Two videos showing a bottlenose dolphin carrying a dead calf with other dolphins nearby, in what some said resembled a funeral, are being widely shared and have prompted discussion about whether marine mammals grieve. The sad but touching event occurred Tuesday off Dana Point, California (videos and photo are posted below), and while this type of behavior is not unprecedented it’s rarely witnessed in the wild.
“Many years ago at the mouth of Spruce Creek in Port Orange, Florida, my mother and father witnessed the still-birth of a dolphin,” reads a comment beneath one website post about Tuesday’s encounter, which involved passengers out of two Dana Point landings. “For over an hour the mother dolphin continued to push the stillborn baby to the surface for air before finally abandoning it.”
On Facebook, experts chimed in to share what they’ve encountered involving killer whales, which are the planet’s largest dolphins.
Susan MacKay of the nonprofit Whales and Dolphins BC, posted: “I can’t help but also think of Northern Resident A12, who spent a full month circumnavigating Hanson Island (top of Johnstone Strait) calling to her son. For over a year, every time she came back to the area, she had a woeful call. Who says they don’t grieve or have feelings?”
Dr. Robin Baird of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, provided a link to a report about an orca cataloged as L72 and her 6-year-old son (L105) carrying and lifting a dead calf out of the water for more than six hours near San Juan Island.
It reads: “Most of the time the calf was not visible, but on occasion L72 would lift the calf out of the water when she was surfacing. When we were able to see the calf L72 appeared to either be pushing it in front of her balanced on her rostrum or would be carrying the calf on the top of her head. But the calf was negatively buoyant, so had probably not been dead for long.
“Although L105 was within 50 or 100 meters for most of the time, we did not see L105 interacting with the dead calf. Based on the size of the calf (approximately 6 feet to 7 feet) we suspect it was near-term but no way to know whether it was stillborn or born alive and died shortly afterward. Upon surfacing L72 would frequently appear to ‘drop’ the calf and both whales would stop and dive deep to recover it.”
Dr. Astrid van Ginneken of the Center for Whale Research was said to have witnessed funeral-like behavior while in the polar circle above Norway. A male and female orca brought a dead calf, balanced on the male’s snout, to a circle of nine other orcas, then left it there.
She wrote in True Killer Whale Stories: “Apparently, the whales were around the little calf and taking part in mutual activity of nudging the baby. We had the feeling we were witnessing something that seemed some sort of ritual.”
Whether a ritual was occurring on Tuesday off Dana Point cannot be 100 percent confirmed, but for passengers and crew, it seemed to be the case. Experts contacted for this story said the calf appeared to have been dead for at least a few days.