Killer whale who grieved dead calf for 17 days gives birth again

whale, calf

A killer whale, who captured the world’s attention when she spent 17 days carrying her dead calf in grief, has become a mother once more.

The orca, known as Tahlequah, became global news in 2018 as she travelled about 1,000 miles around the Salish Sea, an inland sea that encompasses Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the waters off Vancouver, British Columbia, on what the Centre for Whale Research termed a “Tour of Grief”. Tahlequah also highlighted the plight of the Southern Resident whales, which were 88 in number when they were listed as endangered in 2005 and have dwindled further. The birth of the new orca, which was seen for the first time by researchers on Saturday, brings the population to 73.

whale, Tahlequah
Tahlequah with her dead calf in 2018. Photo: Centre for Whale Research

“It’s a bit of a nail-biter right now,” Dr Deborah Giles, a whale researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, told The New York Times. “I can’t help but be thrilled that she had this baby and this baby didn’t die right away. Everybody is worried and on pins and needles, wondering if this calf is going to make it.”

The Centre for Whale Research usually has an accurate census of its Pacific Northwest orcas by July 1 each year. However, this year, the salmon spawning migrations to the Fraser River have been so poor that the whales that must eat these salmon to survive have rarely come into what used to be their core summer habitat. A few small groups of these critically endangered whales ventured inshore in July, and a pod in its entirety came to San Juan Island on 1 September. Three pods came together on Saturday.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, documented the newest calf in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the Olympic Peninsula of Washington from Vancouver Island.

“Her (Tahlequah) new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life. We know that it was not born today because its dorsal fin was upright, and we know that it takes a day or two to straighten after being bent over in the womb, so we assign its birthday as September 4, 2020,” said the Center for Whale Research.

Balcomb added that he was hopeful that recent efforts could bring back more robust runs of chinook salmon, the primary food source for the Southern Resident orcas. He pointed to the removal of a dam on the Elwha River, which empties into the strait, as a possible turning point.

Two other whales in the pods also are pregnant, Balcomb said. Researchers watched each of them closely because the pods now have only a half-dozen families that have been really successful at producing calves.

Balcomb said the three pods that make up the Southern Resident population had all gathered in the same spot, in an area where salmon were running. He said it looked like a party, with a lot of breaching and communication among the whales.

“It was like a big picnic,” he said.

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