A grieving orca was spotted off the coast of Washington state Thursday, carrying her dead calf through the Pacific Ocean for the 17th day in a journey that has astonished and devastated much of the world.
Tahlequah, as the mother has come to be called, gave birth on July 25 in what should have been a happy milestone for her long-suffering clan.
As Allyson Chiu wrote for The Washington Post, the pod of killer whales that roams between Vancouver and San Juan Island has dwindled to 75 members over the decades. The cause is no mystery: Humans have netted up the whales’ salmon, driven ships through their hunting lanes and polluted their water, to the point that researchers fear Tahlequah’s generation may be the last of her family.
The 400-pound, orange-tinted baby that wriggled out of her that morning was the first live birth in the pod since 2015, Chiu wrote. It lived about half an hour.
People love to anthropomorphize animals, often fallaciously. But studies have found that orcas really do possess high levels of intelligence and empathy, and emotions that may not be totally alien to our own.
So, when Tahlequah did not let her emaciated calf sink to the bottom of the Pacific, but rather balanced it on her head and pushed it along as she followed her pod, researchers thought they understood what was happening.
“You cannot interpret it any other way,” Deborah Giles, a killer whale biologist with the University of Washington, told Chiu. “This is an animal that is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn’t want to let it go. She’s not ready.”