Scientists ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ After Discovery Of Three Pregnant Endangered Whales

Researchers in the Pacific Northwest are celebrating a discovery that has them cautiously optimistic about one of the area’s most endangered animals: the orca.

Orcas, also known as killer whales (despite the fact that no deadly encounters with humans have been recorded in the wild), are on the endangered species list in the US because of the challenges they face in the area.

Habitat loss, competition with human fishing activity, and other challenges have depleted their numbers. But recently, three pregnant whales were discovered in the area, giving hope to the species’ continued survival.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The discovery, made by a team at wildlife agency SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research, was found during routine aerial drone reconnaissance of the species’ habitat.

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Husband and wife duo Dr. Holly Fearnbach and Dr. John Durban found “three females in J pod (J36, J37, J19) that we measured to have width profiles indicative of late-stage pregnancy.”

This is important because the organization can coordinate with Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to designate vulnerable whales as protected, giving them distance from whale watching vessels and other boats that could disrupt their search for food.

In response to photogrammetry measurements conducted by the SR3 team in near real-time this month, Washington’s…

Posted by SR³ – Sealife Response, Rehabilitation & Research on Sunday, September 19, 2021

That search for food is foremost on the scientists’ minds now. “When they have their calves, they will need a lot more food when they are producing milk to feed them,” explained Dawn Noren, a research biologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, in an interview with The Independent. She added that the nursing mothers would need “one-and-a-half to two times their normal prey requirements.”

Because the killer whale’s primary food source, Chinook salmon, is declining in population due to overfishing and pollution at their spawning sites, finding enough prey to support the pregnant mothers will be a challenge. In the wild, orca calves have a 50-50 chance of survival.


The team will continue to monitor the expecting whales and offer conservation advice in response to their findings. “While we always meet Southern Resident pregnancy announcements with guarded optimism, each one offers renewed hope.” wrote the Pacific Whale Watch Association on Facebook, in response to the news.

See more of the important work carried out by SeaLife R3 here, or see updates on whale populations by visiting the Pacific Whale Watch Association on Facebook here!

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