It's a ritual rarely captured on film, but on July 8, a mother dolphin was filmed supporting her dead calf in Sanniang Bay of Qinzhou City in Southern China, for what may have been days.
Dolphins are considered one of the smartest marine mammals in the ocean, but many scientists are hesitant to anthropomorphise them. It's hard not to, when you see something like this video, captured by a boat full of tourists in Sanniang Bay.
Fisherman, Mr Su, said he believed that "The little dolphin was dead for two or three days, but its mother still stayed with it and carried it day and night." Her dedication he added, "has touched all of us and the tourists. Just like human beings, dolphins also have feelings. A mother's love is noble and moving."
According to the UK's Daily Mail, the "dolphin calf slipped from its mother’s back five times as she battled against the tide ... But on each occasion, she plucked it from the waves and continued her lonely voyage."
Although the grieving process is rarely observed, one dolphin researcher with the Thethy's Research Institute in Milan, Italy, thinks dolphins may deal with death very much like humans do. Joan Gonzalvo said he believes he has also observed bottlenose dolphins comforting and assisting a dying calf, before accepting the death and moving on. Gonzalvo added that bottlenose dolphins may even actually understand the concept of death.
In 2007, in the Amvrakikos gulf region of Greece, Gonzalvo over two full days, observed a mother staying by her dead calf and repeatedly lifting the calf to the surface, almost as if she was "unable to accept the death," he said.
One year on, another calf showing signs of distress was observed being supported by adult dolphins within the pod. Pod members tried in vain to keep the calf afloat as other dolphins within the pod, appeared stressed and were swimming around erratically. It was what happened next that surprised Gonzalvo the most.
Expecting to see the mother dolphin supporting her calf much like the one in 2007 did, Gonzalvo said the pod allowed the young dolphin to immediately sink before swimming away.
At the time, Gonzalvo said, his hypothesis was that "the sick animal was kept company and given support, and when it died the group had done their job. In this case they had already assumed death would eventually come – they were prepared," he added. The act also indicated the researcher said, that dolphins might be aware of their own mortality.
The dolphin in China observers said, looked as if it had come into contact with a boat propeller. Tourist boats often dolphin watch in the area and the calf had a large gash across its belly estimated to be about a foot long.
Worldwide, dolphins are being impacted by human interaction. Bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico for example, are under pressure right now from fishing gear entanglements, harassment, strandings and illegal feeding.
But when it comes to grieving, it's a process both human and dolphin appear to share. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who specializes in dolphin research, told the Huffington Post last month, "The fact is that they are so different from us and so much like us at the same time."
Marino said, "They not only know who they are, but they also have a sense of who, where and what their groups are. They interact and comprehend the health and feelings of other dolphins so fast it as if they are online with each other," she added. A fact that only serves to make this video of a dolphin's grieving ritual, all the more poignant and heartbreaking.