Orca mother ends 'tour of grief' for her newborn after 17 days and 1,000 miles

For 17 days, a southern resident killer whale (SRKW) named J35, but better known as Tahlequah, carried her deceased baby for more than 1,000 miles.

The orca’s unusually long spell of grieving came to an end on Saturday, when Tahlequah was spotted in the Haro Strait off Victoria, British Columbia, chasing a school of salmon without her newborn.

“Her tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky,” the Center for Whale Research (CWR) explained in a blog post online.

The CWR added that the baby’s carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of the Salish Sea, meaning that researchers may not get a chance to examine it.

On Jul. 24, Tahlequah’s baby orca died shortly after birth, in what has been a common story for the southern resident killer whale population. 

Over the last two decades, 75 percent of SRKW newborns failed to survive. The last successful birth was in 2015, when two calves were born.

In the hours, then days after the death, Tahlequah was spotted trying to keep her baby’s head above the water’s surface, reluctant to leave the body behind.

“That’s not unprecedented, but it’s the longest one that I’ve personally witnessed,” Ken Balcomb, CWR’s founder and principal investigator, told The Washington Post.

These orcas are facing a real threat of extinction, with no successful pregnancies in the last three years. At just 75 whales, the population is at its lowest in 30 years.

The SRKW’s decline is linked to the reduction in population of its primary food source, Chinook salmon.

Canada’s government announced in May it would cut the allowable catch of Chinook by up to 35 percent to help protect the orca.

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