Orca that captured hearts when she kept dead calf afloat for 17 days is pregnant again

A southern resident killer whale who gained global notoriety two years ago when she was perceived by many people to publicly mourn the loss of her newborn calf is in the spotlight again and this time, in a good way.

J35, the matriarch of J pod, one of three groups of killer whales living in waters off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state, is believed by whale researchers to be pregnant again.

The whale made headlines in the summer of 2018 when she pushed the corpse of a dead calf in a funeral-like procession through 1,600 kilometres of Pacific Ocean for 17 days last summer in what scientists and journalists called ‘a tour of grief.’

According to Deborah Giles, a whale research biologist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, aerial photos of J35 now, compared to other images of her captured over the years show that her body has definitively swollen to accommodate the pregnancy.

Aerial photographs comparing the body condition of J35 in September 2019 and more recently in July 2020 when she had a noticeably wider profile at mid body, indicating pregnancy. Photos obtained using a remotely controlled octocopter drone by SR3 SeaLife Response, Rehab and Research and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in 2019 and SR3 and Southall Environmental Associates in 2020; both collected under NMFS research permit 19091. ( Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and John Durban (SEA))

Giles said such bodily change is apparent in the first five months of an orca’s 17- to 18-month gestation period, but she cannot yet confirm exactly how far along J35 is currently.

She is crossing her fingers it’s a baby girl though.

“I am very, very hopeful it will be born a girl, because we need females in this population,” said Giles, adding the pod has few breeding-age female whales

Orca mother J35, balancing her dead baby on her nose trying to keep it afloat on July 25, 2018. (Kelley Balcomb-Bartok)

And while Giles is “cautiously optimistic” about the possibility of a new J pod whale, she says about 50 per cent of newborn calves do not survive the first year and if this one does, the chinook salmon the pod relies on for food is already in short supply.

There are currently 72 southern resident killer whales alive in three area pods. 

Giles said this summer, scientists have only spotted J pod in its entirety, while the other pods appear to have broken off into smaller groups because of food scarcity.

Members of J pod swimming near San Juan Island in Washington state. (Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

She said there are some other pregnant southern resident killer whales this year, but did not have an exact figure.

But the growing figure of J35 will likely be the focus of whale lovers who have followed the plight of the mother-to-be and her family.

“The people rooting for her are global now,” said Giles.

For more on the threats to the southern resident killer whales and the efforts to save them, check out CBC British Columbia’s original podcast Killers: J pod on the brink, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. 

Read more at CBC.ca