Tahlequah the orca gives birth again

THE GUARDIAN – An orca who became famous around the world in 2018 when she carried her stillborn calf aloft in the water for 17 days has given birth to a healthy baby.

The not-for-profit Center for Whale Research spotted the baby, dubbed J-57, “swimming vigorously alongside its mother”, named Tahlequah, on Saturday in waters near the border between the United States (US) state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. They estimate that the calf was born on Friday.

“On September 5, we followed up on a report from one of the (local) whalewatchers that a very small calf was seen,” the whale research centre reported. “Tahlequah was mostly separate from the other whales and being very evasive as she crossed the border into Canada, so we ended our encounter with her after a few minutes and wished them well on their way.”

Tahlequah gained renown in 2018 when she carried her stillborn calf for 17 days around the Salish Sea, just off Washington and British Columbia, where three orca pods live. Her behaviour was widely covered in news media as evidence of grief in another species, and her story captivated the public.

“Tahlequah in particular means a great deal to me,” said wildlife photographer Alena Ebeling-Schuld, a close follower of the whales. “Her tour of grief was beyond impactful, telling the story to a wide audience not only of the plight of Southern Residents, but also of the complexity of animals’ emotions – something humans are so quick to disregard.”

The new orca calf with its mother. PHOTO: THE GUARDIAN

Other observers have argued that describing Tahlequah as experiencing “grief” is an inappropriate anthropomorphism.

The Southern Resident whale population consists of three pods occupying the Strait of Georgia, a large inlet adjacent to Vancouver, as well as the surrounding waters. These whales have long suffered environmental stresses, particularly from a persistent lack of nutrition. They mainly feed on endangered Chinook salmon, whose populations have dwindled in recent years.

This decreased food availability directly impacts the success of whale pregnancies: a 2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that over two thirds of Southern Resident pregnancies failed between 2008 and 2014.

“Low availability of Chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure,” reported the study, conducted by researchers from a number of conservation centres. “Results point to the importance of promoting Chinook salmon recovery to enhance population growth of Southern Resident killer whales.”