Orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days in 2018 is pregnant again

Grieving orca Tahlequah that carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles in 2018 is pregnant — but scientists fear tragedy will strike again

  • ‘Tahlequah’ had touched hearts around the world as she grieved for her dead calf
  • She is among a handful of pregnancies spotted among the orcas in Puget Sound
  • Unfortunately, two-thirds of pregnancies among this group of orcas typically fail
  • The southern resident orcas are threatened by boat noise and food shortages

An orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles back in 2018 is pregnant again, drone images have revealed.

Dubbed Tahlequah, or J35, the around 21-year-old orca — or ‘killer whale’ — touched hearts around the world when news of her grieving process spread.

Researchers studying the southern resident killer whale populations in Puget Sound noted three pregnancies among the so-called J, K and L pods — one of which was Tahlequah, the Seattle Times reported.

Although pregnancies in themselves are not uncommon, Tahlequah being with child carries special meaning in the wake of her past tragedy.

An orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles back in 2018 is pregnant again, drone images (pictured: last year left and this month, right) have revealed

Population ecologist John Durban of Southall Environmental Associates and marine mammal expert Holly Fearnbach from SR3 (Sealife Response + Rehab + Research) have been undertaking long-term studies of the orcas visiting Puget Sound.

The use of remote-controlled drone surveillance from 100 feet up the air has allowed the researchers to assess the body conditions of the whales non-invasively.

Unfortunately, the southern resident whales in the Pacific — of which there are currently only 72 — are endangered, meaning that new births are vital. 

Tahlequah’s calf was the first to be born among the group in three years — as some two-thirds of their pregnancies typically fail — although two more calves have been born and survived since.

Unfortunately, Tahlequah outlook is grim — with experts fearing, as she lost another calf before her last in 2018, that she will likely also lose the calf with which she is currently pregnant. Her gestation period will last some 18 months.

‘We are concerned if she has a calf, will she be able to look after herself and the calf and J47 [her existing calf], too?’ Dr Durban told the Seattle Times.

‘There has been a lot of talk I am not sure a lot has changed for the whales.’

According to experts, a lack of salmon — and resulting stress from hunger — has been linked to the southern resident whale’s poor reproductive circumstances. 

They are also threatened by pollution and underwater noise — with the latter disrupting the orca’s sound-based hunting ability.

The researchers are concerned that a number of the juveniles in the three pods are looking thin — including Tahlequah’s living calf, J47.

‘There are stressed whales out there, critically stressed,’ Dr Fearnbach told the Seattle Times, adding that the drone study has shown the whales to be spread out in small groups.

This, she explained, is a sign that they are working hard to find food — and spending correspondingly less time socialising.

Dubbed Tahlequah, or J35, the around 21-year-old orca — or ‘killer whale’ — touched hearts around the world when news of her grieving process spread. Tahlequah carried her dead calf with her, balanced on her forehead, for 17 days before letting it go

Both the researchers said that while conducting their field studies this year they observed a considerable amount of boat traffic in the area that the whales frequent — much of it travelling far too fast, which also creates more underwater noise.

‘People need to appreciate these are special whales in a special place at a vulnerable time,’ Dr Durban told the Seattle Times, adding that boats should give the animals the space and the quiet that they need to survive.

He concluded: ‘These whales deserve a chance.’


Whales and dolphins have been spotted ‘carrying’ or caring for their dead young multiple times.

These creatures could be mourning or they have failed to accept or recognise that the offspring or companion has died.

Scientists still do not know if aquatic mammals truly recognise death and are looking to carry out more research on this issue.

In 2016, scientists found evidence that whales and dolphins hold ‘vigils’ for their dead.

They analysed several cases where mammals clung to the bodies of dead compatriots, and kept vigil over a dead companion.

At the time, they said the most likely explanation was mourning.

The study compiled observations from 14 events.

They found mothers often carried their dead young above the water, often flanked by friends.

In many cases, the dead offspring were decomposed, indicating they had been held for a long time.

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