Whale experts have confirmed that a well-known female orca named Tahlequah recently gave birth off the coast of British Columbia.
And it's a boy.
Tahlequah the killer whale made headlines and broke hearts in 2018 for carrying a dead calf for 17 days after it was born. This time, the Center for Whale Research has assured that her new baby is thriving.
A whale-watching boat near Point Roberts, Washington, captured photos of the feisty baby, dubbed J57, "rolling, spyhopping, and swimming" alongside his mother as she foraged for food on Sept. 22. The photos were later shared on the Center for Whale Research's website.
Spokesperson for the Pacific Whale Watch Association Kelley Balcomb-Bartok described the first sighting of J57 on Sept. 5.
"A beautiful day," she told CTV News, "lots of southern residents, and all of a sudden they get into these massive cuddle puddles and lots of social mixing."
But despite the good news of the recent birth, the fact remains that southern resident killer whale populations are in trouble. Hopes were high that J57 would be a female.
"Girls can be mothers," Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research founding director, told The Seattle Times. "And obviously you don’t need that many boys when you have two males that have fathered most of the offspring in this population."
The center celebrates the fact that southern resident killer whales are still able to reproduce at all, and that J57 may contribute to breeding in the future. That won't be for another 22 years, though, Balcomb adds.
Tahlequah, also known as J35, already has a 10-year-old son: J47.
Scientists tracked her most recent pregnancy for months using drones, and aerial photos successfully identified her "baby bump" as J57 gestated over the months.
Drone photos from July 2020 depict "obvious shape changes" in the orca's physiology and led many to believe that a number of female killer whales belonging to southern resident pods were also carrying.
These populations comprise three pods: J, K, and L.
Tahlequah and her offspring belong to J.
J57's birth offers some hope, as not all recent pregnancies in these pods have yielded healthy babies.
Killer whales are a threatened species. Water pollution and disturbance from boats are major contributors to their demise; though diminished food stocks—Chinook salmon being their favorite—has had the most devastating impact.
Food scarcity, according to the Center for Whale Research, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the mortality rate among killer whale calves. As of December 2019, J, K, and L pods consisted of only 73 orcas.
Some conservationists are taking action, however. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comment on whale watching through Oct. 23, reports The Seattle Times. Public hearings on Oct. 7 and 8 will consider viewpoints on the state’s first licensing requirements on whale watching off the coast of Washington.
New regulations could include limiting the number of boats near the whales at one time, limiting the duration of whale-watching tours, and mandatory licenses for commercial tour operators.
For now, killer whale advocates continue to enjoy updates on baby J57. Regardless of the gender, the Center for Whale Research is happy to say that "J57 is a very welcome addition. He is robust and appears healthy."