Two years ago, a mother orca captured the world’s attention as she carried her dead newborn for more than two weeks. Now, that same orca is pregnant again.
Tahlequah, or J35, as she’s known by researchers, gave birth to a female calf in 2018, but it died after half an hour. While it is normal for orca mothers to carry the bodies of their dead calves for a day or so, Tahlequah did it for 17 days. She pushed her calf toward the surface of the Pacific off the coast of Canada and Northwestern US, refusing to let it sink.
Now, the Southern resident orca is expecting yet again. Recent drone photos show she is just one of several pregnant killer whales that researchers have identified since early July, according to a report by SR3, a sea life response, rehab and research group.
The orca population is a large family made up of groups called pods, and orcas from each pod are expecting. Though it is not unusual for females to get pregnant at the same time, the group said most recent pregnancies have not been successful.
“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,” their online statement said. “So, we hope folks on the water can give the Southern Residents plenty of space to forage at this important time.”
The orcas were since listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. Unlike other mammal-hunting orcas, the Southern Residents exclusively eat salmon, but since salmon are dwindling, the orcas are starving.
Lack of food can be linked to years of unsuccessful pregnancies. Miscarriages have been common among the animals, with about 75 percent of newborns dying. The group’s number are now at a 30-year-low and old members are dying faster than the new ones being born.
Tahlequah is now 22. The average life span of orcas is 29 years. She had since given birth in 2010 to her first calf, Notch (J47), and residents described her as an “incredible attentive mother.” Tahlequah might has gone through at least one failed pregnancy, if not two. It might explain her 17-day mourning period.
“It’s a little bit of anthropomorphism, but I think she was letting everyone else know she was grieving,” Ken Balcomb, from the Center for Whale Research, told The Atlantic. “They’re very intelligent. They know people are out there: I’ve seen them look at boats hauling fish out in nets. I think they know that humans are somehow related to the scarcity of food. And I think they know that the scarcity of food is causing them physical distress, and also causing them to lose babies.”
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