Another Southern Resident killer whale may be in trouble, but three pregnancies within the local orca population may be cause to celebrate.
K25, a 25-year-old orca, is declining in health. Recent photos compared to a year ago show he is losing weight.
However, it's not as bad as what J50 looked like before she went missing, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The aerial photos are an early indicator of changes in body condition and help us to identify at-risk whales,” said Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries Recovery Coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales. “While the decline in K25’s body condition is not as severe as we saw with J50 this summer, it is a warning signal.”
It's possible that the death of K13, K25's mother, is having an impact on his nutrition. Mothers help feed sons even later in life. K25 is nearing the average life span of 30 years for male killer whales.
The Southern Resident population dropped to an estimated 74 when J50 died earlier this month. The last several months were marked by the deaths of L92, newborn calf of J35, and J50.
Southern Resident killer whales have been on the endangered species list since 2005.
There is some potentially positive news for the local orca population, with at least three late-stage pregnancies confirmed in J, K, and L pods - one pregnancy in each.
“The aerial photos also indicate that at least one whale in each pod is pregnant. This is vital news for this critically endangered population,” says Scott Rumsey, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Deputy Regional Administrator.
However, it isn't quite time to celebrate. The number of orcas that have been born and survived since 1998 is far lower than the number that have gone missing or died. According to the Orca Network, 73 have been reported missing over the past two decades, while 40 have survived.
One of the orcas that appears to be pregnant, K27, has been documented to have an aborted fetus in recent years.
The Center for Whale Research will monitor the success rate of the current pregnancies.
NOAA is asking boaters keep clear of the orcas and go slow to reduce noise to help them forge for food.
Local Southern Resident killer whales are often spotted near the San Juan Islands during warmer months. They spend much of their winter along the coast in the Pacific Ocean, hunting for salmon when numbers decrease in the Salish Sea.