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Orca carries dead calf – now decomposing – for ‘unprecedented’ ninth straight day

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. - Researchers are calling it a "tour of grief." They're also calling it unprecedented.

The female southern resident orca known as J35 was spotted Wednesday carrying her dead calf in an apparent sign of grieving, marking the ninth straight day she has done so.

Researchers said rough seas Tuesday and Wednesday made it hard to confirm whether or not she was carrying her dead offspring. But around 2:45 p.m., J35 was spotted with the neonatal calf carcass.

The calf's body is decomposing and has lost its rigidity, said Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch.

In his more than four decades studying whales, Ken Balcomb, the founder of the Center for Whale research, said he's never thing anything like this.

"It is certainly unprecedented for us to have a mother whale push a dead baby around for nine days," Balcomb said.

J35 is trailing behind the main J-Pod, but is surrounded closely by other orcas closely related to her.

An audio recording believed to be the mother orca was taken Monday off the west side of San Juan Island and provided to KCPQ by Michael Harris, a well-known marine expert and conservationist who works with a number of individuals and organizations on climate and marine issues, including since 1997 with Orca Conservancy, an all-volunteer organization that works to protect killer whales and their habitats.

He says this call is "mournful and prominent," and sounds like the calls he has heard in other whale separations.

Shedd said J35 appears to be doing OK, and appears to be eating with the help of her close family as she carries her calf in her mouth or on her head.

Still, Balcomb's worried about health issues J35 might be facing.

"I'm concerned with potential perinatal issues that have killed other mothers," Balcomb said.

Balcomb has called J35's actions a "tour of grief." Researchers will continue to follow the J-Pod and collect fecal samples. They are also keeping a close eye on J50, which is severely emaciated and was shown to be carrying pathogens.