London - It is a poignant mourning ritual that is rarely seen – and even more rarely captured on camera.

Struggling against the rough seas, a dolphin carries her dead baby on its final journey.

While a boat full of tourists watched the heartbreaking scene, the baby dolphin 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.

The dolphin was thought to be moving her dead calf away from the shore to lay it to rest in deeper water. A large gash, approximately a foot long, was visible across the calf’s belly.

It is possible the infant was killed by the propeller of a boat – perhaps even one of the many that take visitors out on day trips.

The pictures were taken by tourists in China’s Guangxi Zhuang region, which is known for its dolphin-watching tours.

In the past, researchers have observed dolphins carrying or pushing stillborn calves or those that die in their infancy.

They sometimes stay with their dead baby for several days. Mourning rituals are rare in the animal kingdom, but have also been observed in whales, elephants, chimps and gorillas.

While experts are reluctant to attribute human emotions to animals, the behaviour seems to show that dolphins have some awareness of mortality – and may even contemplate their eventual death.

Researcher Joan Gonzalvo, of the Tethys Research Institute in Italy, observed a similar scene of a mother carrying its dead calf on its back. He said that the mother seemed unable to accept the death.

A year later, he witnessed a pod of dolphins trying to help a dying calf – lifting it to the surface and swimming around the sick creature in a frantic and erratic manner.

He said: “My hypothesis is 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.” - Daily Mail