In the fall of 2016, Tahlequah’s sister (Polaris J28) succumbed to complications thought to be related to the birth of her last calf, Dipper (J54). Her death left her calves, six year old Star (J46) and ten month old Dipper, orphaned but not alone. Tahlequah helped them find food – she had brought salmon to Polaris, and now she helped Star care for Dipper.
Dipper was still milk-dependent and continued to lose weight even though they brought him pieces of salmon. As he neared death, Tahlequah and other family members helped Star keep Dipper afloat until inevitably he took a final breath, lost consciousness, and disappeared below the surface, joining Polaris in an untimely death.
Photo credit: Mark Malleson Star cradled her dying brother, helped in these photos by her cousin Notch (J 47) on the other side.
The family bonds are strong – Star is now reported to be helping the grieving Tahlequah keep the dead neonate at the surface – and the Southern Resident orcas may still recover if Chinook salmon populations are allowed to rebound.
Regrettably, approximately 75% of newborns in the recent two decades following designation of the Southern Resident killer whale (orca) population as “Endangered” have not survived, and 100% of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring.
We are saddened to report that a baby Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) died a short time after it was born near Victoria, British Columbia on July 24, 2018. The newborn whale was reported alive and swimming with its mother, J35, and other members of J pod near Clover Point on the Victoria shoreline in mid-morning.
A Center for Whale Research team was on the water in Haro Strait at the time and immediately responded to photo-document the newborn calf for the long-term census study we maintain for the US and Canadian governments. Unfortunately, by the time the CWR crew arrived on scene, the newborn calf was deceased, and the pod had traveled several miles eastward of the reported sighting location.
The baby’s carcass was sinking and being repeatedly retrieved by the mother who was supporting it on her forehead and pushing it in choppy seas toward San Juan Island, USA. The mother continued supporting and pushing the dead baby whale throughout the day until at least sunset.
A resident of San Juan Island near Eagle Cove reported: “At sunset, a group of 5-6 females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly 2 hours. As the light dimmed, I was able to watch them continue what seemed to be a ritual or ceremony. They stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved. The lighting was too dim to see if the baby was still being kept afloat. It was both sad and special to witness this behavior. My heart goes out to J35 and her beautiful baby; bless it’s soul.”
Killer whales and dolphins have been known to support and transport their dead calves for as long as a week – a testament to the amazingly strong mother/offspring bond and caring.