Wednesday, December 1, 2021

West Coast Mom Gives Important Birth

Stepping Stones

Photo by Bob McConville | Tahlequah became world-famous when she carried her deceased calf on a 1,000-mile, 17-day journey of grief. She now has a healthy newborn by her side with high hopes of survival.

It’s the beginning of a very exciting time for the research team on board the Dolphin Explorer. Birthing season is starting, and the guys and girls are making their lists and checking them twice to determine which adult females might produce a new calf in the next 30 to 60 days. The candidates are Avery, Destiny, Halfway, Jing Jing, Lucky Charm, Nibbles, Patch’s Twin, Rangle, Sparkle, Sparky, Sydney, Tess, Victoria and Zipper. It’s not expected that all of the above will have a baby this Fall, but they all meet the profile and criteria to make our list. We’ll see what happens and I’ll keep you posted here in the Coastal Breeze News. 

A relative of our bottlenose dolphins that lives in the west coast waters of the United States recently had an important birthing event that is definitely worth noting. Her name is Tahlequah and she made worldwide headlines 2 years ago. Her young calf did not survive, and she carried the carcass over 1,000 miles for a 17-day period of apparent mourning. Also, she is an Orca, a close relative of the dolphin. Orcas are also known as Killer Whales.  

Tahlequah, scientifically known as J35, is a Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) that resides in the waters near Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia. Prior to the 20th Century, the SRKW population was comprised of more than 200 individuals. Nearly 70 of these whales were captured for marine parks from 1967 to 1971, and prior to the 1960s, their numbers decreased dramatically due to a loss of prey and opportunistic hunting. SRKW’s were placed on the endangered list in 2005 when only 88 of this species were seen.  

The population continued to decrease, but the birth of Tahlequah’s new calf, called J57, brings the count up to 73. Every successful birth is of major importance for the recovery of these whales, but they are facing tremendous obstacles. Food scarcity, toxic pollutants and noise pollution have hurt their rebound chances tremendously. 

80% of the SRKW’s diet consists of Chinook salmon but that fish population has declined significantly due to commercial fishing and habitat loss. Agricultural pesticides affect the salmon, which are eaten by the whales, and these toxins become stored in the body fat. That, in turn, weakens their immune system and leaves them vulnerable to disease and affecting the females’ reproductive ability. 

Just like dolphins, these whales depend on echolocation, the ability to send sound waves into their surroundings which then bounce back to them, or echo, and that helps them to hunt, communicate and navigate. The presence of large marine vessels and the subsequent noises they cause below the water’s surface hinder the SRKW’s abilities to perform the most basic of life activities. 

Without their preferred food source, malnutrition is common, and just like other members of the animal kingdom, many of the young do not survive. Too many pregnancies are failing and of the young that do survive, around 40% of these calves die within the first year. 

Tahlequah became a poster child for her species during her 17-day1,000-mile journey of grief. The good news is that the new calf appears to be very healthy, swimming vigorously alongside of mom. We hope that this is one of SRKW’s success stories. 

Several recent developments may shine some hope for these cetaceans as well. The removal of a dam on the Elwah River would bring more salmon and this could signal a turning point for the health of both present and future generations. As always, time is critical. The future of these orcas may be in jeopardy if the food source that they need so much is not delivered promptly. 

Good luck, J57! The world is watching! 

Bob is a Naturalist with the 10,000 Island Dolphin Study program onboard the Dolphin Explorer. He is also the author of two books, with a third being released this Fall, and is an award-winning columnist for this newspaper. Bob loves his superhero nurse/wife very much!


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