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Orca mother on ‘tour of grief’ carries dead calf for 10th straight day

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- A southern resident orca mother carried her dead calf in the waters off Washington's coast for a 10th straight day Thursday, in what researchers are calling a "tour of grief."

Affiliates of the Center for Whale Research spotted J35 - known as Tahlequah - carrying her dead calf in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch. She trailed slightly behind the main J-Pod, but was accompanied by her immediate family.

The whales appeared to be headed west to open waters.

J35 was first spotted July 24 carrying the calf on her nose and in her mouth. The calf was only seen alive briefly. By the time biologists from the Center for Whale Research arrived at her side, the calf was dead.

On Wednesday, the calf was seen decomposing and had lots its rigidity.

Shedd told Q13 News he asked whale watching vessels to keep their distance from J35 and J50, a 4-year-old orca that was seen earlier this month severely emaciated.

Michael Weiss, a field biologist with the Center for Whale Research, said whale watching boats were mostly voluntarily keeping their distance from the grieving orca.

Researchers across the field said J35's actions are unprecedented. The traumatic scene unfolding day after day has weighed on scientists who watch the mammals closely.

"As it's gone on, it's become less shocking," Weiss said. "It's no less sad and I think we're all just tired. Everyone who is on the water with her hopes that she will let it go soon."

J35 is in OK shape, and her breathing has grown less labored as the days go on. She is being fed with the help of her close family, Weiss said. And her son, J47, hasn't moved far from her side.

"I find it very interesting to watch," Weiss said of the close relationship between J35 and J47.

An audio recording of what appeared to be J35 making "mournful and prominent" calls was given to Q13 News by Michael Harris, a well known marine expert and conservationist.

Q13 News will update this story at 4 and 5 p.m.