FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- A female southern resident orca carried its dead calf on its head for the seventh straight day, in an apparent sign of grieving.
The female orca, known as J35, was first spotted Tuesday carrying a dead neonatal calf. For nearly a week now, J35 has carried the calf on her head or with a flipper in her mouth. She retrieves the dead calf when it falls, researchers with the Center for Whale Research said.
She was spotted Monday still carrying her offspring. In a spat of good news, researchers said J35's breathing appears slightly less labored, and she was much closer to her pod than she'd been previously.
Biologist Deborah Giles with the Center for Conservation Biology called the pictures released last week "heartbreaking" and said they show how socially bonded the species is.
"She was grieving," Giles said. "She knew it was dead."
Giles and others have told Q13 News it's not unusual for a grieving orca mother to mourn the death of her calf.
Southern resident orca numbers are the lowest they've been in decades, and the species is on the brink of extinction.
Earlier this month, Giles and her crew spotted a 4-year-old orca that was "severely emaciated," with her bones and ribs nearly poking through her skin.
"You shouldn't see bones on a whale," Giles said. "You should just see a fat, blubbery whale."
The 4-year-old, known as J50, was part of the southern resident "baby boom" that occurred when 11 calves were born between 2014-2016.Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.