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Orca whale ‘Tahlequah’ releases dead calf after longest documented mourning period

An endangered female orca is no longer carrying her dead calf around the Pacific Ocean, ending her nearly three-week-long “tour of grief.”

The Center for Whale Research confirmed on the weekend that the 20-year-old mother killer whale, known as J35, was spotted without her baby while she “vigorously chased a school of salmon."

“Her tour of grief is now over and her behaviour is remarkably frisky,” said the centre, based in Friday Harbor, Wash.

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J35, also known as Tahlequah, was spotted by officials of Fisheries and Oceans Canada while they were searching for another of the 75 southern resident killer whales, labelled an endangered species in both Canada and the United States.

It is common for a cetacean to mourn its young, but rarely for more than a few days. But J35’s mourning, which lasted at least 17 days, marks the longest such display ever documented among southern resident killer whales. It captured the attention of the world.

The number of killer whales has continued to dwindle over the decades. Researchers attribute the decline to a lack of Chinook salmon, as well as increased pollution, vessel traffic and noise. The last successful birth was three years ago.

Mark Malleson, lead zodiac skipper with Victoria-based Prince of Whales Whale Watching, said he was shocked when spotting J35 towing her dead newborn near Sooke, B.C., in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off southern Vancouver Island.

“This is something new; we never really experienced anything like this. … We never ever documented a killer whale carry a calf for that extended [amount] of time,” he said in an interview.

He was concerned about J35’s physical condition, but after seeing some reports of her current situation, he thinks she is fine.

Howard Garrett, co-founder and board president of Orca Network, said he was relieved to hear the news.

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“J35, the mom, seems to be doing well, very energetic and travelling with her family members,” he said in an e-mail.

Researchers were hoping to collect the carcass after J35 let it go to find out why it died. But according to Mr. Garrett, the corpse most likely will never be found.

“The remains must have fallen off in the day or two she was not seen, and drifted to the bottom,” he said.

He added that it’s difficult to tell the calf’s cause of death without her remains to examine, but her death is consistent with orcas' reproductive failures in recent years that have been traced to a chronic deficiency in their nutrition.

Another orca in the pod, a 3½-year-old known as J50, is emaciated and in poor condition.

Mr. Garrett said J50 still looks very bad but is still travelling with her family, although sometimes lagging behind them.

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“[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] scientists injected her with an antibiotic a few days ago and are testing the possibility of feeding her now,” he noted.

J35’s calf was born near Victoria on July 24, but died moments later.

Mr. Garrett acknowledged that orcas are periodically starving and that is the main cause of reproductive failure.

He said to improve the amount of the Chinook salmon the southern resident orcas requires a vast range of habitat restoration, fishing regulation, toxic pollutant cleanup and overall public education.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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