At first I was curious about why or how anyone even noticed a female orca in the Pacific Northwest carrying her dead baby. I figured it must have been a random sighting and, concurrently, a random demonstration of animals expressing grief. Simultaneously, I wondered how a sea animal “carried” something at all. By the time the mother was sighted with her lifeless calf draped over her body on day three, I was as enraptured and heartbroken as all of the journalists covering the story this week.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I am both an animal fanatic and an examiner of all things having to do with loss, so this story was practically made for me. Those qualities make me, like many quoted in the news stories, both intrigued and sad, more profoundly as I read on about the plight of the killer whales. I hadn’t realized they were critically endangered — shocked to learn there are only 75 confirmed in existence — therefore, the pods are being watched scrupulously and each member had been given an unpoetic, but practical name, by observing researchers — this mama is called J35.
Mihir Zaveri for the New York Times brought the poetic touch: “Her dead calf resting on her nose, an orca has swum in mourning for more than three days…” The willingness on the part of the author and the highly scientific sources she quotes to refer to this behavior as mourning is touching and honest to me, and a stance that many might be unwilling to take. But what other reason could the bereft mother possibly have for carrying the body of her departed offspring?
Photos show her skimming just above the water with a miniature of herself, mouth slightly open, balanced on her body. It would be cute, if I didn’t know it was a corpse.
“She carries it delicately, carefully, by the fin, or on her head, so as not to make a mark on the tiny body of her calf that lived only half an hour,” wrote Lynda Mapes for the Seattle Times. The sanctity with which an animal is treating her beloved one’s body moves me terribly. Researchers are distressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if a scientist has cried.
Apparently, no babies have been born to the pod since 2015. Because of her group’s threatened state, the baby indeed seems a symbol for a larger devastation, as if the mother knows somehow that this tiny being was one of the last hopes for the survival of the killer whales, their moniker now seeming so ironic and strange. Death happens, for all of us, and we sometimes believe that the animal kingdom doesn’t have the same reaction. J35 — who I later learn is also called Tahlequah — is proving otherwise, even as she falls behind her swimming family today, day seven of her vigil.
Through my reading, I also learn that gestation for orcas is 17 to 18 months, a duration so long that even I, a non-mother, is certain creates an incredible bond. Imagine waiting and waiting — more than a year — only to have half an hour together with your baby. Many of the experts say that marine mammals are sentient beings, that what she is experiencing is the same pain we humans know. Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca, is beside herself witnessing another animal experience it.
The infant orca’s body slips off of her mother’s nose regularly and she takes many breaths to dive below the surface of the water to retrieve the limp carcass. For a week now, she has done so. Letting go, apparently, is just as hard for this lovely sea creature as for any of us. “What is killing me,” Giles said, “is when is it going to be the last time? And she has to make that decision not go get it.”