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J-Pod is expecting: 3 endangered southern resident whales pregnant, researchers say

Drone shots from U.S. researchers reveal three swimming moms-to-be
Pregnant southern resident orca J-pod member J36 (Alki) is seen in drone photos (SR3)

After giving researchers a scare this summer, a pod of endangered southern resident killer whales finally has given them something to celebrate.

Three members of J-pod – currently made up of 23 orca whales – are in the late stages of pregnancy, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Drone shots of moms-to-be J36 (Alki), J37 (Hy’Shqa) and J19 (Shachi) taken by U.S. research organization SR3 have confirmed the three killer whales have visibly pregnant bellies.

With the orcas in the final stage of their 18-month gestation periods, new calves could soon be swimming in Salish Sea waters.

Since April, the endangered whale group has only been spotted a handful of times, leading to some summertime concern about J-pod’s status.

READ MORE: Nearly 30 Bigg’s orcas observed over long weekend in Salish Sea waters off Victoria

While these pregnancies provide hope for researchers, this killer whale group has had a high rate of failed pregnancies in the past. Southern resident killer whales have a 30 per cent live birth rate, meaning around one in three babies are stillborn.

Unlike Bigg’s orcas, which hunt seals, sea lions and porpoises, southern resident killer whales rely primarily on declining chinook salmon populations, and the ability to get adequate nutrients is a concern to researchers.

“Pregnant and lactating whales consume 25 per cent more food,” said Tamara Kelley, director of development for the Washington-based, non-profit Orca Conservancy. “Conserving salmon is an important factor (in orca survival).”

READ MORE: Researchers celebrate return of orcas after ‘unprecedented absence’ from southern Vancouver Island waters

Failed pregnancies are also often worsened by environmental stressors like nearby, noisy boats.

NOAA Fisheries research has shown that female southern resident killer whales respond very negatively to boat noises, and stop foraging for food when boats are within 365 metres.

“We need to work together to give these pregnant whales every chance of success,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) representation Scott Rumsey in the release. “The more they can forage undisturbed, the better their odds of contributing to the population.”

In southern B.C. coastal waters from Campbell River to Ucluelet, boaters must stay 400 metres away from killer whales year-round.

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