In 2018, the world’s collective heart broke for Tahlequah, a Southern Resident killer whale in the Pacific Northwest that’s formal name is J35. The mama whale carried around her dead calf for more than two weeks. Now, Tahlequah is pregnant again.
Researchers with the Southall Environmental Associates (SEA) and SR3, two environmental groups focused on marine life, published photos on Sunday showing that some of the whales with the endangered Southern Resident orca population are pregnant. Tahlequah is among them.
This is exciting news as the orcas are down to only 73 individuals as of the end of last year. They have been facing what some scientists have called an “extinction event” due to human pressure. These killer whales exclusively eat chinook salmon, a larger salmon species that’s also endangered. Poor fisheries management and habitat destruction are threatening the fish, Deborah Giles, a research biologist with the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology, told Earther. The declining salmon population has, in turn, led to whale malnutrition and starvation and caused some baby orcas to die in the past. Ocean noise from vessels and toxic contaminants are also threatening the Southern Resident killer whales’ survival.
At this point, every new addition to the population could go a long way in helping them avoid extinction. The pregnancies can last a year and a half, and the baby orca becomes a lifelong partner to the pod. These long pregnancies make it difficult for the population to increase substantially. Many Southern Resident killer whales’ recent births have also been unsuccessful due to malnutrition and insufficient food. In Tahlequah’s case, failure appeared to be emotionally painful. She carried around her dead calf in 2018 for a record of 17 days. The strange behaviour left many scientists puzzled. Some scientists saw this as a sign that these creatures can grieve. Still, there’s hope.
“It’s always good news when they’re pregnant,” Giles said. “I’m hopeful for J35.”
Giles was clear, though, that she is feeling “cautious optimism.” Unfortunately, the reality may be that these pregnancies wind up being another bunch of painful losses for the population. Giles said many of the whales are “puny,” which is not a great indicator for their overall health.
“It’s easy to celebrate a pregnancy, but the fact is that it’s quite possible this won’t result in a healthy live birth,” she said.
The health of whales is tied to their growth. That’s why scientists at SEA and SR3 are using drones to photograph and study the orcas, a method of observation that’s also less obtrusive than others. Through this assessment, they’ve seen enough changes in the body size of some of the females of the pod to recognise that they’re pregnant. What the whales need now is plenty of food and space. Some advocates have been calling on the state and federal governments to restore salmon to the lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest to help give these orcas the nutrients they need.
The climate crisis is pushing species around the world to the brink. Scientists suspect this may be contributing to the chinook salmon’s decline and, thus, the orcas’ decline, too. Other whales have been seeing some positive signs, though. Last year, North Atlantic right whales were giving birth again. Perhaps the Southern Resident orcas can finally see some good news, too.
“We are excited to hear about J35’s pregnancy,” Robb Krehbiel, the Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Seattle, told Earther in an email. “The promise of a new calf is great news for these critically endangered Southern Resident orcas and will hopefully be the first of many new pregnancies this year.”