but Tahlequah’s particular situation caused an elongated reaction.

“She carried this for 17 months before it was born,” Atkinson told Here & Now. “And we know that it swam by her side. So there would have been a bonding, a birthing experience … so there is a part of me that believes that the grief could be much deeper because they had bonded.”

Tahlequah continued this grieving behavior for over two weeks before finally letting go of her calf, which is believed to now be resting at the bottom of the Salish Sea near Vancouver, according to the CWR.

In addition to showing an improved mood, Tahlequah seems to be in good physical condition and doesn’t appear to be suffering from “peanut-head,” which is a condition in orcas where their cranium bones begin to show after becoming malnourished.

Even though Tahlequah seems to be doing much better following her grieving period, scientists are still very worried about the pod. As of June 2018, the total number of whales left in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population is just 75, and another member of the J pod is showing signs of struggling health.

Scarlet, or J-50, showed signs of malnourishment just a few days after Tahlequah’s calf died and researchers were unsure of the cause but were feeding her salmon in order to get her back on track. A lack of food in the pod’s environment has been linked to the residents’ inability to reproduce over the last few years.

Now that Tahlequah is on the mend, hopefully, life for the rest of the struggling J pod will improve as well.

Next, read the story of the killer whale named Lulu who was found dead due to extreme pollution. Then, read up on the special Japanese phone booth that is helping people deal with grief by connecting the living and the dead.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer and Florida-transplant currently living in New York City.