The Slatest

Grieving Mother Orca Finally Drops Dead Calf After Carrying Corpse for 17 Days

A female killer whale and her newborn calf are seen February 26, 2015 in this handout photo provided by NOAA in Grays Harbor near Westport, Washington.
A female killer whale and her newborn calf are seen February 26, 2015 in this handout photo provided by NOAA in Grays Harbor near Westport, Washington.
Candice Emmons/NOAA Fisheries/Handout via Reuters

A grieving orca whale that made headlines around the world for carrying the corpse of her dead calf for more than two weeks has finally released it, ending what scientists referred to as “a tour of grief.” The adult female named Tahlequah, who is known as J35 by scientists, was seen Saturday swimming without the body of her calf.

“J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy,” Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, wrote in an email to the Seattle Times. “The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness.”

The 20-year-old orca moved people around the world who were touched by her mourning after she gave birth on July 24. The 400-pound calf that was born that morning, which was the first live birth in the pod since 2015, only lived about half an hour. Scientists believe she had previously lost two other offspring since 2010. The most recent death “may have been emotionally hard on her,” Balcomb said

Although scientists often scoff at the way people love to anthropomorphize animals, in this case researchers said that the whale’s actions were what they looked like: mourning. “You cannot interpret it any other way,” Deborah Giles, a killer whale biologist with the University of Washington, told the Washington Post. “This is an animal that is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn’t want to let it go. She’s not ready.” Scientists called the grieving period unprecedented for a southern resident killer whale, noting that while it wasn’t uncommon for dead babies to get carried around for part of a day, it never went on this long.

Scientists were worried that Tahlequah’s health was suffering as a result of the long grieving period but the Center for Whale Research said that “this mother whale appears to be in good physical condition.”