'Yeah, there were tears': Crew that followed orca's 'tour of grief' still reeling

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- It’s a distressing story that captured the attention of people far beyond the Northwest. For 17 days, the southern resident killer whale known as J35 or Tahlequah carried her dead newborn calf on her head, unwilling to let go of her.

While the world followed Tahlequah’s so-called "tour of grief" from afar, researchers were forced to confront her pain in person every day.

"There were definitely a few instances where I teared up," said Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch.

"Yeah, there were tears," admitted Michael Weiss of Center for Whale Research.

"I didn’t realize how stressed and really depressed I was until it was over," said Ken Balcomb, the founder of Center for Whale Research.

These are not the reactions you expect from scientists who are tasked with observing the species.

But the Center for Whale Research has watched the population of southern resident killer whales decline for decades. July 24, 2018, and the news of a new baby, had brought hope.

"We left and we went across the strait thinking we were about to document the first new calf in three years," Weiss said. "We were excited. It was going to be a really special day. And then, by the time we got there, just that moment of realization that it was already dead, it was pretty brutal."

Tahlequah’s newborn daughter survived just 30 minutes, but the mother’s mourning would last much longer.

"It was my worst days that I've ever had on the water, watching J35 carry that calf," Weiss said.

"I felt like I was carrying 400 pounds on my back, too," Balcomb said.

After more than 17 days, researchers finally got relief when Balcomb looked out beyond his property and saw J35 swimming by with no calf in sight. He said she looked like she was back to her old self.

"I took telephoto pictures of it at a distance and I thought, 'That’s her! She’s excited and vigorous,'" Balcomb said. "It's such a relief."

With that relief came time to reflect on why this whale refused to let go for such an unprecedented amount of time, and why her story resonated with people all over the world.

"We are watching this mother who did just lose a child," Shedd said.

For him, it was an intimate look at one of the most painful experiences imaginable.

"Lots of people have gone through the pain of losing a loved one, or even a child," he said. "And to just see it in another species that we find a kinship with, I think just resonated with a lot of people."

"I felt like I had to document it everyday," Balcomb said. "I didn’t feel good about it, I just felt it had to be done. I had to let the world know."

"She’s told the story better than we ever could," Weiss said.

The story he speaks of is that these whales are in trouble. Increased boat traffic and pollution play a part, but most scientists agree that the main reason they’re stressed is lack of food.

It’s why the southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years. Tahlequah’s tour of grief put a face to that fact.

"I really hope people keep caring," Weiss said. "I really hope people don’t just let this fade away now that she’s not carrying around the body of her daughter anymore."

Researchers believe if something isn’t done soon to get these orca more food, her next pregnancy will likely share the same fate.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca task force has been working this summer to come up with recommendations not only to increase salmon for southern residents, but also address the other threats of pollution and boat noise.

The public will not see a draft of those recommendations until Oct. 1, but you can make your voice heard before then.

The next task force meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 28, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s in Anacortes at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge and it’s open to public comment.