Orca That Carried Her Dead Calf For 17 Days Has Given Birth To A Healthy Baby

The baby J57 is thought to be just one or two days old here. (C) Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

You may remember J35, the orca more affectionately known as Tahlequah, from the tragic headlines in 2018 when she carried her stillborn calf for 17 days on a "Tour of Grief". The world’s hearts collective broke for Tahlequah. Now, two years later, the Center for Whale Research has delivered the amazing news that Tahlequah has given birth to a healthy and extremely lively young orca, named J57.

The pair were first seen swimming together on September 5 in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, off the coast of Washington, with the then just 1-day-old calf traveling with its mother as they crossed into Canadian waters.

“On September 5, we followed up on a report from one of the PWWA whalewatchers that a very small calf was seen. Our researchers, Dave Ellifrit and Katie Jones, accompanied by guest veterinarian Dr Sarah Bahan, quickly identified the mother as J35, Tahlequah,” the Center for Whale Research said in a press release.

"Her 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."

J57 and J35. (C) Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

The pair were seen after J pod was spotted off the coast of Dungeness Spit, Washington, and the Center for Whale Research deployed boats in the hopes of seeing J pod combine with K and L pods to make a "superpod". This would be the first time this year a superpod has formed.

Researchers had also suspected Tahlequah was pregnant (orca gestation periods can be up to 18 months), so were keeping an eye on her too.

With J57 joining the group, the endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKW) J pod now numbers 73 in total. Whilst the survival rate of new calves is around 60 percent, there are high hopes for J57 making it through into adulthood and joining J pod on their continuous adventures.

You may notice J57 has a peachy-orange hue to the areas that should be white – don’t worry, that is perfectly normal. Baby orcas have thin skin and not much blubber, so the blood vessels under the skin create a tint that will eventually fade within the first year.

Killer whales are under a huge amount of environmental stress right now, with a lack of adequate nutrients in their native waters to support them. A recovery strategy has been put in place to attempt to preserve the SRKW’s wild numbers, in which all the potential threats to their population (oil spills, reduced prey, etc.) are accounted for, but many SRKW pregnancies struggle to reach full term in current conditions.

Everyone is eagerly awaiting news on how well J57 is doing, so we'll be keeping up with the research and conservation being conducted by Dave Ellifrit and Katie Jones for more news on J pod.


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