Orca who carried dead calf for more than 17 days, 1,000 miles pregnant again

PUGET SOUND, Wash. — A hopeful sign for endangered Southern Resident Orcas - Tahlequah, the orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles, is pregnant again.

Casey McLean, the executive director of Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), confirmed the pregnancy Monday.

There are a total of just 73 orcas in the J, K, and L pods that make up the Southern Residents. New aerial drone photos show pregnant whales in all three pods.

“You can see their girth right behind the dorsal fin. They look very round,” said Lynne Barre, a marine biologist with NOAA Fisheries, which works in partnership with SR3.

A post on the nonprofit’s website says that the majority of recent pregnancies have not resulted in successful births, due to a lack of access to Chinook salmon prey. That’s one of the reasons researchers often don’t announce pregnancies, but this time did so because Tahlequah carries special meaning for the Puget Sound.

Almost exactly two years ago in 2018 Tahlequah gave birth to another calf that only survived for half an hour.

But Tahlequah carried her 300 pound baby for more than a thousand miles. She dove for the calf when it sank slipped and sank and clung to the baby for a total of 17 days.

The orca’s apparent grief touched hearts around the world

“Really brought a lot of attention to the Southern Residents,” Barre said.

Tahlequah’s loss and the plight of a young orca, J50 who starved to death, led to the creation of Governor Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force.

Donna Sandstrom was part of that team.

They came up with a list of dozens of recommendations to help save the Southern Residents.

Five changes currently being implemented, including stricter regulations on whale watching, reducing toxins in the Salish Sea, and efforts to restore salmon hatcheries.

Sandstrom says Tahlequah’s pregnancy brought up mixed emotions.

“It’s great news, so exciting. And it also fills me with anxiety. Because how can we give Tahlequah the best chance of having a successful calf?,” she said. “The orcas don’t want to go extinct, clearly - they’re still trying, they’re doing their best,” Sandstrom said.

Researchers agree, the Salish Sea is still too loud for our orcas. Because they use echo-location to track down salmon and communicate with each other, noise from vessel traffic is a key threat to their survival

“They’ve been here for tens of thousands of years. And in one human generation we’ve brought them to this point,” Sandstrom said.

“I wonder if our excitement is going to be matched with the courage and resolve to do what we need to do to protect her. When you love something, you do the thing that’s best for your loved one. And to do what’s best for Tahlequah, we need to give her space,” she said.

Some commercial whale watching companies in Canada have volunteered to no longer watch the Southern Residents.

“Why can’t we do that here? Give these whales the best access to food, the best chance to hear each other,” Sandstrom said.

The nonprofit SR3 said it hopes people on the water can give the whales plenty of space to forage to help encourage healthy pregnancies.

“Each successful birth is hugely important for recovery,” with the current census at 73 whales, the post said.