Orca’s Death Vigil Shows Complexity of Killer Whale Emotions

A Pacific Northwest orca likely bonded closely with her calf before it died, which could help explain her record-breaking emotional sojourn.

An orca named J35 has been carrying her dead calf, pushing it with her head, for more than a week off the Pacific Northwest coast. The sad spectacle is a prime example, and confirmation, of the complex emotional lives of these sophisticated cetaceans, experts say.

“I do know it’s not the first time this has been observed in J Pod, the first time being about 15 years ago,” says John Ford, an orca researcher at the University of British Columbia. “The whales have a very strong drive to look after their offspring and this evidently extends to neonates that die at birth.”

J35, nicknamed Tahlequah, is a 20-year-old member of the long-studied J Pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales, which, with its endangered extended family—K and L pods—inhabit a huge territory that includes waters off Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, British Columbia.

While orcas, as well as dolphins, are known to tend to their deceased young for as long as a week, J35’s vigil started on July 24 and was still ongoing on August 2. This is the longest period of mourning on record for any orca, experts say.

Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, British Columbia, confirmed via email that Tahlequah is still carrying her calf.

As J35’s sojourn continues, some experts question why she’s still so attached to the calf. Could it be because the calf lived for about 30 minutes after it was born? Atkinson thinks the grief Tahlequah is feeling is deeper because after 17 months of gestation, she then had the chance to form an emotional connection with her baby before it died.

“I think that’s quite possible,” Ford agrees.

The death of another calf is a significant blow to J Pod, which hasn’t seen a successful birth in three years. Combined, the three pods have 75 members, and time is running out to maintain its viability. Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator at the Center for Whale Research, gives it five years.

“We’ve got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen”—meaning, to have viable offspring—"but if we don’t do it in those five years it isn’t going to happen,” he writes.

J35 has been carrying her calf for more than a week, and researchers worry she's endangering herself by expending so much effort.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY CENTER FOR WHALE RESEARCH (PERMIT #21238)

Balcomb points to a lack of food as the culprit. “We have long demonstrated that these fish-eating whales are getting skinnier and skinnier, and the death rate is increasing,” he writes on the center’s website.

“Whales in this endangered population are dependent upon Chinook salmon for their primary food source. Unfortunately, Chinook salmon are also endangered,” he adds.

A more immediate concern is whether Tahlequah will survive this ordeal. Experts have observed her keeping her calf afloat in rough seas, and even with the help of her pod mates, that expends energy that she may not be able to maintain.

And that’s a big concern for the community of southern resident killer whales, experts say. As a 20-year-old in her prime, the pod needs her to reproduce.

“Even without this death, this is a population in crisis,” Atkinson says. “They need our stewardship and support if they are to survive.”

Lead Image: An orca known as J35 in the Pacific Northwest, carrying her dead calf. Experts say the killer whale is mourning the loss of her offspring.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY CENTER FOR WHALE RESEARCH (PERMIT #21238)

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