For nearly two weeks, we have all been transfixed by the scene of a mother orca carrying her dead infant in what can only be interpreted as a display of profound grief and loss.
On July 25th, Tahlequah, known to scientists as J35, gave birth to a daughter who lived for only 30 minutes. The outpouring of sympathy is natural and understandable. Who among us has not lost someone very close to us? And who among us does not relate to the extreme stress and grief associated with a mother losing her child? Motherhood and loss are universal.
With help from other members of her family, known as the J pod, Tahlequah has been keeping the dead baby afloat as the pod continues to ply the waters of the Salish Sea, off the coast of Seattle, in search of an ever-diminishing supply of food in what is an increasingly depleted, noisy and polluted environment.
As she has struggled to keep the infant body afloat, Tahlequah has sometimes fallen behind her family. Recently, however, she has been seen back together with them. And sometimes she has been observed without the body, but later with it again. Apparently, she may be dropping it and then recovering it from the bottom, or perhaps sharing the burden with other members of the family.
“Just as when someone dies in our own lives, she is neglecting herself because this is taking precedence over everything,” says Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a leading expert in marine mammal intelligence.
“It is very familiar to any of us who has lost a family member. And that is why people around the world are feeling such sympathy for her. She carried this baby for 18 months, and then, less than an hour after giving birth, she watched her die.”
And her pod, which has not seen a successful pregnancy in three years, grieves with her.
Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book How Animals Grieve, says that grief and loss are not only human qualities.
She notes that there is an extensive body of evidence showing how whales and dolphins – like elephants and chimpanzees – mark the passing of their dead, including keeping vigil around the bodies of dead pod mates or keeping them afloat, as Tahlequah is doing.
Remembering the Captive Orca Mothers, Too
As we join with the orca Tahlequah in mourning the death of her newborn baby, let’s also remember the mothers at marine display parks who, like Tahlequah, have lost their infants to death or forced separation, and in their case without even any close family members to support them in their grief.
Former whale trainer Carol Ray describes the scene when “Baby Shamu” Kalina was separated from her mother, Katina. When Kalina was removed, her mother swam to the side of the pool and stayed there, screaming, screeching and crying.
“There was nothing you could call that beside grief.”
In this same video, former trainer John Hargrove describes what happened when SeaWorld decided to separate Takara from her mother, Kasatka, and ship her across the country to Orlando, Florida. When Kasatka could no longer sense her daughter’s presence in the waters around her, she began to cry out. Her long-range, heart-wrenching vocalizations – a pleading attempt to bring her daughter back to her side – continued long after Takara was gone, testifying to the deep bonds shared between orca mothers and their offspring.
Scenes like these have been repeated, over and over, when mother orcas have either seen their calves die at marine display parks or have had them taken away and transferred to other facilities. Whatever the cause – death or transfer – the grief is real and demonstrable.
During her 38 years of life at Marineland, Kiska has suffered the loss of every one of her five children. Their deaths, from 1992 to 2009, likely meant for Kiska the repeated experience of deep despair. People familiar with her report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased offspring or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.
These hardships are endured by all kinds of cetaceans in marine parks. Maris, a 21-year old beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium, lived through the death of two of her babies in the span of three short years. Not long after the death of her second child, Maris was found dead of unknown causes.
Tahlequah’s mourning, along with the worldwide sympathy it has engendered, has given us all a moment to reflect on the universality of grief and loss. In the case of whales, both in the ocean and in captivity, it is profound and enduring.
Headline image of Tahlquah carrying her dead infant by Michael Weiss, Center for Whale Research