Tahlequah is still carrying her dead calf, for a 16th straight day, and researchers fear she could be in danger.
Tahlequah, the mother orca also known as J35, was spotted Wednesday afternoon, still carrying her dead infant calf for the 16th straight day.
“I am absolutely shocked and heartbroken,’’ said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca.
“I am sobbing. I can’t believe she is still carrying her calf around,” Giles said, adding, “I am 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.”
Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said Tahlequah was spotted at about 1:30 p.m. by researchers at Fisheries Oceans Canada.
Tahlequah was seen along with her entire family off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. J50, the ailing 3 1/2-year-old orca in the same family also was seen, along with her mother, J16.
NOAA has mounted an emergency rescue plan for the young whale, J50, who is emaciated and may also have an infection. The agency submitted paperwork Wednesday afternoon for consideration by Canadian officials to allow medical intervention for the whale in Canadian waters if need be, including an injection of antibiotics.
All permits are already in hand to intervene in Washington waters, including with a possible emergency feeding plan.
The Lummi Nation is standing by to provide live fish for J50 if it is determined in a health assessment that such an unprecedented intervention makes sense.
The whales were too far away too late in the day to attempt a health assessment Wednesday afternoon, Milstein said.
The plight of the southern residents, in decline for years, has never been so stark. Down to just 75 animals, every calf matters. The plight of Tahlequah carrying her dead baby for hundreds of miles, refusing to let it go, has struck the hearts of people around the world.
“It’s almost like a parable, the damndest thing I ever saw,” said Jason Colby, a historian at the University of Victoria and author of a new book about killer whales and the capture era — which disproportionately targeted J pod.
While orcas and other animals, including dolphins and gorillas, are known to carry their dead, Tahlequah’s is an extraordinary display.
“This is absolutely unprecedented,” Colby said. To those such as Colby hoping for an urgent turnaround for the southern residents, Tahlequah’s witness to her loss, as she carries her dead calf day after day through the Salish Sea, is searing.
“As a dad I can only imagine her grief and everything she has gone through,” Colby said. “It seems like she is in a dangerous loop now that she can’t get herself out of and who knows how long she went without feeding before this.’
Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, called Tahlequah’s situation “tragic.
“It’s just — continuing. Someday we’re gonna get weary of all this,” he said, of the sad plight of the southern residents..
He said he hopes the situation stokes momentum for fundamental change, such as taking down the Lower Snake River dams to boost salmon runs.