This photo from 25 July 2018 shows the orca mother, J-35, balancing her dead baby on her nose, trying to keep it afloat. By 1 August 2018, members of the pod were taking turns floating the body of the newborn calf. Photo: Ken Balcomb / Centre for Whale Research

1 August 2018 (CBC) – Members of a pod of endangered killer whales now appear to be taking turns floating the body of a newborn calf that died more than week ago.

As It Happens reported on Friday about J-35, a mother orca from B.C.'s endangered killer whale population that has been balancing her dead calf on her nose near San Juan Island, Washington.

It's now been more than a week and the mother whale is still carrying the calf's remains — sparking concerns among researchers that she'll tire herself out.

"We do know her family is sharing the responsibility of caring for this calf, that she's not always the one carrying it, that they seem to take turns," Jenny Atkinson, director of the Whale Museum on San Juan Island, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"While we don't have photos of the other whales carrying it, because we've seen her so many times without the calf, we know that somebody else has it."

The Whale Museum released an audio recording on Monday of the mother communicating with her pod.

"You're hearing them communicate with one another. They're using a series of calls and whistles to communicate. And then you'll hear a clicking noise. That's echo-location," Atkinson said.

"They use it to pick up their food source as well as map their underwater environment."

She said it's possible the sounds are related to their mourning of the calf — but researchers can't know for sure.

"We picked up some calls earlier in the week and we hear things that sounded more like a very urgent call," she said. "If you think of going to a wake for a family, things can go on for multiple days and the grief is still deep, but the emotions kind of soften."

That's exactly what Atkinson believes the whales are doing with the calf — holding their own version of a wake or a funeral.

"Ceremonies can go on for days to honour and mourn the loss of a loved one," she said. "I think that what you're seeing is the depth of importance of this calf and the grief of the mother and the family." [more]

Orcas now taking turns floating dead calf in apparent mourning ritual

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