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Orca that carried dead calf for 17 days is pregnant again

J35, also known as Tahlequah, who carried her dead calf for more than 1,000 miles, is one of several Southern Residents who are pregnant.

An orca that gained national attention for carrying her dead calf for at least 17 days in 2018 is pregnant again.

Casey McLean, executive director of Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), confirmed J35’s pregnancy Monday.

J35, known as Tahlequah, carried her calf for more than 1,000 miles in summer 2018. While experts have seen orcas mourn their offspring before, J35 clung to her calf for an unusually long period of time.

Tahlequah isn’t the only Southern Resident carrying a calf right now.

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SR3 said Sunday researchers identified “a number” of Southern Resident orcas that are pregnant using aerial imaging. The drone photos measure the orcas’ growth and body conditions to track nutritional health. “Obvious shape changes” led researchers to identify the pregnant whales, according to a news release.

The group shared photos of another orca, L72, which showed increased width mid-body between September 2019 and July 2020 indicating she is in the late stages of pregnancy. Killer whale pregnancies typically last 17-18 months, according to SR3.

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Although SR3 says orca pregnancies are not unusual, successful births have become less common. The majority of orca pregnancies end in miscarriages, and a 2017 study found that could be linked to nutritional stress and a low salmon population.

There are currently 73 Southern Resident orcas, which is among the lowest in 30 years, according to a census from the Center for Whale Research

“With such a small population…every successful birth is hugely important for recovery,” SR3 said.

Researchers and whale experts say the best way to help these orcas is to keep away from the Southern Resident pod, especially now that it is known that some of them are pregnant.

The organization Orca Network urges boaters to slow to under 7 knots at the first sign of any whale, and to stay 300 yards away from the Southern Resident orcas, 200 yards from Bigg's transient orcas and 100 yards from baleen whales and all marine animals.

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