This past week, the world has been watching something that whale researchers have never seen before. According to media reports, a distraught whale living near British Columbia, Canada, is refusing to let go of its dead baby.
The whale calf was born on July 24 but sadly died shortly after. Ever since the baby passed away, its mother has been carrying its body with her.
The mother, known as J35 by researchers, has been arching her back to push the baby along the surface of the water with her forehead. Other times, she carries it with its tail in her mouth.
Although researchers say whales can exhibit this behavior for a day or two after a baby’s death, they’ve never seen a mother who’s been doing it this long— 10 days, at the time of this writing.
Taylor Shedd, who spends 12 hours a day monitoring J35, said that for him, the hardest part is developing the photos. “That’s when it really hits,” he said.
“Man, she’s still carrying it. She still has this stress and this pain that she must be going through.”
There are only 75 southern resident killer whales that remain. Initially, researchers were worried the mother would exhaust and put herself at risk. “I am so terrified for her well-being,” Deborah Giles, a research scientist director for Wild Orca, told the Seattle Times. “She is a 20-year-old breeding-age female, and we need her.”
According to reports released yesterday, other members of the whale’s pod are also helping to carry the baby— leading researchers to believe it may be a type of funeral.
“We do know her family is sharing the responsibility of caring for this calf, that she’s not always the one carrying it, that they seem to take turns,” Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, said in an interview with As It Happens.
“Ceremonies can go on for days to honor and mourn the loss of a loved one.”
“I think that what you’re seeing is the depth of importance of this calf and the grief of the mother and the family.”
Barbara King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, told CBC there is a large body of evidence to suggest that whales and dolphins mark the passing of their dead. “It’s not anthropomorphic to use this label for them,” the professor said.
“Grief and love are not human qualities.
They’re things we share with some other animals.”
“I feel so bad for that family,” said Deborah Giles. “And for her mental state. She must be in aguish. What is beyond grief? I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that is where she is.”
As mentioned, there are only 75 southern resident killer whales that remain— and sadly, there hasn’t been a succesful birth since 2015.
Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, said: “The larger environmental question reflected in the J35 story is that both the USA and Canada must redouble efforts to restore wild salmon (particularly Chinook) throughout Washington State and British Columbia for food supply.”
“We have long demonstrated that these fish-eating whales are getting skinnier and skinnier, and the death rate is increasing.”
Researchers hope that when the pod is finished the “funeral”, they will be able to get the body and figure out the baby’s cause of death. But, from what can be ascertained at the time of this writing, they haven’t let go yet.
Atkinson said:”Watching what she’s going through, most people have been through some level of grief and have had some situation that this touches because they can understand losing a child, losing a calf, and how heart-wrenching that is— and then not to be able to do anything when humans like to take action.”
“Sometimes the hardest thing is just to sit back and give respect and be witness to a situation.”
Hear the heartbreaking story below.
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Source: Time via Tout