J35, or Tahlequah, gave birth to the calf which lived for only one half-hour.
About 75 per cent of newborn Southern Resident killer whales die in the last 20 years, the Center for Whale Research says, and in the past three years every pregnancy has failed.
The killer whale, named J35, was seen propping the newborn on her forehead and trying to keep it near the surface of the water off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia, said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, which closely tracks individual whales.
According to the Washington state-based Center for Whale Research, both the mother and female calf were seen swimming together that morning.
Because of this, they are known to exhibit emotions like grief, so mothers often do carry the bodies of their deceased young on the water's surface.
The center is now monitoring the mother, who has spent days repeatedly nosing her sinking calf to the surface and balancing the small body on her head. It has become a devastating symbol, and an uncannily pointed one, for the whales' plight.
The mother was spotted off the west coast of the USA and Canada on Thursday, with experts confirming the baby had died on Tuesday; the mother refused to leave the baby behind when her pod left.
J35 was spotted again Friday morning near the southern end of the San Juan Islands, he said.
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Killer whales have been previously known to carry around the carcass of their dead offspring for up to a week. Atkinson said she has the equipment for an oil change at the ready for the boat, to quickly service it when the crew comes back in for the night and be ready to get right back out on the water. The population of the endangered orcas is at its lowest in over three decades. "This is a population that is clearly struggling in terms of numbers". Balcomb also says we should reconsider certain dams that create more environmental upheaval and economic cost than they're worth. Instead, no calves had been born since 2015.
It has been moving to watch Tahlequah's family stand by her, Atkinson said. "Functionally, they will be extinct".
Still, he said the calf deaths show the whales aren't getting enough of their favoured food: chinook salmon.
He said it could be because of overfishing or climate.
"This is a real change from baseline behavior, she is laboring, not taking care of herself, not acting the way she normally would in order to keep her baby", King said. "There's a lot of hypothesising about that". They also face overlapping threats from toxic pollution and noise and disturbances from boats.
Orca whales are said to be the most intelligent creatures on the planet.
"Everybody is devastated", he said.