A grieving orca was spotted off the coast of Washington state Thursday, carrying her stillborn calf through the Pacific Ocean for the 17th day in a journey that has astonished and devastated much of the world.
Tahlequah, as the mother has come to be called, gave birth on July 25 in what should have been a happy milestone for her long-suffering clan.
As Allyson Chiu wrote for The Washington Post, the pod of orcas that roams between Vancouver and San Juan Island has dwindled to 75 members over the decades.
The cause is no mystery: Humans have netted up the whales' salmon, driven ships through their hunting lanes and polluted their water, to the point that researchers fear Tahlequah's generation may be the last of her family.
The 400-pound, orange-tinted baby that wriggled out of her that morning was the first live birth in the pod since 2015, Chiu wrote. It lived about half an hour.
People love to anthropomorphize animals, often fallaciously. But studies have found that orcas really do possess high levels of intelligence and empathy, and emotions that may not be totally alien to our own.
So, when Tahlequah did not let her emaciated calf sink to the bottom of the Pacific, but rather balanced it on her head and pushed it along as she followed her pod, researchers thought they understood what was happening.
"You cannot interpret it any other way," Deborah Giles, a killer whale biologist with the University of Washington, told Chiu.
"This is an animal that is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn't want to let it go. She's not ready."
That was the beginning of a long funeral procession. "The hours turned into days," Chiu wrote two days after the death. "And on Thursday she was still seen pushing her baby to the water's surface."
And still the next day, and through the weekend, and into the next week and next month.
The act itself was not unprecedented, but researchers said it was rare to see a mother carry her dead for so long. It couldn't have been easy for her.
Tahlequah's pod travels dozens of miles in a day, Chiu wrote, and she pushed her baby's hundreds of pounds every inch of the way. She was forever picking up the body as it sank, hoisting it out of the water to take a breath, and repeating.
Researchers with the Canadian and U.S. governments and other organizations tracked her all the while, the Seattle Times wrote. They hoped to capture the calf once Tahlequah finally let go, and discover why it had died — as nearly all the babies in this pod seemed to die.
But Tahlequah would not let go. Eventually, researchers stopped calling what they were witnessing "rare" and began using the word "unprecedented."
And the phenomenon was no longer of purely scientific interest.
"I won't let them forget. I can't let them forget."— Lillianna 🌊 // 바다 (@Pilo2Lilo) August 9, 2018
Tahlequah was sighted today carrying her dead calf for the 16th day. Her dedication and love as a mother knows no bounds. If only she could will life back into her calf. pic.twitter.com/GJg0qbCAS6
People wrote poems about Tahlequah, and drew pictures. People lost sleep thinking about the whale. A scientist cried thinking of her. Tahlequah inspired politicians and essayists — and a sense of interspecies kinship in some mothers who had also lost children.
Our marine mammal experts have sighted #KillerWhale J50 and her mother J16 in US waters. J35 is with this pod and is still carrying her calf. We are continuing to work with @NOAAFish_WCRO and other partners to monitor the situation. https://t.co/QUxyv284GG pic.twitter.com/fziQ0JCQc2— DFO Pacific (@DFO_Pacific) August 8, 2018
And still, Tahlequah carried her child. The world's interest in her feat finally grew to encompass her whole family.
This week, the Times wrote, biologists and government officials began working on a plan to save the youngest living member of Talhequah's pod — a 3-year-old orca that appears to be on the brink of starvation. They're now tracking the young whale — Scarlet — in an attempt to feed her antibiotic-laced salmon.
In that sense, maybe, Tahlequah's doomed calf did bring new hope to the pod, which had previously swam and struggled in near anonymity.
At the same time, the mother's obsession has become gravely concerning to researchers. The effort of pushing her calf — for about 1,000 miles by now — is probably making her weak and keeping her from finding enough food.
"Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her," Giles told the Times this week, the whale "cannot be getting the … nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus."
The scientists have ruled out attempting to force her to give up the calf, according to the Times. Her emotional bond is simply too strong.
All they can do is hope Tahlequah decides to do so herself before long. Whenever she's ready.
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This article was originally published by The Washington Post.