The orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles is pregnant again

Click to play video: 'Orca that carried dead calf for 17 days is pregnant again'
Orca that carried dead calf for 17 days is pregnant again
Two years after the world watched a grieving whale carry her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,600 kilometres, Tahlequah the orca is pregnant again. As Jennifer Palma reports, Tahlequah is not the only southern resident whale expecting, which has conservationists feeling cautiously optimistic. – Jul 28, 2020

An orca who made headlines around the world when her calf died in 2018 is pregnant again.

Known as Tahlequah, or J35, her calf died only 30 minutes after it was born in July 2018.

The calf’s lifeless body was carried on her mother’s nose through the Salish Sea for the next 17 days, travelling more than 1,000 miles before J35 let it go.

Click to play video: 'Orca lets go of dead calf after carrying it for 17 days'
Orca lets go of dead calf after carrying it for 17 days

But now the orca is pregnant again, almost two years to the day that she lost her calf.

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And she’s not the only one.

Scientists John Durban, senior scientist of Southall Environmental Associates, and Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director for the nonprofit SR3, have been studying drone photos taken at a safe distance of what is known as the southern resident killer whale pods — part of a population that’s been listed as endangered in Canada and the U.S.

These photos compare body condition of J35 in September 2019 and in July 2020. The wider profile at mid-body indicates she is pregnant. (SR3 SeaLife Response, Rehab and Research and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in 2019 and SR3 and Southall Environmental Associates in 2020; both collected under NMFS research permit 19091). Photo by SR3 and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in 2019 and SR3 and SEA in 2020, collected under NMFS research permit 19091.
Click to play video: 'Good news for southern resident Orcas'
Good news for southern resident Orcas

Their current population is listed at only 73 whales.

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The population consists of three pods – dubbed J, K and L – and Durban and Fearnbach found there are pregnant whales in all three pods.

However, this is not unusual, according to research, and the majority of recent pregnancies have not resulted in successful births.

“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, so we hope folks on the water can give the Southern Residents plenty of space to forage at this important time,” Durban and Fearnbach said in a release.

“With such a small population, every successful birth is hugely important for recovery.”

L72 pregnancy: The picture panel above shows her shape change between September 2019, when she was several months into pregnancy, and recently in July 2020 when her increased width at mid-body clearly indicates she is in the late stages of pregnancy. Pregnancy in killer whales typically lasts 17-18 months. Photos by SR3 and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in 2019 and SR3 and SEA in 2020, collected under NMFS research permit 19091.

The gestation period for orcas is usually 18 months.

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Click to play video: '3 missing southern resident orcas presumed dead'
3 missing southern resident orcas presumed dead

“We’re very excited about it,” Lance Barrett-Lennard, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at Ocean Wise told Global News.

“When we see females that have got this pear shape then we know that they’re pregnant and we can tell that at about five months or so.”

READ MORE: From 2017 — There were 98 southern resident killer whales in 1995, and there are 76 now

Barrett-Lennard thinks that J35 is about six months pregnant so the baby is expected late this year or next year.

“Typically a female killer whale gets pregnant about once every four years, they have a very slow reproductive rate, but if they lose a calf, as she did, then they can breed a bit more quickly so this is about the earliest we would have expected to see her pregnant,” Barrett-Lennard added.

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“Hopefully she carries it through full term.”

Southern resident killer whales have been spotted carrying dead calves on their heads before, according to Taylor Shedd, program coordinator with the San Juan Islands-based organization Soundwatch.

But it’s still a mystery why the whales do this, he added.

“A lot of us think it’s probably grieving.

“But whatever the grieving process is, these whales, that they carry it, I can’t even begin to pretend what that emotion or stress is like to lose this child and to carry it around.”

The whales are known to travel between southeastern Alaska to central California, spending much of their time off Vancouver Island and Washington State in the summer.

Everyone out on the water is being urged to give whales plenty of space so they can hunt and stay healthy.

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