New babies bring hope for orcas on the edge of extinction
A silver lining of this strange year was the news that Tahlequah, the orca who touched hearts worldwide two years ago as she mourned the loss of her newborn calf, was pregnant again.
Now we are celebrating two new babies in the population...
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In July, researchers shared photos of Tahlequah in the late stages of her pregnancy, kicking off an anxious baby watch. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long as at the beginning of September, Tahlequah was seen with her new calf, who appeared ‘healthy and precocious’ according to the Center for Whale Research. The new little one was also confirmed to be a boy after whale watchers spotted the distinguishing markings on his belly.
With this news, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. And the excitement didn’t stop there! Just last week, there was another welcome announcement: new baby number two in this highly endangered group of orcas.
Tahlequah (known to scientists as J35) is a member of the Southern Resident orca community. This unique population lives off the west coast of the US and Canada and faces threats including a lack of Chinook salmon (their main food), pollution, and noise and disturbance.
For the Southern Residents, new calves are symbols of hope and resilience but are unfortunately all too rare in recent years. Almost 70% of detected pregnancies fail, so an announcement of an expectant mother orca doesn’t guarantee a bouncing new baby for this struggling population. As I said in my previous blog on the announcement of Tahlequah’s pregnancy, word of pregnant orcas makes me hopeful but nervous – a summer of holding my breath. So the news of two healthy new babies brings me so much joy – and relief! I know that the orcas are doing their best to survive, and it’s up to us to make sure they have what they need to thrive.
Perhaps in celebration of a successful birth and to welcome Tahlequah’s new little one, the entire Southern Resident population appeared to come together in the first weekend of September in a ‘superpod,’ an event that hasn’t happened since 2016. These incredible gatherings, which look like a big orca party to us human observers, used to be a regular occurrence during the summer when the whole population came back to their traditional summer feeding grounds in the Salish Sea. But as their main food, salmon, has declined, the orcas are spending less time in their normal seasonal areas and more time searching for food.
I spent that first weekend of September reading updates (and highly recommend reading this post from our friends at Orca Behavior Institute about the superpod and Tahlequah’s new baby), texting friends in Washington State, and looking at photos of this adorable baby orca – and thinking about what comes next, and what we need to do to make sure these two new calves have everything they need to grow up heathy and strong. Tahlequah’s son is already so lucky to have been born to such a caring and resilient mother and an amazing family, and we are incredibly privileged to have had a glimpse of the joy and celebration of the Southern Resident community.
To ensure these orcas have abundant and available food everywhere they live, WDC is working to restore salmon and the rivers that support them by advocating for dam removal, funding for habitat restoration, and stronger regulations to protect salmon and rivers.
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