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Orca Mother Still Carrying Her Dead Calf 17 Days Later

Tahlequah or J35, has carried her dead calf for 17 days as of Thursday. Center for Whale Research

Tahlequah—a southern resident killer whale whose heartbreaking story has captured attention around the world—has been carrying her dead calf for more than two weeks now.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research told The Seattle Times that the mother orca has pushed the carcass for a 17th straight day for more than 1,000 miles as of Thursday.


But Balcomb said Tahlequah might drop the calf soon because its body is starting to deteriorate. A recent image shows that its intestine and blubber has been exposed.

The baby whale was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24 and was seen alive and swimming with its mother, referred by scientists as J35, and other members of its "J" pod. The newborn died half an hour after its birth.

It's not unusual for orcas to carry their dead offspring for about a day or so, but this is likely the longest period researchers have observed.

"I certainly think the length of the situation is unprecedented," Sheila Thornton, lead killer-whale scientist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said to The Times. "There are many species who do undertake this sort of behavior if a young animal has failed to survive, they will carry the carcass, you can look at that as mourning behavior."

Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca told The Times on Wednesday she is "gravely concerned for the health and mental well being of J35."

"Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her, J35 cannot be getting the … nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus and also additional loss of nutrition during these weeks of mourning," Giles added.

Scientists have also raised flags about a 3-year-old orca called Scarlet, also known as J50, who is part of the same pod as Tahlequah.

"J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive," according to NOAA Fisheries.

Government officials and other experts are exploring options to aid Scarlet, ranging from no intervention to providing medical treatment, potentially delivered in a live Chinook salmon, their favored prey.

The stories of the ailing whales have highlighted the plight of the critically endangered species and have renewed efforts to save them. The current population of southern resident killer whales has dipped to only 75 individuals.

"The recent, tragic death of the orca calf is heartbreaking and we all feel the pain of the mother and her pod," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted last week. "Protecting and restoring the complex ecosystem these beautiful animals rely on will take a lot of work. There are no do-overs with the orcas. We must get this right."

Their decline has been attributed to pollution, underwater noise and disturbances from boat traffic, and lack of Chinook salmon. Recent deaths, particularly among calves, mothers and pregnant whales, appear to be driven by food scarcity, the Center for Whale Research says.

Members of Inslee's task force met Tuesday to discuss the emergency situation and how to improve the orcas' health and numbers. The task force will issue a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering the species, with a full draft due by Oct. 1 and a final report the following month.

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