Researchers are keeping vigil over the orca mother for a seventh day. Now she's falling behind her pod. "I am so terrified for her well-being," said researcher Deborah Giles. "She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female and we need her."

Share story

A grieving mother orca is falling behind her group as she labors through the water at about 6 knots, continuing to carry her dead calf in a seventh day of mourning.

J35, or Tahlequah, gave birth the morning of  July 24 to the calf, which lived for only one half-hour. She has refused to let go of it ever since, carrying the infant either by one fin, or pushing it through the water on her head.

[Update, Tuesday: Researchers searched all day for the grieving orca mother. Then they found her, still clinging to her calf for an eighth day.]

“Sometimes it just looks like a silver wave,” said Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, which runs the Soundwatch program that is monitoring the mother continuously from a distance in daylight hours.

J pod, the mother’s clan, has been staying with her and has turned out in force, with more members of the pod by the day staying with her.

Researchers who work with the critically endangered orcas are concerned for the mother’s health — and ache for her.

“I am so terrified for her well-being,” said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca. “She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female and we need her.”

Newly shared drone footage of orca mother Tahlequah, or J35, taken Friday as she carried her dead orca calf along the west side of San Juan Island. (Michael Weiss, of the University of Exeter, working with the Center for Whale Research)

Giles said the whale was in labor at this time last week, and probably was not eating then.”I feel so sad for that family. And for her mental state she must be in anguish. What is beyond grief? I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that is where she is.”

The calf remains intact day after day, perhaps preserved by the cold water. Every time it slips from her grip, Tahlequah has to dive deeply to retrieve it. “She has to prime herself six, seven breaths to take a deep, long dive to go get that carcass,” Giles said. “What is killing me is when is it going to be the last time? And she has to make that decision not to go get it.”

To Giles, the sad tableau seems like a metaphor for a region stuck in its own grief over the declining whales.

“She is stuck in a loop. We are stuck a loop, we are stuck in doing the same thing, expecting to get better results,” Giles said about the declining orca population, and the chinook salmon they depend on. “What we need is going to be have to be massive, unheard of, unprecedented change in order to recover this population.”

On Sunday, Tahlequah was surrounded by her entire family. Researchers who are with the whales daily have been concerned for her, especially as to whether she is getting enough to eat. “This has to be so hard for her,” said Michael Weiss of the University of Exeter, who with the Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor was monitoring the clan Sunday as the whales surged alongside her.

Taylor Shedd, also watching from the Soundwatch boat, said he saw Tahlequah breach three times Saturday evening, and her body still looked healthy and strong. “You could not see any ribs,” he said.

Tahlequah is a member of the endangered family of southern-resident orca whales, with only 75 members. Every birth matters, and every female in particular. The crisis with J35 comes even as another member of J pod, J50, appears to be starving to death.

On Monday Shedd and his crew continued their vigil with the mother, sighting her at 12:07 p.m., still carrying the calf.

“Falling behind group, but J17s (her family line) are 500-600 yards ahead and rest of J pod a mile or so ahead,” Shedd wrote in a text message. “She’s been traveling at speeds up to 6 knots. Observed her drop the calf, swim in a tight circle, breathing about six times before taking a deep dive to retrieve the calf.”

J35, or Tahlequah, continues to carry her dead calf on Sunday afternoon as other members of J pod, her clan, have been staying with her. (Courtesy of Doug MacDonald)

The crew’s monitoring work has been stressful, emotional and continuous. Atkinson said she has the equipment for an oil change at the ready for the boat, to quickly service it when the crew comes back in for the night and be ready to get right back out on the water.

“I feel like a NASCAR pit crew,” Atkinson said. “We need to keep that boat on the water.”

It has been moving to watch Tahlequah’s family stand by her, Atkinson said. “We believe the pod has been taking turns with this, to stay with her.”

Soundwatch is, too. “We are respectfully monitoring from a distance, we are committed, we are here to help her through this.”

In addition to monitoring her condition, the Soundwatch crew is helping to keep boaters away from the whales. The nonprofit has educators on the water every day during the whale-watch season, to remind boaters to keep at least the required 200-yard distance from the whales.

But this has been a season like no other, as the world watches and holds its breath over the grieving whale and her baby.

The outpouring of interest and support helps the crew go out day after day, Atkinson said. “We really appreciate the love and support.”


The Seattle Times has seen an outpouring of reactions to Tahlequah and her calf. Here’s a form for you to share your own with us.