This Orca Has Been Carrying Her Dead Calf for 16 Days—And Researchers Think She Could Be in Danger

J35 swims with her deceased calf. Kelley Balcomb-Bartok/Ken Balcomb taken under NMFS permit #21238

Wednesday marked the 16th day an orca mother known as J35, or Tahlequah, has been pushing along the dead body of her newborn calf off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

She has been swimming with the young killer whale in tow for so long that biologists are beginning to fear for her safety, The Seattle Times reported. After the baby died, Tahlequah was seen nudging its body every time it started to sink.

"I am sobbing. I can't believe she is still carrying her calf around," University of Washington scientist Deborah Giles told the Times. "I am gravely concerned for the health and mental well-being of J35.

"Even if her family is foraging for and sharing fish with her, J35 cannot be getting the… nutrition she needs to regain any body-mass loss that would have naturally occurred during the gestation of her fetus and also additional loss of nutrition during these weeks of mourning."

Although the orca's behavior seems strange, it's the length of time she's been carrying her baby, not the action itself, that's unusual. "Mother animals do grieve for their dead offspring and carry them or touch them for a while if they can," Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, told Newsweek. "What is unusual is the length of time she is carrying and the critical photo-documentation we are able to do over this time of grieving."

The sad story of J35 and her baby is a sign of much larger problems for orcas in the region, Balcomb said in a statement. The creatures rely on Chinook salmon to survive, but this fish is endangered.

"We have long demonstrated that these fish-eating whales are getting skinnier and skinnier, and the death rate is increasing. This baby whale (and 100 percent of the pregnancies in the past three years) failed to be viable because the mothers do not have sufficient food. Period," Balcomb added. "We've got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen but if we don't do it in those five years it isn't going to happen."

Experts fear for the future of J35's pod, which also includes J50—an emaciated young orca who may have an infection. Researchers want to try feeding her with medicated salmon, the Times previously reported.

"Humans must wake up to the realization that our population growth and unmitigated appetite for natural resources turned into money is creating environmental catastrophe for other species and ecosystems that ultimately we need for our own survival," Balcomb told Newsweek. "We all read that the oceans and atmosphere are warming and becoming unsustainable for life as we know it, but this little message from J35 is telling us how it ends if we don't change the paradigm."

This article has been updated to include further comment from Ken Balcomb.