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killer whale orca mother with dead calf

As of August 8th, the grieving mother was still carrying her dead calf with her. Image: Center for Whale Research

The Inertia

You may remember a story from back in late July about a grieving killer whale who was carrying her dead calf with her. At the time of that publication, she’d been towing her dead calf around for three days. Now, two weeks later, researchers have spotted her again—and she just can’t let go.

The calf was born on July 24th off the coast of Vancouver Island, but it died just hours after. “As the body sank into the water,” wrote AJ Willingham for CNN a few days after it was initially reported, “the mother repeatedly pushed it up, keeping it afloat for at least three days as she and her pod swam on.”

The pod of whales is called the Southern Resident killer whale population, and they move between the northwestern United States and southern Canada in the Pacific Ocean. They number about 75, but the Southern Resident killer whales are in very dire straights. For three years in a row, no calves have survived, and a healthy population should number around 300.

Although the killer whale’s behavior is hard to watch, it is not surprising. “They know the calf is dead. I think this is a grieving or a ceremonial thing done by the mother,” Ken Balcomb, the Founder of the Center for Whale Research, told CNN. “She doesn’t want to let go. She’s probably lost two other calves since her first offspring eight years ago.”


Researchers are relatively certain they know why the pod of whales is struggling: they are starving to death. This particular population of killer whales has been hard hit by human involvement that blocks salmon spawning routes, hatcheries, and a variety of other issues. “The cause is lack of sufficient food resources in their foraging area,” Balcomb explained. “There’s not enough food, and that’s due to environmental reasons… The hatcheries are not working. You’re genetically homogenizing the populations and they’re smaller and less fit and more expensive to produce.”

While we’re aware of the pressure we’re putting on the killer whales, not much is being done about it. Although there are measures we can take to help the Southern Resident population bounce back, it seems unlikely that enough will be done.

“As explained by NOAA, there are certain things people that live in the area can do,” wrote IFLScience‘s Robin Andrews. “If you wish to help preserve the salmon’s habitat, then make sure you conserve both water and electricity, cut down on your pesticide and fertilizer use if they are at risk of running off into waterways, and make sure to keep boats away from the pod.”


Researchers, however, don’t have high hopes for the orcas in the area.  “Extinction,” Balcomb warned, “is looming.”


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