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Grieving Orca Mother Carries Corpse of Dead Calf for Days

July 24: A baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. (Center for Whale Research via AP)
Center for Whale Research via AP

A grieving orca mother was spotted lifting the corpse of her infant to the surface for air off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia.

Just a half hour after it was spotted alive, the mother was seen repeatedly lifting the dead calf to the surface. Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, explained that “the baby was so newborn it didn’t have blubber. It kept sinking, and the mother would raise it to the surface.”

The heartbreaking sight is just the latest ill omen for an orca population that has reached its lowest number in more than 30 years. These magnificent marine mammals have found themselves without the supply of Chinook salmon on which their diet depends and are plagued by both pollution and direct human interference.

These factors have combined to leave orcas thin and deathly weak. “On average we expect a few calves born each year,” said Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s Brad Hanson. “The fact that we haven’t seen any in several years and then to have reproductive failure is further evidence that we have a severe problem with the reproductive viability in the population.”

Hanson described a 4-year-old orca in the pod designated J-50 as “clearly emaciated” when he and his colleagues observed her from their boat near San Juan Island on Saturday. “You could see the shape of her skull through her blubber,” added UW Center for Conservation Biology’s Deborah Giles.

Giles had first alerted Hanson to a potential problem with J-50. Her breath carried a foul odor that researchers have connected to orcas that later died. While the smell had mostly faded by the time Hanson went to collect breath samples, she was still in terrible shape. “I’ve never seen an animal this emaciated make it,” Giles observed, “but I’m hopeful that she will bounce back.”

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order for direct action to save the diminishing population. A task force has been meeting since May and will make their report sometime later in 2018. “The death of the orca calf is a heartbreaking reminder of the urgency we face in saving these iconic animals,” the governor’s spokesperson Jaime Smith told WKRN via e-mail.

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