The dolphin lifted the lifeless body of the baby to the surface of the sea, pushing the cub with its head before disappearing into the depths of the ocean.
The dolphin, thought to be the mother, recently carried the dead calf for two days, solemnly swimming off the kelp rice paddies of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The heartbreaking moment, which included other dolphins in its pod swimming with the mother, was captured by drone footage – and experts say showed the complexity and intelligence of marine mammal species.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” said Eric Martin, chief aquarist of the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach, who for two days tracked the dolphins and documented their moments of grief. “I just want people to know that this isn’t just an ordinary animal.”
Visitors to the Point Vicente Interpretive Center on Friday, May 13, first told Gray Whale Count observers – who monitor and document the migration of gray whales as they pass near the peninsula’s cliffs – that they had seen porpoises circle around another dead dolphin.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director and coordinator of ACS/LA’s Inshore Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, visited the scene and saw the inshore bottlenose dolphin slowly carrying the body of a newborn calf , likely a mother carrying her baby, accompanied by four other dolphins, Martin said.
Martin was notified of the sighting and came down early in the evening to see if he could get any pictures. He searched the sea before sunset, finding the mother dolphin carrying the little calf on top of her head while other members of her family stayed by her side.
“Do I really see this?” Martin wondered incredulously.
It was a first in his decades-long quest to study offshore wildlife.
The next day, Saturday May 14, Martin received another call from Schulman-Janiger: the grieving mammals were still spotted off the peninsula. So Martin showed up with a drone in hand, again finding the mom still with the pale pink deceased calf, accompanied by two other adult dolphins.
“What made this day different from the first day was that the water was so clear. I could see what was going on underwater,” Martin said. It was such a powerful scene of her trying to put it on her head, to bring it to the surface. It’s so heartbreaking.
The solemn film shows the mother with the calf on her nose before letting go of the lifeless body, allowing it to float to the surface of the ocean before returning to retrieve it, gently nudging it again and carrying it with her under the surface of the ocean and outside. of sight before reappearing with her on her back.
The scene reminded Martin of a southern resident killer whale documented in 2018, known as orca J35, which carried its deceased newborn calf with it for 17 days.
Although there is evidence of dolphins crying similarly, there isn’t much documentation out there, the aquarist said. Martin said he believed the calf was only a few weeks old before it died because wrinkles were still apparent in its skin.
“It was heartbreaking to know what these animals are crying about, because of their level of intelligence – which I think is beyond us,” he said. “He could have carried the calf longer. He could carry the calf now. I do not know.”
Schulman-Janiger has studied whales and dolphins for over 40 years and although she has heard of them before, she has never witnessed the act first hand.
“It’s not a common thing to see,” she said, noting that Captain Dave Anderson at Dana Point documented a similar sight in 2013. “It’s extremely rare to see.”
The dolphins moved slowly and were pointing towards the dead calf.
The act seemed as if the supposed mother was having a hard time letting go of her baby, showing their rich emotional bonds.
“A lot of us feel like it’s a sign of grief and mourning, pushing it and keeping it with us,” she said.
“They have strong family ties,” Schulman-Janiger added. “It almost felt like a mourning ceremony.”
Martin wondered if one of the bottlenose dolphins, a female, was a grandmother or a matriarch of the group.
“We’re just speculating,” Martin said. “In my mind, the other two were making sure whoever lost his calf was okay, never crying alone.
Martin said he would probably never know exactly what was going on with the dolphins, but he was amazed to see it.
“It just blew my mind,” he said, “to see him live like that.”
Martin debated posting the video online, due to its sensitivity, but ultimately decided to share it.
“I want to make sure people know that these animals aren’t just fish swimming in the ocean,” Martin said. “They are highly intelligent marine animals that live in family societies.”
Before documenting the mother and deceased calf, Martin filmed a playful pod having fun in the seaweed, chasing fish and each other – even capturing a dolphin hug, he said.
“I saw the other end of the spectrum, a family connection,” Martin said. “And then I go to the other end of the spectrum, the loss of a child.”