Mother orca Tahlequah has had her baby.
The endangered southern resident killer whale, J35, touched hearts in the Pacific Northwest and around the world in August 2018 when she lost a calf that lived only a half-hour. She carried the calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles, refusing to let the calf go.
“It’s fabulous news,” Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, said of the new baby, which he documented Saturday in the San Juan Islands. The gender is not yet known.
Tahlequah and several of the southern resident orcas were known to be expecting, after a recent drone survey of the orcas by John Durban, senior scientist at Southall Environmental Associates and Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director of the nonprofit SR3.
The photo surveys are used to assess body condition of the southern residents over time.
“We are really encouraged she carried it to term,” Durban said of the baby, in a text Saturday evening. “And hope our continued monitoring shows it to be in good condition, and [to] document its growth.”
Every calf matters for the J, K and L pods in a population that has dwindled to 72 orcas, the lowest in more than 40 years.
The southern residents have recently returned to their summer home range of the San Juan Islands for several weeks.
Scientist Deborah Giles was on the water with all three pods Saturday with her scat-sniffing dog to collect fecal samples from the orcas for ongoing research by the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology.
“It was a fantastic day with members of all three pods,” she texted from her boat. “We were hugely successful, collecting 7 samples, our daily record for the year.
“The whales behaved much like we used to see them, socializing, with lots of amazing surface active behavior.”
This sort of behavior has become less common in recent years, as chinook salmon runs decline, and the orca families spread out to hunt and spend more time foraging than socializing.
The southern resident orcas are struggling to survive against multiple threats, including lack of adequate chinook salmon, their preferred food, boat noise and disturbance that makes it more difficult for them to feed, and pollution.
The birth of Tahlequah’s baby is the third to the southern residents since 2019 and so far the other two young whales continue to survive.