The grief a mother experiences at the loss of a child can be hard to handle. Earlier this year an orca named J35 lost her calf. For seventeen days she carried her calf, unwilling to let it go. Biologists report that orcas can mourn the loss of their newborns like any family would.
J35 is part of a critically endangered family of orcas known as the J Pod. She gave birth in July and within half an hour she watched it die. All day and night she carried her calf. During the next day, she was spotted by Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research.
“It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. This isn’t the first time he has witnessed a mother orca carrying her dead young.
Robin Baird, a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, witnessed L72 carry her dead newborn in 2010.
“It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen,” Baird said.
J35 would balance it on her rostrum, just over her nose. Whenever the calf would drop under the water, she would dive under and bring it back up.
Scientists have documented grief in other animals with close social bonds.
Scientists noticed animals, orcas especially, with deep social bonds would carry their newborn if they didn’t survive after birth. In seven geographic regions, covering three oceans, seven species have been documented carrying the body of their deceased young. This included Risso’s dolphin in the Indian Ocean; the Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin and the spinner dolphin in the Red Sea; and pilot whales in the North Atlantic.
Deborah Giles, a research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca also watched L72. Giles followed her at a distance in her boat. She stated it was “hours and hours”, noting that “I have never heard of this,” speaking of J35. “More than 24 hours.”
“It is horrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being. It understands the social bonds that it has with the rest of its family members. She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn’t want to let it go. It is that simple. She is grieving.”
J35 finally let her baby go
Researchers were worried for the 20-year-old member of the J Pod. Her ‘tour of grief” was closely monitored as they were worried about her food intake, as well as her state of mind. After 17 days of carrying her dead calf, J35 finally let it go. Thankfully, she made it through her grief physically unharmed.
“Telephoto digital images taken from shore show that this mother whale appears to be in good physical condition,” the Center for Whale Research noted in an update.
Is it possible that she had a deep connection to her calf before it was even born? Scientists are leaning towards a yes. After 17 months of gestation, it is very possible the connection began in the womb. “I think that’s quite possible,” says John Ford, an orca researcher at the University of British Columbia. “The whales have a very strong drive to look after their offspring and this evidently extends to neonates that die at birth.”
Scientists worry about the future of the pods
The death of J35’s calf is a significant blow to the J Pod. For the last three years, they haven’t seen a successful birth. Time is running out for them to maintain their viability. Ken Balcomb, founder, and principal investigator at the Center for Whale Research, is giving the pods five years.
“We’ve got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen”—meaning, to have viable offspring—”but if we don’t do it in those five years it isn’t going to happen,” he writes.
Even now, the scientists are relieved that J35 survived her ordeal. She is an orca in her prime. The pod needs her to reproduce to ensure their future. “Even without this death, this is a population in crisis,” Atkinson says. “They need our stewardship and support if they are to survive.”
We hope these orcas last the five years researchers are predicting. If not, the world loses these beautiful creatures. To the J Pod, we extend our condolences for the loss of a newborn. It shows how smart they are because the family had to have been grieving as well.
Featured Image via screencapture from website seattletimes.com