Artist captures 'visceral' grief of killer whale holding dead calf in viral painting

A Washington State artist’s painting of J-35 — the southern resident killer whale that has been keeping its dead calf afloat for over a week — has struck a chord with thousands of people gripped by the story.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says 'everything is on the table' when it comes to saving whales

This July 25 photo shows the orca mother, J-35, balancing its dead calf on its nose trying to keep it afloat. (Ken Balcomb/Centre for Whale Research)

A Washington State artist's painting of J-35 — the southern resident killer whale that has been keeping its dead calf afloat for over a week — has struck a chord with thousands of people gripped by the story.

Lori Christopher's watercolour painting, See Me, has been shared more than 8,500 times on Facebook since the artist posted it on Wednesday.

Lori Christopher's painting, See Me, depicting southern resident killer whale J-35 — also known as Tahlequa — went viral after she posted it on Facebook. (Lori Christopher/Facebook)

Christopher, of Hat Island, north of Seattle in the Salish Sea, said she was moved by J-35's story and later inspired to reflect it in her art.

"Her grief was so visceral … and had gone on for so many days that it was more of a cry out for help," Christopher said, adding it was almost as if the whale was trying to get our attention.

"When she's raising it above the water it becomes clear that she's grieving and she needs help. They all need help."

The painting depicts the heartbroken mother J-35 — also known as Tahlequa — holding its calf above the water with a look of determination on its face as the dead offspring is draped, discoloured, over its snout. Other whales of the pod look on with faces expressing concern or uncertainty.

'Everything is on the table'

Christopher says it's critical that action be taken to save the remaining southern resident killer whales.

She hopes by raising awareness and creating an emotional connection to J-35 with her art, that might happen.

As of Thursday, J-35 was still with its dead calf, Fisheries and Oceans Canada marine mammal coordinator Paul Cottrell said.

He told On The Coast guest host Angela Sterritt that researchers spent Friday trying to find it to check up on it. Another priority is recovering the body of the calf to conduct a necropsy.

The DFO has said it will reduce the total chinook salmon fishery removal by 25 to 35 per cent to increase food for the orcas. Cottrell said "everything is on the table" when it comes to protecting the whales.

"There's definitely lots going on on the research and management side," Cottrell said. "It's kind of a multi-prong approach because you … have to look at all of the potential threats to recovery."

Listen to the full interview with Lori Christopher:

A Washington State artist's painting of J-35 - the southern resident killer whale that has been keeping its dead calf afloat for over a week - has struck a chord with thousands of people gripped by the story. 2:20

Listen to the full interview with Paul Cottrell:

The DFO has said it will reduce the total chinook salmon fishery removal by 25 to 35 per cent to increase food for the orcas. 10:46

With files from Jean Paetkau and CBC Radio One's On The Coast

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About the Author

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.