After carrying her deceased baby for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles, an orca mother showed signs of returning to normal.
She was seen on Saturday with other members of her school and chased a salmon school. She no longer carries her baby and she looks healthy. "Their tour of mourning is over now and their behavior is amazingly playful," reads the Center for Whale Research website.
Researchers usually refer to the mother island as J-35. She is also known as Tahlequah, a name she received as part of a whale program at Whale Museum on Washington's San Juan Island.
Her recovery is important – not only for her own health, but also for the health of the rest of her pod. NPR Colin Dwyer previously reported that "given the fact that orcas move in matrilineal groups, depending on mothers and grandmothers," Tahlequah's death would endanger her adult son and others.
Not a single orca born in the last three years is known by the Whale Research Center. So the fact that Tahlequah was born recently was so exciting, if only for a brief moment. Her calf died only 30 minutes after it was discovered by a whale watcher on July 24th.
The Center for Whale Research tracks every known Orca (better known as the Southern Resident killer whale), and by December 2017, the population is limited to 76 whales. According to Dwyer of NPR, the population of Southern Resident killer whales has dropped by about a quarter in the last 20 years, mainly because their food source, the Chinook salmon, has also experienced a dramatic population decline.
Jenny Atkinson, managing director of the Whale Museum, told Here and now Jeremy Hobson that Tahlequah's grieving time was unusually long. Typically, Atkinson said, researchers have seen mothers carry dead calves for "a day or so". But Tahlequah's baby was not born dead. "She wore it for 17 months before it was born," Atkinson said. "And we know that it swam by her side … so there's a part of me that believes the mourning could be much deeper because they were connected."
Atkinson said it made sense that Tahlequah's grief produced a global response. "Orcas … are charismatic megafauna," she said. "You will feel this pain of grief – especially if you have experienced grief in your own life."
For now, it seems that Tahlequah continues. Your podmates depend on it.