The newborn killer whale calf died shortly after birth, but days later, its mother was still holding on.
Almost two years ago, the world grieved for an orca known as Tahlequah (labeled J35) — who carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles. On Monday, scientists said that she is now pregnant again.
Tahlequah is among the endangered Southern Resident orca (often called “killer whale”) population that frequents the Salish Sea — near British Columbia and Washington State. The current Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population is 72.
“With such a small population…every successful birth is hugely important for recovery,” wrote Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), in a Sunday press release confirming the identification of pregnant SRKWs through drone photos.
While pregnancies aren’t unusual, most are not successful. About two-thirds of all southern resident pregnancies are typically lost, researcher Sam Wasser of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington has found. Stress from hunger because of a lack of salmon is linked to the whales’ poor reproductive success, according to his research.
Several of the juveniles in the pods also are looking thin, Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director for SR3, said.
“There are stressed whales out there, critically stressed,” she said.
Both of Tahlequah’s pregnancies have gathered attention. Although her 2018 calf died shortly after it was born, the baby was the first for the whales in three years.
The southern residents have since had two more calves — both of which are still alive. But Tahlequah’s new pregnancy carries special meaning for a region that grieved the death of her calf with her — during those 17 days two years ago.
In a 2018 Center for Whale Research press release about her dead newborn, a nearby resident recounted watching Tahlequah with other mourning orcas. “At sunset, a group of 5-6 females gathered at the mouth of the cove in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly 2 hours…[After dark] they stayed directly centered in the moonbeam, even as it moved.”
Especially as the new pregnancies move forward, Boaters should respect the whales’ space and give them the quiet they need, said Fearnbach and John Durban, senior scientist of Southall Environmental Associates. Whales use sound to hunt, and boat disturbance and underwater vessel noise is one of the three main threats to their survival, in addition to lack of adequate, available salmon and pollution.
Contributing: The Associated Press.
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