The Sad Story About Killer Whale Tahlequah

Orcas are some of the most magnificent creatures in the world, with their massive size and intriguing life underwater. Orcas, sometimes referred to as killer whales, are the largest members of the dolphin family, and the toothed whales that are famous for their black and white markings can live anywhere from 50 to 80 years in the wild.

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Even with such a large lifespan and no natural predators other than humans, orcas have challenges of their own. Their intelligence and maturity are on full display in some of their emotional moments, not unlike humans who also grieve the death of a loved one. 

Scientists and marine biologists are very interested in tracking the activity of orcas to better understand these beautiful creatures. Their studies led to a pivotal moment in July 2018, when an orca named Tahlequah gave birth to her second calf in waters of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Tahlequah, also known as J35, is tracked as part of the Southern Resident community, and she has a son who was born in 2010.

Unfortunately for the stunning animal, her second child was not as healthy as her first, and her baby lived for only a few hours before dying. Tahlequah was understandably heartbroken, but what happened next was truly astonishing for not only the marine research community but also the wider public who watched in awe as she grieved her baby for a record-setting 17 days. While researchers previously confirmed that orcas may carry their dead young for up to a week, Tahlequah set a new precedent in her heartbreaking reaction to the loss of the calf who she carried for nearly a year and a half. 

CNN coverage of the remarkable event revealed that Tahlequah continued to nudge her baby’s body along in an effort to keep it from sinking. Believed to be a grief tour, eventually after nearly three weeks, the orca was spotted chasing salmon along with others in her pod. She was finally without her calf, which presumably sank to the bottom of the ocean. All in all, her heartwrenching journey lasted 1,000 miles along Canada’s Pacific coast and the northwestern U.S.

These group of orcas was hit hard by the loss, as they hadn’t seen a successful birth in three years, caused by the depletion of their main food source, fresh local salmon. The devastation and grief is something Tahlequah may never forget, in much the same way humans may never quite get over the death of a child. There has been some good news for the Southern Resident community, as two healthy calves have been born since and survived.

According to the Seattle Times, what’s even more exciting for this dwindling whale population is the confirmation that Tahlequah is once again pregnant. The community’s population is down to just 72 whales, and about two-thirds of pregnancies in the group are lost, so everyone will be holding their breath and wishing Tahlequah a better experience this time around. Non-invasive drone photography was used to confirm the pregnancy, and now Tahlequah will be closely observed as she hopefully carries her calf to term and has a successful birth. 

07 July 2022

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