'Fragile' Hope Pregnant Endangered Killer Whales With High Miscarriage Rate Will Give Birth

Three endangered killer whales who are part of a community affected by miscarriages have become pregnant, prompting the introduction of regulations to help them successfully carry to full term.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and its partners including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have asked that recreational boaters follow Be Whale Wise regulations and give endangered Southern Resident killer whales extra space.

"We need to work together to give these pregnant whales every chance of success," deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, Scott Rumsey said in a WDFW press release. "The more they can forage undisturbed, the better their odds of contributing to the population."

The organization says that adherence to these rules is of particular importance because of the number of failed pregnancies in the Southern Resident killer whales. This community of whales is found in the waters of the northeastern portion of North America and is made up of three pods, J, K, and L.

Researchers from SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3) discovered that three whales in the J-pod of 24 orcas, which moves between the San Juan Islands, Southern Gulf Islands, Lower Puget Sound, and the Georgia Strait, were carrying calves by observing them with aerial drones.

The regulations require that boaters stay 300 yards away from whales from the sides and at least 400 yards in front or behind.

The measures not only consider the direct safety of the whales but also aim to ensure that food supplies are not disrupted. This is particularly important for pregnant whales whose food requirements increase by 25 percent in the final month of pregnancy, WDFW said.

Research published by the NOAA in January of this year indicated that expectant Southern Resident mothers give up the hunt for food at the sound of approaching vessels. The study, which observed whale feeding patterns for three years, led to the implementation of the 400-yard rule as it demonstrated whales foraging for food was much more easily perturbed than previously believed.

"We've got many people looking at the science to understand where we can continue to improve the odds for this population," said Kelly Susewind, WDFW director. "Now that we've learned of multiple pregnancies among the Southern Residents and the impact that boats can have on new mothers, we really need everyone to follow Be Whale Wise regulations in support of these endangered whales' survival."

In the summer of last year, another whale in the J-pod successfully reared a whale calf, and researchers hope that these measures will help these three females birth calves of their own.

"This hope, however, is fragile," said Oregon State University researcher John Durban, who assisted SR3 in the collection of the drone images. "Last year, we documented a number of other pregnant females, who were not successful in rearing calves.

"Unfortunately, this is not unusual, and we have documented a high rate of reproductive failure over the last decade. The survival of every calf is crucial to the endurance of this small and endangered population— every calf matters."

Whale lovers will be hoping that three additional calves could bolster the number of whales in the dwindling Southern Resident community. The population of Southern Resident killer whales consists of 74 whales after the disappearance and presumed death of a male whale in July of this year.

K21, unofficially dubbed Cappuccino, was last sighted off Vancouver Island on July 28, when specialists from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans who had been monitoring left for the evening, according to advocacy group Wild Orca.

Southern Resident killer whales were placed on the Endangered Species list in 2005 and the main threats they face are pollution, noise, and disturbance from boats and other vessels, and the reduced amount of prey to feed on.

Southern Resident Killer Whale and Calf
A stock photo of a Southern Resident Killer Whale from L pod with its calf. Researchers have discovered three whales in J Pod are expecting calves of their own. MarkMalleson/Getty