An endangered orca that captivated the world with its "tour of grief" has returned to its pod after spending more than two weeks clinging to a dead and decomposing calf, researchers said Sunday.
"J35 vigorously chased a school of salmon with her pod-mates in mid-Haro Strait in front of the Center for Whale Research for a half mile", they said.
The calf died soon after birth in July, and the orca mom had carried the body for almost three weeks while traveling hundreds of miles.
For days the mother killer whale, also known as an orca, was seen repeatedly diving to retrieve the calf's carcass as it sank en route to San Juan Island.
"It is no longer there", Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, told the Seattle Times.
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Dr. Martin Haulena, the chief veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, said a one- or two-day "mourning period" is common in many cetacean species such as whales and dolphins, but the 17-day-long journey was distinctly odd.
Orcas, also called killer whales, are highly social, and this pod was spotted Friday afternoon near Vancouver, British Columbia.
The mother was preventing the body from sinking to the ocean floor.
But on Saturday experts confirmed she had dropped the calf.
It added: "The carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of these inland marine waters of the Salish Sea [between Canada and the US], and researchers may not get a chance to examine it for necropsy (autopsy of an animal)". They hoped to capture the calf once Tahlequah finally let go, and discover why it had died - as almost all the babies in this pod seemed to die.
In the past two decades, 75 per cent of newborn calves have died, according to the CWR, which attributes the low reproduction rate to declining numbers of Chinook salmon, the staple diet of the killer whales. "Orcas. are charismatic megafauna", she said. They must learn to swim right away, Balcomb said, and rely on their mothers for food for several years - first through nursing, then through providing fish.