Southern resident orca mom desperately pushes dead calf; another 'severely emaciated'

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- Heartbreaking photos of a southern resident orca trying to urge its dead newborn calf to swim have shined an ever-brightening light on the plight of the species.

The photos of a female southern resident orca, known as J35, pushing its dead calf to swim were sent to Q13 News from the Center for Whale Research. The photos were taken Tuesday by Ken Balcomb, the center's founder.

The scene of the desperate mother trying to will the calf into action is indicative of the problems the species faces. Southern resident numbers are the lowest they've been in decades, and the species is on the brink of extinction.

Biologist Deborah Giles with the Center for Conservation Biology called the pictures "heartbreaking" and said they show how socially bonded the species is.

"She was grieving," Giles said. "She knew it was dead."

Earlier this month, Giles and her crew spotted a 4-year-old orca that was "severely emaciated," with her bones and ribs nearly poking through her skin.

"You shouldn't see bones on a whale," Giles said. "You should just see a fat, blubbery whale."

The 4-year-old, known as J50, was part of the southern resident "baby boom" that occurred when 11 calves were born between 2014-2016. Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.

Giles said J50's breath was particularly rank, and indicated the calf was in ketosis, burning fat to stay alive. The last time she noticed an orca's breath was that bad was just a month before another orca, J1, died.

The southern residents face problems like increased vessel noise, toxic waters, and, primarily, a shortage of food.

Without abundant salmon, the southern residents are starving. When they can’t eat, they access their fat storage, which is full of contaminants. And with boat noise, they have a harder time using echolocation to find what little salmon remain.

Q13 News is continuing to follow the plight of the Southern Resident orca in our series "The Last Generation?" Part 2 continues tonight at 9 and 10 p.m.