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Tahlequah the orca is pregnant and I’m holding my breath

I felt such conflicting emotions when I heard the news that Tahlequah is expecting a new calf. You may remember Tahlequah as the orca who carried her dead baby for 17 days, setting social media alight and breaking hearts all over the world back in the summer of 2018.

That summer was perhaps one of the most stressful times I have had during my time working for Whale and Dolphin Conservation here in North America. Tahlequah, or J35 as she is known to scientists, is a member of the group of orcas known as the Southern Residents, and this unique and highly endangered community of orcas who live in the waters off the west coast of the US and Canada were making headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.

WDC and our partners in the Orca Salmon Alliance were deeply involved in a special task force, initiated by Washington State, dedicated to helping the Southern Resident orcas to recover by addressing their main threats: acoustic and physical disturbance, contaminants, and a lack of their primary food, Chinook salmon.  I found myself busier than ever attending meetings, providing information and input, and rallying public support for the strongest actions to help the orcas and the salmon they rely on.

But all of it was upended when Tahlequah gave birth to the first calf observed in the population in more than two years.  Sadly, her baby lived for only about 30 minutes, and then Tahlequah’s ‘tour of grief’ began.

J35 breaching in July 2020 © Sara Hysong Shimazu
Tahlequah jumps © Sara-Hysong-Shimazu

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Tahlequah carried the body of her daughter for an astounding 17 heartbreaking days, over 1,000 miles.  Her story brought the Southern Residents out of the Pacific Northwest and into the international spotlight, touching people worldwide who shared her grief and sadness.

Each morning I woke up with a knot in the pit in my stomach, checking my messages for the latest update.  Had Tahlequah been seen yet that day?  Was her family still with her?  Had she let go?  The busy summer continued, but the mood shifted dramatically to a sombre and serious tone.  We weren’t just planning for the future or debating hypothetical actions.  The orcas, led by Tahlequah, were sending a message loud and clear – they needed help now.

Almost exactly two years later, scientists announced that females in all three pods in the Southern Resident population are pregnant – including Tahlequah, her first known pregnancy since that heartbreaking summer.

J35 (southern resident orca) swimming in July. © Sara Hysong Shimazu
Tahlequah © Sara-Hysong-Shimazu

New, noninvasive research techniques using drones and collecting poo have granted us a more intimate look into the lives of the Southern Residents in recent years, and scientists have better tools to detect pregnancies in the population.  And while hearing news of these pregnancies brings me joy and gives me hope – the orcas are still doing their part to grow their population! – the news is a double-edged sword.

In recent years, nearly 70% of detected pregnancies in this population have failed.  Without enough food available, noise that hinders their ability to find salmon and communicate, and high contaminant loads, the Southern Residents have struggled to survive and grow their small population. Their numbers are close to the smallest they have ever been.  A new calf for Tahlequah would be a meaningful bookend to her tragic loss, and perhaps a new round of more hopeful headlines, but she has a difficult journey ahead of her, likely further complicated by the loss of her own mother last year.  For these incredibly social orcas, the support of their family is vital to their survival, and older females in particular are extraordinarily important to their kin.

So while I’m cautiously optimistic, I’m saving my celebration until there’s a bouncing baby orca swimming alongside Mum, and I’m focusing on doing what I can to ensure that the calf has a positive future.

We grieved alongside Tahlequah during that stressful summer two years ago, but since then we have made progress.  Salmon restoration in Washington State has received more funding, and a major dam is in the process of being removed to boost salmon abundance.  Laws have changed to quieten boats operating near orcas and give them more space.  Federal protection for the orcas’ coastal habitat is moving forward.  Very good things have happened.

But even Tahlequah’s tragic loss was not enough to inspire change in all areas.  The state task force wrapped up with mixed results - it produced the most detailed and comprehensive plan for Southern Resident orca recovery to date, but implementation has been slow and inconsistent.  Federal agencies continue to resist taking the actions needed to restore salmon in the Columbia River Basin, the biggest source of Chinook salmon in the orcas’ range.  The Navy has proposed to increase their training and testing activities, increasing risk to the orcas.  Good things have happened, but as we’ve often discussed, in endangered species recovery it’s often two steps forward and one step back.

Orcas of Tahlequah's Southern Resident community © CWR/Rob Lott
Orcas of Tahlequah's Southern Resident community © CWR/Rob Lott

Tahlequah’s pregnancy is definitely a good thing. And the pregnancies of the other expectant mothers in the Southern Resident community are great news too. The potential of new calves inspires me and renews my motivation for fighting for this unique population to ensure they have a safe and healthy home.

I’m hopeful for her future, but not for my stress levels, at least until her calf is born.

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