Tahlequah the orca is part of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) group. As such, she’s potentially playing a vital role in bringing her species back from the brink of extinction. But when she lost a calf, the whale appeared to express her grief in an unprecedented way – and her response seems to have broken hearts everywhere.
Twenty-year-old Tahlequah is one of 74 orcas that make up the SRKW community. This group of whales, who live in the North American Pacific Ocean, have been closely monitored by the Center for Whale Research (CWR) for more than 40 years. And consequently we now know much more about these creatures and their behavior.
The CWR has, in fact, helped develop a non-invasive way of identifying particular whales. You see, the nonprofit organization discovered that orcas have an area on their backs that’s usually a different color to the rest of their body. This is known as a saddle patch and is unique to each animal.
Now although this breakthrough provided important insights into the whales’ behavior, it also uncovered a heartbreaking truth. You see, it was believed that thousands of killer whales lived beneath the waves in the Pacific Northwest region. The reality, however, was altogether more shocking.
Instead, researchers discovered that the numbers of whales were much lower than had been expected. And what’s perhaps even more saddening is that, according to the CWR, humans are believed to have been the direct cause of this decline. Why? Well, around five decades ago, a number of orcas were snatched from the sea and taken to marine parks.
During these efforts to capture them, some whales died, and it seems that as a result of these deaths – along with other human-related factors – the population has never fully recovered. Consequently, the SRKW community is now officially considered endangered by the U.S. government. And so this is why the remaining orcas such as Tahlequah are vital in ensuring the survival of their species.
Nowadays, the SRKW populace is a combination of three groups, which are known as the J, K and L pods. Tahlequah, who’s also referred to as J35, is part of J pod, which consists of 23 whales. And another member of her pod, known as Granny, had earlier made the news when it was discovered that, at around 105 years of age, she was believed to be the oldest living orca on record.
What’s more, it’s thought that Granny had a number of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and at least one great-great-grandchild. Sadly, though, researchers believe that not a single one of Granny’s direct offspring are still alive. Even worse, this doesn’t appear to be unusual. More than 70 members of the SRKW have reportedly died or disappeared in the past 20 years.
And Tahlequah is no stranger to that fact. You see, unfortunately it seems that J35 has experienced loss on more than one occasion. Shortly after the birth of her first calf, Notch, in 2010, experts believe that Tahlequah – who was around 12 at the time – miscarried.
Then, about six years later, J35’s sister sadly passed away as well. Things didn’t get much better for the orca after that, though. Following her sister’s death, Tahlequah took her niece, Star, and nephew, Dipper, under her fin. Soon after, however, Dipper also passed away.
All of this heartbreak is likely to have had a devastating impact on the orca, especially as killer whales are deemed to be highly intelligent and emotional mammals. Some experts have even gone so far as to argue that orcas experience feelings far more intensely than humans do.
And that’s perhaps why on July 28, 2018, Tahlequah appeared to behave in such an unprecedented way. Why? Well, on that date, J35 gave birth to the first calf that the SRKW population had seen in three years. Since late 2015 all SRKW pregnancies had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful.
So it’s likely that the CWR team were overjoyed by the news that Tahlequah had given birth. And after they heard about the arrival of Tahlequah’s baby, members of the CWR took to the waves in order to document the newborn. Upon their arrival, however, they saw that tragedy had struck.
Heartbreakingly, less than an hour after the birth, J35’s baby girl had passed away. Although the precise cause of her death remains unclear, contributing factors are believed to have included pollution and lack of food. But it was Tahlequah’s reaction to this tragedy that captured hearts around the world.
You see, the baby’s body had begun to sink to the bottom of the sea. But the grieving mother just wouldn’t let that happen and seemed determined to prevent her newborn’s carcass from descending into the depths below. Indeed, according to the CWR, J35 continued to do this for the rest of the day.
In fact, it isn’t unusual for orcas to behave in such a way. Both dolphins and killer whales have been observed carrying their dead for up to seven days. Tahlequah wasn’t alone, either. Other members of the pod reportedly began to support the grieving mom by helping to carry her calf’s body.
More than two weeks later, though, Tahlequah was still holding her baby’s body afloat. And news of the orca’s plight had started to make waves. Indeed, both scientists and whale lovers alike took to the internet to express their grief and empathy, while others voiced their concerns for the bereaved mother’s health.
One such individual was research scientist Deborah Giles, who talked to The Seattle Times about her concerns. “Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her, J35 cannot be getting the… nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus and also additional loss of nutrition during these weeks of mourning,” she explained.
Eventually, it appeared that Tahlequah had finally finished grieving. Seventeen days and at least 1,000 miles later, the mother had reportedly been seen without her baby’s corpse. Despite her tragic ordeal, though, researchers stated that the orca seemed relatively healthy. The founding director of the CWR, Ken Balcomb, even went so far as to say that she had been “frolicking” nearby.
With that in mind, Tahlequah’s heartrending plight clearly emphasizes the difficulties that whales are facing in the modern world. It also demonstrates that the loss of a child seems to have a heartbreaking impact on mothers in non-human species, too. Hopefully, tragic tales such as J35’s will encourage people to be more aware of their influence on the planet.