3 killer whales are pregnant and boaters need to stay far away, Washington officials say

Bigg’s killer whale "Chainsaw"

Three endangered Southern Resident killer whales living near the Washington coast are pregnant, prompting boating regulations in the state, officials said on Monday.

Wildlife officials have seen a high rate of failed pregnancies among the orcas in recent years — so they are urging boaters to follow “Be Whale Wise” regulations, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a news release.

Under the Washington law, vessels are required to stay 300 yards away from the whales and at least 400 yards from their path. Water crafts must also reduce their speed to seven knots when they are one-half nautical mile from the whales.

The regulations help the pregnant whales move around, feed and socialize in quiet waters. Space is particularly crucial for pregnant whales because they increase food consumption by 25% in the final month of their pregnancy, the wildlife agency said.

“We’ve got many people looking at the science to understand where we can continue to improve the odds for this population,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said. “Now that we’ve learned of multiple pregnancies among the Southern Residents and the impact that boats can have on new mothers, we really need everyone to follow Be Whale Wise regulations in support of these endangered whales’ survival.”

Vessel noise interrupts whales searching for food and can halt a female from eating all together, according to a January study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We need to work together to give these pregnant whales every chance of success,” said Scott Rumsey, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. “The more they can forage undisturbed, the better their odds of contributing to the population.”

The endangered mammals expecting calves are all part of the J pod: J36, Alki; J37, Hy’Shqa; and J19, Shachi, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told McClatchy News.

The Southern Resident killer whales make up three pods — J, K and L — to differentiate the different “clans” or families, according to the Center for Whale Research. Each pod centers around an older female, like a grandmother or great-grandmother, and they use distinct sounds to communicate.

J pod has 24 orcas that frequent the San Juan Islands, Southern Gulf Islands, lower Puget Sound and the Georgia Strait year round, the Center for Whale Research states.

There are 74 Southern Resident killer whales left, the wildlife agency reported.