Killer Whale That Carried Its Dead Calf for 17 Days Gives Birth Again

September 9, 2020 Updated: September 28, 2020

A killer whale that “grieved” her dead newborn calf by carrying its inert body on her head over 1,000 miles through the Pacific Ocean for 17 days is making headlines again: the orca is a mom again.

On Sept. 5, after months of tracking the killer whale’s subsequent pregnancy, scientists were overjoyed to discover that she has given birth again.

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Aerial images of Tahlequah taken in September 2019 (L) and July 2020 (R) show her progression through pregnancy. (Courtesy of SR3)

After carrying her calf to term, Tahlequah, or “J35” as the killer whale is known by researchers, gave birth to a calf designated as J57.

The Center for Whale Research stated in a Sept. 6 press release that the baby’s birthday is assigned as Sept. 4, 2020, as it takes a day or two for a newborn calf’s dorsal fin to straighten after being bent over in the womb.

“It’s fabulous news,” Ken Balcomb, the center’s founding director, told The Seattle Times, noting that the calf’s gender has yet to be discerned.

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Tahlequah with her newborn calf J57. (Courtesy of Katie Jones/Center for Whale Research)

In the summer of 2018, Tahlequah broke hearts with her two-and-a-half-week “tour of grief” for a newborn calf that lived only 30 minutes. But 13 months after her loss, drone surveys reaped the exciting news that the killer whale was pregnant again.

Two experts, John Durban, senior scientist at Southall Environmental Associates, and Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director of the nonprofit SR3, conducted a followup survey in July to collect data on the health of several southern resident orcas, the report said. The team captured yet more stunning aerial images of Tahlequah; this time, she was on the brink of giving birth. SR3 shared the side-by-side photo comparison on Facebook.

Sarah McCullagh, a naturalist and captain with San Juan Safaris, saw Tahlequah and her son, J47, swimming together on Sept. 5. She soon realized, however, that there was a “very small fin tucked in next to them.”

“I was obviously elated, so excited for J35 after the incredible loss she suffered a couple of years ago, but also for the southern resident community as a whole. I definitely cried,” McCullagh said in a statement, reported Global News.

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(Illustration – Tory Kallman/Shutterstock)

The Center for Whale Research described the calf J57 as “healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life.”

The southern resident orca population is made up of three social groups, or pods, referred to as J, K, and L by the research community that monitors them. Typically, killer whales gestate for between 17 and 18 months, and females from the same pod will often carry calves at the same time.

However, not all recent pregnancies among southern resident orcas have been successful. Orcas at large are under severe threat from water pollution and disturbance from boats, but the nutritional stress caused by insufficient Chinook salmon prey accounts for a roughly 40 percent mortality rate among young orca calves, the Center for Whale Research stated.

As of December 2019, the southern resident orcas’ J, K, and L pods total 73 whales, the press release said. So Tahlequah’s baby, the third calf born to southern residents since 2019, heralds hope.

At the time of writing, all three calves are known to be alive and well. In addition, SR3 drone photos from July, showing “obvious shape changes,” have led researchers to believe that a number of additional orcas are carrying babies.

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