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Orca that carried her dead calf for 17 days is pregnant again

Friday, July 31st 2020, 12:46 pm - Experts say while they don't have precise numbers yet, J35 is not the only local whale expecting.

A southern resident killer whale who gained global notoriety two years ago when she was perceived by many people to publicly mourn the loss of her newborn calf is in the spotlight again and this time, in a good way.

J35, the matriarch of J pod, one of three groups of killer whales living in waters off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state, is believed by whale researchers to be pregnant again.

SEE ALSO: Missing B.C. killer whales 'presumed dead,' only 73 left in group

The whale made headlines in the summer of 2018 when she pushed the corpse of a dead calf in a funeral-like procession through 1,600 kilometres of Pacific Ocean for 17 days last summer in what scientists and journalists called 'a tour of grief.'

J35, orca whale J35, in the foreground, has been confirmed pregnant by researchers who hope the matriarch of her pod will deliver a healthy, baby girl, as the pod population needs more breeding females. (Centre for Whale Research)

According to Deborah Giles, a whale research biologist at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, aerial photos of J35 now, compared to other images of her captured over the years show that her body has definitively swollen to accommodate the pregnancy.

Giles said such bodily change is apparent in the first five months of an orca's 17- to 18-month gestation period, but she cannot yet confirm exactly how far along J35 is currently.

She is crossing her fingers it's a baby girl though.

"I am very, very hopeful it will be born a girl, because we need females in this population," said Giles, adding the pod has few breeding-age female whales.

And while Giles is "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility of a new J pod whale, she says about 50 per cent of newborn calves do not survive the first year and if this one does, the chinook salmon the pod relies on for food is already in short supply.

There are currently 72 southern resident killer whales alive in three area pods.

Giles said this summer, scientists have only spotted J pod in its entirety, while the other pods appear to have broken off into smaller groups because of food scarcity.

J35 2019/2020 Aerial photographs comparing the body condition of J35 in September 2019 and more recently in July 2020 when she had a noticeably wider profile at mid body, indicating pregnancy. Photos obtained using a remotely controlled octocopter drone by SR3 SeaLife Response, Rehab and Research and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in 2019 and SR3 and Southall Environmental Associates in 2020; both collected under NMFS research permit 19091. (Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and John Durban (SEA))

She said there are some other pregnant southern resident killer whales this year, but did not have an exact figure.

But the growing figure of J35 will likely be the focus of whale lovers who have followed the plight of the mother-to-be and her family.

"The people rooting for her are global now," said Giles.

Thumbnail courtesy of Centre for Whale Research.

The story was written by Bridgette Watson, originally published for CBC.ca.

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