Trio of endangered orcas pregnant along B.C. coast: U.S. researchers
Southern resident killer whales face a variety of serious challenges, from dwindling salmon stocks to increasing vessel traffic. The orcas' population has shrunk to just 74 individuals – but it seems despite all those problems, the orcas don’t have trouble finding a mate.
According to U.S. research organization SR3, and Washington state itself, a trio of the endangered mammals are in the late stages of pregnancy.
"This news couldn’t come at a better time and be more exciting," said orca expert and historian, Kelley Balcomb.
Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has placed southern residents J-19, J-36 and J-37 on its list of sick or vulnerable whales.
This means that mariners are asked to keep an even larger distance away from orcas than is normally required.
"It’s a half mile recommendation, but that is only for professional whale watchers," said executive director of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, Erin Gless.
Most whale watching organizations in British Columbia and Washington state have agreed not to search out the southern residents at all, and with these pregnancies, they are now asking public boaters to do the same.
"Make sure you are actively looking for whales and if you do come across them make sure you follow those guidelines, which in Canada is 400 metres for all orcas," said Gless.
Predictions of pregnancy in the southern resident population have historically been rare.
Researchers say that previously, an orca would have had to breach and show its body in a way that its enlarged stomach could be photographed.
Now, new aerial methods of research and photography are drastically changing the game, according to Balcomb.
"These new technologies are giving us insights we didn’t have before," she said.
Drone research is now more accepted as a less intrusive way of viewing killer whales along the north Pacific coastline.
Images of killer whales from above can be placed side-by-side and accurately show the signs of pregnancy.
An orca pregnancy lasts roughly 18 months, and with Washington state staff calling these pregnancies "late-stage," new calves could be welcomed into Vancouver Island waters any day.