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Whale researchers are keeping close watch on an endangered orca that has spent the past week carrying and keeping her dead calf afloat in Pacific Northwest waters. The display has struck an emotional chord around the world and highlighted the plight of the declining population of southern resident killer whales that has not seen a successful birth since 2015.Michael Weiss/The Canadian Press

Whale experts continue to monitor a grieving orca that has stayed with the lifeless body of her newborn calf for more than two weeks, but don’t plan on intervening for fear of putting a critically endangered population at greater risk.

The extended mourning by the mother orca, called J35, is now 17 days and counting – the longest such display ever documented among southern resident killer whales. Another whale in the pod, called J50, is emaciated and in poor condition.

Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., said the population has a matrilineal social structure and it is crucial not to interfere with J35, a 20-year-old orca, during her period of grieving.

“They travel with their moms all their lives, and we have seen situations where a mom will die and within days the son will die too,” Ms. Atkinson said. “So there is a strong concern that if we were to interfere, not only is it illegal, but if we were to interfere, you would have a tremendously negative impact on the family group. And there is no desire within an endangered population to apply any kind of negative pressures.”

Southern resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005 and have dwindled to just 75 orcas since. There has not been a successful birth since 2015.

Mark Malleson, lead zodiac skipper with Victoria-based Prince of Whales Whale Watching and research assistant for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, observed J35 nudging her lifeless calf around on Thursday morning near Point No Point, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off southern Vancouver Island.

“It was just awful. I almost felt like she was showing it to me,” Mr. Malleson said. “She just came over and gave me a good look at it. It was an awful feeling. My heart goes out to her."

While it is not uncommon for orcas to mourn their young, to do so for more than a few days is rare. The hope is that J35 will release her calf close enough to shore so that researchers can perform a necropsy to help understand why it died. However, it’s possible the body will sink far out in the ocean.

“Chances are it will [sink],” Mr. Malleson said. “But they are back in these inside waters right now, and I see a [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] research boat has just arrived here in Victoria, along with a Canadian Fisheries and Oceans boat. It’s all eyes on J35. It’s possible they could retrieve it.”

The crews are taking a different approach with J50, the emaciated 3½-year-old orca in the same pod.

An international team of experts has been waiting for an opportunity to get close to the female orca so they can carry out an emergency plan that includes giving her antibiotics or feeding her live salmon at sea.

Veterinarians headed out to the young orca will also decide whether to give her antibiotics using either a dart injector or a long pole syringe.

“The health assessment team is figuring out today whether they can get close enough where we can access them, because they’re still a pretty good distance out,” Ms. Atkinson said Thursday.

When they can, a marine veterinarian will gather additional samples using an extender pole to collect mist from J50′s blowhole, as well as fecal samples.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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