emily moeck



For two days she has grieved, carrying her dead calf on her head, unwilling to let it go. The mother, a member of the critically endangered southern resident family of orcas, gave birth to her calf Tuesday only to watch it die within half an hour. All day, and through the night, she carried the calf. She was seen still carrying the calf on Wednesday by Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research. “It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. As a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen,” the biologist commented. “It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have." It was obvious the calf had not been dead very long, the umbilical cord was visible. The mother is carrying her calf by balancing it on her rostrum, just over her nose. She dives to pick it back up every time it slides off. Scientists have documented grieving behavior in other animals with close social bonds in small, tightly knit groups, observed carrying newborns that did not survive. In one instance, a researcher attached a rope to the carcass of a bottlenose dolphin and towed it to shore— the mother followed, touching the carcass until she could no longer continue into water too shallow to swim in. There she remained, watching. Some carried their young in their mouths, some on their backs. “All mother's grieve, yes, but I have never heard of this,” she said of Mother. “More than 24 hours." "It is horrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being. It understands the social bonds that it has with the rest of its family members," she said. "She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn’t want to let it go. It is that simple. She is grieving." The southern residents face at least three known challenges to their survival as a species: Toxins, vessel traffic and lack of food. When they are hungry, it makes their other problems worse, research has shown. For researchers who work closely with the southern residents, their continued decline is painfully apparent. She said other members of the whale’s family knew Mother was pregnant, because of their echolocation ability, which they use to find food. “So they must be grieving, too.”



[This is an interactive text. Roll over the text block to read the work. Click MOTHER to switch between voices.]

In August of 2018, I was sailing up the Pacific Northwest with my mother on a cruise to Alaska. It was the first time we had spent more than a few days together for almost a decade. Our relationship riddled with past pain we pushed back for these two weeks at sea to celebrate her 70th birthday. As we sailed through Washington waters, news broke that an orca mother, J35, had been sighted swimming with a dead calf balanced on her nose for over 24 hours. As our days at sea progressed, the news of J35's parallel journey followed us up the coast. Orca mothers have been known to grieve for their lost young, but never for this long. Seventeen days later, J35's calf slid off her nose somewhere off the coast of Canada, and when J35 resurfaced after several minutes later, she was alone. During those two weeks at sea, I spent hours on deck with binoculars pointed out to sea, searching for J35 and her grief that seemed so embedded within my own relationship with my mother. I made no sighting. J35 gave birth to a female calf on July 24, my mother's birthday. The baby orca died only a few minutes later. Keeping the calf’s lifeless body afloat atop her head, J35 kept her grief afloat, swimming through choppy seas for more than two weeks.