British Columbia·Killers

Grief or instinct? Interpreting a mother orca's actions

Many people who saw a killer whale pushing her dead calf through the Pacific for 17 days say they saw a mother in mourning, but science could suggest otherwise.

The world saw a whale in mourning when J35 didn't let go of her dead calf for days; the science less clear

Orca mother, J35, balancing her dead baby on her nose trying to keep it afloat on July 25, 2018. (Kelley Balcomb-Bartok)

It was as if she wanted people to see her in mourning.

A mother orca, known as J35, pushed the corpse of her dead calf in a funeral-like procession through 1,600 kilometres of Pacific Ocean for 17 days last summer in what scientists and journalists called 'a tour of grief.'

J35's procession attracted attention to the fragility of her family, J pod, one of three endangered groups of killer whales living in waters off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State. Those who encountered the orca with her dead calf say they saw a grieving mother with a message. Science says humans could have been projecting emotion on an animal acting purely on instinct.

John Ford, whale researcher for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium, said he doesn't want to discount the possibility J35 was publicly grieving, but says scientists can't be certain.

"It's a really strong instinctive drive more than anything for the whale to support its calf, its dead calf," said Ford. 

J35 pushed her lifeless calf with her nose, or dragged the body with her teeth, for 17 days and 1,600 kilometres. (Dave Ellifrit/Centre for Whale Research)

He said the length of time J35 kept her calf with her was "unprecedented," but whales do try to rescue each other, and sometimes other animals, by carrying them on their heads. Instinct, not grief, could be the reason.

"We really don't know what's driving those types of behaviour, and what they feel, and whether they have an emotion like grief."

But humans know grief. And many who saw J35 with her dead calf believed she did, too.

It was almost like she brought it over to me in her mourning or her grief- Mark Malleson

Mark Malleson, lead Zodiak skipper for whale watching company Prince of Whales, may have been J35's first 'tour' stop.

Malleson spotted J pod off the coast of Victoria on July 24, 2018, and was excited to see what he thought was the pod's first successful birth in three years. He learned later that same day from scientists at the Centre for Whale Research the calf could have been a corpse. 

"It was probably dead at the time, very likely a stillborn," said Malleson. "It may not have been alive at all when I saw it."

J35 approached Mark Malleson with her dead calf in what he described as an 'up close and personal' encounter with a sense of purpose. (Michael Weiss/Centre for Whale Research)

If J35 was sending a message, she wanted to make sure Malleson received it. The whale paid him a visit again near his boat after carrying her lifeless calf with her for 16 or 17 days.

"It was almost like she brought it over to me in her mourning or her grief," he said. "All of a sudden J35 popped up close to me, right in my face, and I saw it up close and personal."

Malleson said he thinks she did it on purpose. 

"She certainly went out of her way to come over toward me and surface right beside me so I could see this — her dead calf," he said.

Members of J pod swimming near San Juan Island in Washington State. (Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

Lodie Gilbert, community relations coordinator for the Centre for Whale Research, also witnessed behaviour akin to grieving from J35 and her family.

The same day the calf was probably born, Gilbert saw at least five female whales gathered around J35 and her baby's body at the mouth of Eagle Cove on San Juan Island in Washington State.

She said the whales stayed at the water's surface, swimming "in a harmonious circular motion" for a least two hours as if they were performing "a ritual or a ceremony" as darkness fell and the moon appeared.

"As the light dimmed I could still view them in the moonbeam and they stayed directly centred in the moonbeam even as it moved across the water," said Gilbert. 

"It was very sad yet it was also very special to witness this behaviour," she said.

J35, in the foreground, swims with members of her pod shortly after scientists think she finally let the carcass of her newborn sink. (Centre for Whale Research)

Killer whales live in cohesive family groups and have complex communication with distinct dialects and Ford says these are some of the many reasons why people can relate to orcas.

"I think there's a tendency to interpret what we're seeing in human emotional terms which maybe is a little too anthropomorphic," said Ford.

 See the full J pod family tree

The Lummi Nation in Washington State do relate to the whales as their own family.

In the Lummi language, orcas are called qwe 'lhol mechen, which translates to 'relatives that live under the waves.' 

Chairman Jay Julius, Lummi Nation, says J35 was sending a message to the world that J pod needs help. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

"Anyone else out there who's a father or a mother I think we have to attempt to empathize with her," said Jay Julius, chair of the Lummi Nation.

To him, J35's message to the world was clear: 

" 'Look at what you've done. Shame on you. Look at what we're going through,' and I think asking for help. Tappin' out. Saying 'We've had enough. We can't survive any longer.' "

Killers: J pod on the brink is a CBC British Columbia original podcast about the southern resident killer whales hosted by Gloria Macarenko. It's free at CBC Podcasts

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