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Two More Southern Resident Orcas Are Ailing—and Three Are Pregnant

In the aftermath of the deaths of J50 and J35's newborn calf, Washington State's Southern Resident killer whale population continues to struggle to survive as two more whales are confirmed to be ailing, while another three are believed to be pregnant.

Difference in K25's body condition over the past two years. Photo by NOAA.

According to researchers who are focused on the Southern Resident orca population, two more whales are falling ill as a result of the lack of salmon they depend on for their survival. The first animal in question is K25, also known as Scoter. He's a 27-year-old adult male who has been documented in aerial photographs for the last decade. Researchers say that in recent weeks, Scoter has been showing signs of becoming thinner than he was in previous years. The trouble for the endangered mammal began last year when his mother, K13, also known as Skagit, died. This is because Skagit, like all orca matriarchs within the Southern Resident pods, helped her family and other pods in navigating the Salish Sea for salmon before capturing and sharing the newly caught prey. Male orcas rely on help from their mothers, sisters, female cousins, nieces, and aunts to find and track down prey and meet their much larger energy demands. Studies have shown that adult orca males tend to have higher risks of dying following their mothers' deaths. This puts Scoter at a higher risk of dying.

Scoter is not the only orca who is ill, though. His cousin, K36, also known as Yoda, has also recently been seen not looking that great at all. You see, Yoda, a 15-year-old adult female orca, is one of the very few breeding females left in this endangered population of orcas. Any calf she has would serve as her own contribution to a population of about 74 individuals that are threatened by loss of food source, and the effects of pollution. If God forbid, something were to happen to Yoda, it would be another breeding female forever lost to the Southern Resident community.

Researchers were able to determine that both animals were in poor shape through a series of drone images, photographs taken by regular whale watchers, and through daily observations of the animals on the field. For example, recent observations by researchers have shown that Scoter has been lagging behind the rest of his family and was not surfacing with a lot of energy even though he is still chasing and eating fish as usual. However, upon looking at photographs of both him and Yoda, you can tell that they have both lost a lot of body condition that is worth considering looking into options in terms of what actions need to be taken. For now, we all only hope for the best for both animals to find enough salmon to eat.

Through another series of concerning news about Scoter and Yoda, there is also some good news for the Southern Residents as well. Aerial images that were collected during a routine survey done on the whales have also determined that three of the females, including K27, also known as Deadhead, are heavily pregnant. Like with people, orcas carrying their pregnancy weight below their rib cages, which helped the researcher indicate the pregnancies. However, even though the orca pregnancies are exciting to hear about, they can also be worrying as well. This is especially if you can consider the fact that there is not enough salmon for all of the animals to feed on and when food is scare, pregnant orcas could either suffer miscarriages, stillbirths or have calves that die shortly after birth. Studies have shown that Southern Resident orcas have a high rate of reproductive failure with Deadhead herself having to have been known to miscarry in recent years. This past July, Tahlequah, also known as J35, carried around her deceased calf during a 1,000-mile journey for 17 days. Many people believe that the only way to save the orcas now is to have the Lower Snake River Dams removed, so that the Chinook salmon population can finally begin to recover and the orcas can at long last, have enough to eat.

For now, however, government officials are now asking all whale watchers to keep an extra distance away from the animals by enabling the mammals to use their echolocation to find their prey since vessel disturbance is known to hurt their ability to find food. After all, killer whales do need to eat around 385 pounds of fish a day and every effort that's aimed at promoting orca stewardship counts. Especially now, there are three animals among the population that are confirmed to be pregnant.  

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