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Oct 1, 2020
Hello, it’s Sunday, August 30. This week, science & environment reporter Hannah Weinberger reminded us Puget Sounders to temper our excitement about the pregnant orcas in our region's struggling pod. Simply put: There are many challenges still ahead for their calves.

Today, Hannah tells us some of the creepily beautiful details that stuck with her from reporting this story.
Aerial photos of a mother orca and her calf
J31 and her young calf, J56, from the southern resident killer whale population, as observed via drone by researchers from SR3 and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in September 2019. (Holly Fearnbach, SR3; John Durban, NOAA)
I was so ready to celebrate something in 2020. 

When orca experts announced two pregnancies in the southern resident killer whale population in Puget Sound, I was one of many who erupted in heart-eye emojis. The pregnancies are in the only orca population federally listed as endangered, and one of the expectant mothers is Tahlequah, who devastated anyone with a heart two years ago, when she grieved for her dead calf

But I, a wet blanket, wondered: With so much facing these whales — lack of food, pollution and ocean disturbance — should I get my hopes up? Should I count my orcas before they’re born? 

In interviews with orca experts for a story on what to expect when a pregnant orca is expecting in Puget Sound , I “whoa’d” and “dang’d” more than I ever have, and thoroughly bummed out my partner and friends while recounting what I’d learned. There are terrifying, sobering facts and theories that make you realize even apex predator babies (especially ones in endangered populations) have to push through a lot just to survive their first year. Cetaceans have high rates of calf loss even in populations that aren’t endangered, so I’m still holding my breath — and with orcas gestating for 18 months, I could asphyxiate in the process. 

I won’t recount all of nature’s heartlessness to orca calves here, but what really lingers with me is the mother’s unintentional sacrifice of a firstborn calf. 

Orcas reach sexual maturity at about 12 years, and if they’ve been living in polluted waters like Puget Sound, they’ve accumulated a lot of legacy pollutants in their blubber. To make 40% fat milk for calves, mothers’ bodies often instinctively draw from their blubber stores — especially if they’re not getting enough to eat. That means that tiny calves get blasted with a toxic cocktail during their most formative stage of life. If they’re a mother’s first calf in a while, or ever, they can be subjected to more than a decade’s worth of built-up pollution. 

But if those calves don’t make it, and their mothers quickly become pregnant again, their death can be a sacrifice so the second calf has a better shot at life. Epitomizing the idea that nature Is metal, that first calf becomes a literal, if accidental, vessel for pollution: With fewer dangerous chemicals circulating in her system when she gives birth, the mother feeds her second calf less polluted milk. (In the current southern resident cases, both pregnant moms have given birth before, with Tahlequah likely getting pregnant soon after losing her calf in 2018.) 

Ultimately, if these calves make it, they would be beating huge odds. And it appears plenty can be done to give them a better shot: You can follow new boating regulations when you’re out on the water, read up on proposals that claim to increase orcas’ access to fish (like the removal of the lower dams on the Snake River, stop flushing your medications down the drain and keep tabs on how the governor’s orca recovery plan is moving along. And don’t count your orcas before they’re born.

Hannah Weinberger
Crosscut science & environment reporter

Read more: Here’s what pregnant orcas are up against in Puget Sound

Hannah Weinberger

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