J35, a mother orca, has been carrying her dead calf for six days as of Sunday, 29 July 2018. Photo: Taylor Shedd / Soundwatch

By Lynda V. Mapes
30 July 2018

SAN JUAN ISLANDS (The Seattle Times) – She carries it delicately, carefully, by the fin, or on her head, so as not to make a mark on the tiny body of her calf that lived only half an hour.

J35, a mother orca in the southern-resident clan, was being closely followed as she swam by all the members of her family Sunday, as she continued her mourning ritual for a sixth straight day, swimming more than 40 miles south from Canadian waters overnight Saturday to the west side of San Juan Island on Sunday.

She and her family are constantly on the move — and usually a sight that brings joy wherever they go.

But not this summer. As J35’s family moves through the water they are a like a funeral procession, the mother with her deceased calf balanced on her head, and family following closely with her.

Whether she is eating is not known; her family snagged a salmon Sunday afternoon and were sharing it, though it was impossible to tell from a distance who got a piece.

And even as the mother whale’s grief is displayed day after day, researchers are worried about another family member, J-50, they fear will be next.

Researchers are arriving this week to film both whales with a drone. With J-50, a youngster at the age of 4, the goal is to compare her body condition with earlier sightings.

But others who are with the orca whales nearly every day already know, and fear the worst.

“I don’t see how she can survive,” said Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor. “She has classic peanut head,” he said, referring to the hollowed- out shape of her head behind her cranium, where the fat has wasted away, a known sign of emaciation.

“She looks a lot worse, I can see the back of her cranium, it’s pretty pathetic,” Ellifrit said. “You just don’t picture her surviving. We have seen a couple of whales look grim that came back. But they were never this bad.” […]

With J50 on a death watch and J35 still displaying her loss in home waters that for thousands of years sustained these whales, the region has reached a crossroads with two signature species — killer whales and chinook salmon.

“I know she is doing this for her own reasons,” Ellifrit said. “But you can’t help see it as a message.” [more]

Orca whale continued grieving ritual for a sixth day on Sunday



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