A grieving mother orca continued to carry her calf around the Salish Sea for the fourth day since it died shortly after birth.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS — Researchers continue to keep vigil Friday as an endangered orca mother carried her dead calf for a fourth straight day in the Salish Sea, a heart-rending spectacle that has drawn worldwide attention.
“It’s tough to watch and hard work, but we won’t give up as long as she doesn’t,” said Taylor Shedd, program coordinator for Soundwatch, who is watching over the grieving mother and her calf.
Through Friday evening, as researchers left her for the night, the orca known as J35 was carrying the dead calf on her rostrum, the area of her head just behind the nose.
“Her breaths are deep and long,” Shedd said. “She takes a few seconds longer to surface than the other animals. I can’t even pretend to imagine what she’s going through, but it must be horrible. There’s not a whole lot we can do for her now, but anything we can do is worth it.”
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An orca mother grieves
Listen | Seattle Times whale tracker Lynda Mapes on grieving orca
“To be very clear, nobody would ever take this calf from her, but if she leaves the calf and clearly moves on for an extended period of time, an attempt to recover the calf would be made,” Shedd said. “So that we can have a better understanding of what happened and hopefully come up with solutions or means to never let something like this happen again.”
The orca is traveling with the rest of her family, all within 400 yards of one another.
The younger whales, including her other calf, are foraging, and Shedd said he hoped they may be catching fish to feed her, but he could not tell for sure.
“She is still pushing her calf, but doesn’t seem to be in the pattern that we left her in yesterday. Where she would drop the calf and have to take deep dives to retrieve it. She seems to be traveling in a more ‘normal’ pattern.”
Her movements are slowing. J35 carried the calf 20 miles one night into the next morning. But Friday, a day with strong tides because of the full moon, she stayed in the same spot all day with her family, Sledd said, facing into the current.
She also at times carried the calf by her teeth, clamping onto one of its fins. Every time it slips away she takes a deep dive to retrieve it.
“She pauses, sinks her midsection and her tail, arches her back a little then takes this big arching dive, I think it is to retrieve that calf in the current and it is traveling fast,” Sledd said.
Sledd has watched her more than 30 hours now on the water. “I can’t even imagine how tiring and emotionally stressful it is for her.
“It is hard. I’m watching this poor animal, I can’t even pretend to imagine what she is going through. It is so sad right now, we want to do something for her and there is not much we can do for her at this point.”
Shedd said Soundwatch is keeping vessels clear of J35 and educating those close by, and monitoring her health, her behavior and whether she decides to drop the calf.
“We are going to be here as long as necessary for her.”
The Soundwatch program is run by the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor. The program has educators on the water every day to remind boaters to keep at least 200-plus yards away from marine mammals.
The whale-watch fleet has been voluntarily keeping clear of J35 and her family to give her space and privacy.
Barbara King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book “How Animals Grieve,” said the duration and extent of J35’s efforts indicate intense grief.
“This is a real change from baseline behavior, she is laboring, not taking care of herself, not acting the way she normally would in order to keep her baby,” King said.
Alternative explanations, such as that she does not understand the calf is dead, are out of the question, King said. “There is no way I believe that, given what we know about orca intelligence.”
King has documented grief in primates, elephants, companion animals, farm animals and others. The gathering of other females with J35 on Tuesday evening, which continued for hours, also did not surprise her.
“Grief and love don’t belong to us, we share it with other animals.”
The day-after-day spectacle of the grieving mother brought an outpouring of concern not only for her but for the fate of the southern resident population.
Every calf matters in a clan with only 75 members, said Billie Swalla, director of the Friday Harbor Laboratories of the University of Washington on San Juan Island, where the whale has been the talk of the research campus.
“Everybody is worried about her,” Swalla said of J35. “I am just so sad, and they are in decline so this is just so worrisome. And she is a grieving young mother. This is just very hard to watch.”
The story has drawn interest around the world as news accounts have circulated on the internet.
“I am beside myself about this,” Michelle Connor, CEO of the nonprofit Forterra in Seattle, wrote The Seattle Times in an email.
“This is our family.”