Southern resident orcas are among the world’s most endangered animals but there is some hope for the species.
Two of the whales are pregnant, including J35, the orca known for pushing the corpse of her dead calf through 1,600 kilometres of Pacific Ocean for 17 days two years ago. Scientists called it a “tour of grief.”
Drone photos show the two whales mid-way through the 18 month gestation period last year, and again earlier this month.
Mark Malleson, a senior skipper with Prince of Whales, has spent 23 years on the water, said he has seen the southern resident orca population fluctuate over time. There are currently 72 southern resident killer whales alive in three area pods.
“It’s always exciting when you hear there are pregnant females. But we have to not get our hopes up too much,” said Malleson, who has also studied the whales for the Center for Whale Research and is a contractor with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. And he has seen the orca population fluctuate over that time.
Malleson saw J35’s last calf calf shortly after its birth, and then again when J35 came by his boat still carrying her dead baby.
“I really felt she was coming over to show that. It was really sad, this lifeless calf. She was still carrying at that point 12 days, 13 days,” said Malleson.
The new photos of the pregnant southern resident orcas are part of a long-term study of the endangered orcas, shot from a height of more than 30 metres.
Josh McInnes, a biologist with the Transient Killer Whale Project, said it is exciting to track the 72 remaining southern resident orcas.
“To actually be able to know, even if one of the calves doesn’t survive, that data to know that she was pregnant at that time, then the next period of time could be that she that that calf was there, then she had another calf. We can kind of keep track of the pregnancy rates through that use of that technology,” McInnes said.
READ MORE: Orca J50 declared dead, and hope is fading for the future of the endangered southern resident killer whales
With only 72 remaining southern resident orcas remaining, every baby counts for this population.
“The first six months is crucial for killer whale calves. And then that actually increases their chances of survival increases substantially after the first six months,” McInnes said.