What's being described as a "gut-wrenching" scene is playing out in Puget Sound, and it's been going on for at least three days. The Seattle Times reports on J35, an orca who gave birth on Tuesday only to witness her calf die 30 minutes later—and she's not willing to let go, swimming with the dead calf teetering on her head and retrieving it every time it falls off into the choppy water. The calf, which was a girl, was the first one to be born alive from that pod in three years, the Washington Post reports. "It's unbelievably sad," a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center tells the Times. Taylor Shedd, who works for the Soundwatch marine wildlife protection group, says the worry now is that the mother killer whale may be putting her own health at risk and has had trouble keeping pace with her pod while shoving her 400-pound calf along.
"She has 4 knots of current ripping at her, and she has to dive really deep to get the baby when it rolls off, to pick it up and keep pushing it in front of her," Shedd says, noting the mother's breathing has become labored. J35 was last reported carrying her calf on Thursday evening, in a show of grief that animal experts say isn't uncommon: At least seven other species carry the bodies of its deceased members, including three types of dolphin. "She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn't want to let it go," says the research chief for the Wild Orca nonprofit, calling the sight of J35's plight "horrible." "It is that simple. She is grieving." (Orcas are dying of starvation in the Pacific NW.)