This weekend, the orca known as “Tahlequah” J35 gave birth to an apparently healthy calf. The mother and calf were seen free swimming together off the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Some may recall that in 2018 “Tahlequah” captured worldwide attention as she dragged her deceased calf for 17 days and 1000 miles. Her “Tour of Grief” made international news and sparked conversations on the mortality of orcas.
On September 6, the Center for Whale Research posted the following announcement on Twitter and Facebook: “We are pleased to report a NEW calf in J pod! J35’s new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life.”
They estimate the orca was a couple of days old at the first citing because the dorsal fin was straight. A CWR representative explained that the fin bends in the womb and takes a couple of days to straighten out. This was one reason they assigned the calf’s birthday as September 4, 2020.
They labelled the newborn orca as J57, but they haven’t yet assigned a name and don’t know the calf’s gender yet.
“It’s a bit of a nail-biter right now,” Dr. Deborah Giles, a whale researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology told the New York Times. “I can’t help but be thrilled that she had this baby and this baby didn’t die right away. Everybody is worried and on pins and needles, wondering if this calf is going to make it.”
Existential Challenges Facing Orcas
According to CWR’s announcement: “We hope this calf is a success story. Regrettably, with the whales having so much nutritional stress in recent years, a large percentage of pregnancies fail.”
The birth of an apparently healthy orca calf is notable since researchers at the University of Washington said that as much as two-thirds of orca pregnancies miscarry, and they have a calf mortality around 40 percent. Among the reasons for the high mortality are habitat loss,decreased access to their food supply including Chinook salmon, pollutants, and stress from boat noise.
The CWR reports that an orca gestates for 15 – 18 months and each female may typically have one viable calf every nine to ten years between their early teens until their early 40s.
About Tahlequhah and the J-Pod
Tahlequhah and her calf are Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). In 2019, there were around 73 in existence according to the CWR. These orcas live in “pods” or extended families that revolve around older adult females who are usually mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers of the other pod members. There are currently three pods labeled J, K, and L.
“Tahlequah” and her calf are members of the J pod which is now 23 members strong. While many orca calves do not survive their first year, healthy adults are known to sometimes live to the age of 100. One J-Pod member set the record for longevity, matriarch “Granny” J2 was the oldest known Southern Resident killer whale. Her estimated age was 106 when she died in 2016.