Tahlequah the Orca: Motherhood Possible Again

Orca J-35, also known as Tahlequah, seen in 2014 off the coast of B.C., Canada. Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research.

In 2018, Tahlequah captivated the world when she carried her dead calf for 17 days over 1,000 miles. Her story brought focus to the plight of the 72 Orcas that live in the waters off the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Known as the Southern Resident Orcas and made up of three distinct pods, their population is at a 30 year low and is considered endangered by United States and Canadian authorities. When Tahlequah’s calf was born in 2018, it was the first live birth in her pod in three years. Unfortunately, the calf only lived for about a half an hour. Experts believe Tahlequah bonded with her calf even during this short time because the calf swam by her side.

Today, drone photos show evidence that Tahlequah is now expecting another calf. It is too soon to know when the calf should be born, but Orca pregnancies last up to 18 months, so we’ll all have to be patient. Scientists have also identified other Southern Resident Orcas who are pregnant, but they urge cautious optimism. Studies show that over 60% of past pregnancies have been unsuccessful.

Drone images of Tahlequah in September 2019 and July 2020 provide hope for a future calf. Photo Credit: NOAA

Low pregnancy rates, few live births and low calf survival rates are attributed to a shortage of the Chinook Salmon that comprise 80% of Orcas’ diet, noise population that disrupts echolocation of prey and chemical pollution. Experts are unanimous in asking fishers and others in boats to give plenty of space to any Orcas they may encounter. With an office in Seattle, SPCA International will be keeping tabs on Tahlequah and the progress of her pregnancy, as well as the overall situation of the Southern Resident Orcas.

If you are intrigued and interested in learning more, here are a few sites of organizations focused on the conservation of the Orcas.