Grief and loss can come in many forms. While some animals may feel intimidated or even confused by their young (like hamsters), other animals quickly form intimate bonds.
Koalas, for example, carry their young for months — and then are still responsible for feeding and nourishing them until they’re older.
For animal lovers everywhere, the story of Tahlequah the killer whale was very tragic. After giving birth to an orca calf who had died several hours later, Tahlequah began a “grief tour” by carrying the body throughout the ocean. Researchers believe that she carried it in such a way to prevent it from sinking. However, she decided to say goodbye to her baby after 17 days.
The news was tragic. Many mothers who have suffered from a similar loss know exactly how Tahlequah must have felt.
However, her story has a positive turn. Tahlequah gave birth to her “rainbow baby” and seems happier than ever. But that’s not the only reason why this news is so celebratory. The orca also added to her population in a big way.
The world has kept an interest in both Tahlequah and her pod. Tahlequah also goes by the name of J35. According to CNN, scientists have also kept tabs on another whale by the name of Scarlet, or J50, who had been losing weight due to an infection. Those scientists were quick to give her a round of antibiotics to try to improve her health.
The pod has gained attention due to their lack of successful births. The pod, which reportedly has fewer than 75 members, has not had a successful baby join the group for three years. In fact, in the last 20 years of the pod, only 25% of the babies born have survived. It’s a grim statistic, especially since it’d be a shame to someday see killer whales become extinct.
According to CNN, Greenpeace considers this particular pod to be very important. The environmental organization claims that the “Southern Resident orca is an ‘important part of the culture and history of the Pacific Northwest’” and feels as if the pod may not be getting the additional support it needs. One of the big issues is the fact that food is becoming scarce.
“Unfortunately, that population is malnourished and in dire need of food and protection,” said Greenpeace USA Field Organizing Manager Ben Smith. “That is why our elected officials and civic leaders have a moral responsibility to take action and ensure that the orca’s main food source, salmon, recovers and is not further depleted.” It’s important for researchers to keep an extra eye on this pod in particular.
And it’s why news of Tahlequah’s new calf is even more exciting. Aside from getting the chance to prove how devoted of a mother she is, she’s also contributing to the repopulation of orca whales. The Whale Research Center reported that her new baby, known as J57, appears to be very healthy.
While this new calf doesn’t erase any memory of her last, it’s thrilling to know that she can still successfully reproduce, especially with so many factors against her. “She was still capable of producing a live calf after an approximate eighteen-month gestation! Hooray!” the center’s release said, per CNN. “Her new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life.”
Researchers are giving the new calf the birthday of September 4. Much like they can predict a dog’s age by its teeth, you can safely figure out the age of a whale based on its dorsal fin. The calf’s dorsal fin was upright, which usually happens at about two days after birth. After birth, the Southern Resident orca population is now up to 73.
It’s important to note that officially, the Southern Resident killer whale group is the only one that’s currently threatened to this level. They’re officially listed as endangered. Aside from food sources becoming depleted, this can also be caused by pollution, the state of the water, and other environmental factors.
This hasn’t been the first time that the Southern Resident whales have seen reductions in their population. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, many whales were removed from the population due to shootings and live captures that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. “The first complete count found just 71 whales in 1976,” the commission wrote.
“With the cessation of capture and shootings, the population slowly increased to a peak of 96-98 whales in the mid-1990s,” the commission continued. “However, in just five years from 1996 to 2001 the population rapidly declined by 20 percent to 78 whales.” In 2001, they were listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as officially endangered.
In 2016, the population took a big hit after the death of J2, who was known as the oldest whale of the pod. She was estimated to be around 80 years old and was considered the matriarch. According to the commission, a loss like this has a huge behavioral effect on the other whales: “The effect of the loss of a matriarch is not known, but research has suggested that postmenopausal, female killer whales make important contributions to their pods.”
The other whales also start stepping up. “They appear to lead the pod, presumably using their accumulated knowledge of the environment to find prey,” the commission said. “They also appear to support individuals in other ways, as sons who lose their mothers are three times more likely to die.”
The commission also made an astounding realization in that the population may never fully reach the numbers it used to have — and that may be due to the environment. “Scientists are uncertain about how many Southern Resident killer whales can currently be supported by the environment,” the commission wrote. “Although the environment’s carrying capacity may have exceeded 200 whales before the 20th century, it may not be able to support that many Southern Resident killer whales now.”
Right now, it’s tough to tell what the future of the population is. However, having a healthy calf is a big deal — and it’s also very sweet for Tahlequah to be able to play the role of mom. Hearing about her first calf was heartbreaking, but it showed the world how much love and dedication moms everywhere have for their babies.