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Do Dolphins and Whales Grieve?

Grieving dolphin mother carrying deceased calf on her back

Grief is a natural response to loss that is universally shared among humans all around the globe. Whether brought on by death, divorce, or drastic change, this multifaceted physical, spiritual, behavioral, cognitive, and social grieving process is a natural occurrence that has taken place within the lives of living entities for thousands of years. But what if the impact of loss and the ability to feel grief not only affects humans but other living creatures such as whales and dolphins?

Many scientists have asked themselves the questions, do dolphins grieve or do whales grieve? Being familiar with these incredible species of wildlife, our team at Captain Dave’s have explored these questions as well, leading us into an incredible amount of information that has us astounded and humbled at what we have discovered.

Studies suggest that a variety of dolphins and whale species grieve for their dead. These species can range from a small spinner dolphin to larger animals such as pilot whales and sperm whales. Robin Baird from the Cascadia Research Collective co-authored a study published in the Journal of Mammology and stated to Dive Magazine, “The animals go through a period where they’re experiencing the same kind of emotions you or I would when a loved one dies.” The grief is often brought on due to the loss of pod members, such as dead offspring and young dead calves. As these animals mourn their dead, they have been observed attending their deceased family members for long periods, showing depressive-like behavior similar to what a person would portray.

For instance, Jason Daley with the Smithsonian reported that after the death of a companion, captive bottlenose dolphins have been seen with depressive behaviors while lying on the bottom of the pool. Humpback whales, a member of the baleen whale family, are heard weeping and mourning for a companion that is beached, and in a heartbreaking experience, a killer whale was observed as it pushed and nuzzled its dead calf for up to six hours.

These observations have led many to continue more thorough research on the matter, especially as it has deemed difficult to pinpoint how exactly to determine if these animals are experiencing grief. One reason is marine mammals do not have the appropriate muscles to control facial expressions, so many researchers are striving to collect samples such as the spray from the blowhole of a grieving dolphin to test stress hormones and so forth.

Whether the testing of these samples proves the validity of their grief, many other forms of research have been conducted. For example, 20 species of cetaceans were observed showing signs of a condition known as postmortem attentive behavior, more commonly known as grief. Many scientists attribute these findings to the neurological capabilities of these cetaceans, much to do with their large brain size. Because many cetaceans such as dolphins are highly social animals, forming close-knit and long-term bonds, their ability to feel grief is conducive to the observations. This is because it is believed that navigating the complex interactions of living socially requires a little more brainpower, leading to complex emotions such as grief.

Many still question if these animals are truly experiencing such a complex emotion, but concerning other animals, it is not a foreign concept. For example, Traci Watson who shared information in the National Geographic article entitled, “Whales Mourn Their Dead, Just Like Us” shared how it is not unusual for high functioning mammals to experience emotions. “Scientists have found a growing number of species, from giraffes to chimps, that behave as if stricken with grief. Elephants, for example, return again and again to the body of a dead companion.” If these animals are showing signs of grief and sadness in relation to loss, it is not difficult to recognize that other animals, especially those with high functioning social skills and abilities such as dolphins and whales, can experience grief as well.

For example, orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family and one of the most intelligent and socially skilled marine mammals have been observed in both the wild and captivity showing severe signs of the grieving process. As stated above, a killer whale was seen pushing and nuzzling its deceased calf for up to six hours. This mother killer whale was seen swimming off the coast in Washington State. Within 30 minutes after giving birth, the young calf died. Onlookers watched the mother push its dead body around in the water, while diving to retrieve the calf anytime it slid off her snout.

Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, stated, “It is unbelievably sad. It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen.”

These instances lead many to conclusive answers when asking the question, do orcas grieve over dead members of their pod? Because of these experiences, researchers and scientists cannot help but believe that grieving is present among these marine mammals.

While the study suggests that dolphins and whales can grieve, here at Captain Dave’s, we have encountered first-hand experiences with these magnificent mammals and their complex emotions. In late March 2013, passengers and crew members aboard a dolphin and whale watching safari had an unexpected experience as we watched a bottlenose dolphin carry a small calf that was believed to be dead for several days.

Captain Dave Anderson stated, “I believe this calf has been dead for many days, possibly weeks. You can see the flesh is decaying. In my nearly twenty years on the water whale watching, I have never seen this behavior. Nor have I ever seen anything quite as moving as this mother who refuses to let go of her poor calf.”

This encounter left us both heartbroken and humbled, as it showed us how deeply dolphins grieve and feel. The bonds and connections they share are real and are seen through both their lively interactions and mournful behavior when one passes. Although it is difficult to watch such sad moments, we feel grateful to share so much of our time with these incredible animals.

Our daily encounters do not always entail moments such as these, but as further studies and moving moments continue to take place within the lives of these sea creatures, we cannot help but conclude that these animals are deep feeling and socially adept individuals that grieve. This conclusion grants us a deeper appreciation for them and their incredible selves, and we give thanks for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of them in whatever mode of being they choose to be in. Our world is a better place because of them.

Thank you for reading,

Your Friends at Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari