UPDATED STORY 09/07/2020: (see below)
Two years ago, the world grieved alongside Tahlequah, a Southern resident orca, who carried her lifeless newborn for 17 days over 1,000 miles. Refusing to let it sink, she pushed her dead female calf toward the surface of the water. Now, scientists have learned she is an expectant mother once more.
Scientists John Durban and Holly Fearnbach recently finished recording drone images of the southern residents. They discovered pregnant orcas, also known as killer whales, amid the J, K, and L pods (social groups).
The photography was done as part of a long-term study focused on monitoring the condition of endangered orcas frequenting Puget Sound. The recordings were performed non-invasively with a remote-controlled drone flown more than 100 feet over the sea creatures.
Southern resident orcas are a vulnerable population, with only 73 of them left, according to the Center for Whale Research. While pregnancies aren’t unusual, scientists felt the need to announce Tahlequah’s pregnancy because it carries special meaning for a region that grieved her calf’s death.
Every baby counts for these orcas since most of their pregnancies are unsuccessful. Tahlequah’s baby was the first for them in three years. They’ve since had two more calves in the J and L pods, and both are still alive.
Tahlequah, also referred to by researchers as J-35, still has a long way to go in her pregnancy. The gestation period for orcas is usually 15 to 18 months, and families stay together for life. Orca moms-to-be need every chance to bring their baby into the world alive, and everyone on the water all over the region can help them do that.
Durban and Fearnbach said boaters should respect the whales’ space and allow them to live peacefully. A quiet environment is essential to these whales because they use sound to hunt. They find it difficult to forage when there’s too much noise from boats and underwater vessels.
In fact, vessel disturbance is one of the three main threats to their survival. The other two are pollution and lack of adequate salmon, especially the chinook, which is the southern residents’ preferred food. The orcas can readily access the chinook in their traditional fishing areas. However, their hunting location is currently busy with fishermen, boaters, and commercial ships.
According to researcher Sam Wasser of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, about two-thirds of all southern resident pregnancies are unsuccessful. And the culprit? Stress from hunger brought about by the lack of salmon. This study makes it even more vital to raise awareness about the whales’ predicament.
“Studies by our colleagues at the University of Washington have shown that these reproductive failures are linked to nutrition and access to their Chinook salmon prey,” according to an online release by SR3, a sea life response, rehab, and research group. “So, we hope folks on the water can give the Southern Residents plenty of space to forage at this important time.”
Tahlequah lost another calf before the baby she gave birth to two years ago, which only survived for 30 minutes. The grieving orca refused to let her 300-pound, 6-foot-long newborn sink and carried her for weeks. This fall, scientists will take another set of photos of the whales and hope to see Tahlequah even rounder.
“People need to appreciate these are special whales in a special place at a vulnerable time,” Durban said. “These whales deserve a chance.”
The ultimate question is this: will her next calf live?
“We are concerned if she has a calf, will she be able to look after herself and the calf and J47, too?” Durban said. “There has been a lot of talk I am not sure a lot has changed for the whales.”
Despite the circumstances, let us continue to hope that Tahlequah’s baby lives. Share this article to raise awareness about the endangered southern resident orcas. Learn how you can help HERE.
UPDATED STORY 09/07/2020:
Tahlequah has given birth to a new calf on Friday, September 4, according to a press release from Center for Whale Research. According to researchers, the baby—also known as J-57—looked “healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life.” Finally, Tahlequah will be able to experience the joys of motherhood once more now that she has her rainbow baby swimming by her side. Here’s to hoping that this Orca population continues to thrive!