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caption: Endangered orca J36 in Haro Strait in July 2018, one of three endangered orcas identified as pregnant in Sept. 2021.
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Endangered orca J36 in Haro Strait in July 2018, one of three endangered orcas identified as pregnant in Sept. 2021.
Credit: Monika Wieland Shields / Orca Behavior Institute

3 pregnant orcas could boost endangered whales’ numbers

More babies are on the way for the endangered southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea.

Washington state wildlife officials said Monday that three members of the whales’ J Pod are pregnant, with one of them very close to giving birth.

If those babies and their mothers all survive childbirth, that would boost the population of the endangered orcas to 77. Since pregnant whales need to eat more and sometimes die while giving birth, the state has designated the pregnant trio as "vulnerable."

Whale watch boats are prohibited from getting closer than half a nautical mile (about 1,000 yards) from any sick or vulnerable orcas.

A dearth of Chinook salmon, the endangered orcas’ main prey, along with boat noise and toxic pollution, has pushed the southern residents toward extinction.

In 2020, at least five southern resident orcas got pregnant. Three of the pregnancies produced calves that are still alive today, according to Monika Wieland Shields with the Orca Behavior Institute.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated two other members of the southern residents this year as vulnerable, based on observations including researchers’ drone photos that can reveal body shapes just below the surface.

Whale J56, a 2-year-old female, was seen to be pale and in poor condition near Point Roberts on September 1.

Whale K21, a 35-year-old male seen to be emaciated, with a peanut-shaped head and collapsed dorsal fin, in July, is now presumed dead.

For the third year in a row, the southern residents stayed away from their home waters, the Salish Sea shared between Washington and British Columbia, for most of the spring and summer, though many of them have been seen swimming around the San Juan Islands in September.

“For the first time since orca survey began in 1976, we have gone 100 days without [J Pod,] the most ‘resident’ of the three pods in our waters during the peak season,” biologist Michael Weiss with the Center for Whale Research said in a July email. “This is a sure sign of dire, drastic changes in the Salish Sea and Fraser River ecosystems.”

Southern resident orcas off the west coast of San Juan Island on Sept. 12. This Orca Network video combines footage from shore with underwater audio recorded off Lime Kiln State Park, about a mile to the north.