With the help of aerial drones, two marine biologists have discovered three pregnant southern resident orcas — a species that is on the brink of extinction, news sources have reported.
According to a report by The Washington Post, John Durban made the discovery with his wife and research partner, Holly Fearnbach, while on a routine research trip in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
What they saw in the middle of the Salish Sea were three endangered orcas, also called killer whales. The whales have bulges indicating they are pregnant, an exciting discovery given the species is close to extinction with only 73 southern resident killer whales in the wild, The Post reported.
Time is reportedly running out to save the species since orcas give birth to only one baby at a time “every three to 10 years.”
“Killer whales reproduce very slowly, so it’s hard to recover the population,” said Durban, 45, a senior scientist at Southhall Environmental Associates Inc. He added that “Deaths are outpacing births.”
A report by Nature World News cited Durban who said: “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.”
Nature World cited Josh McInnes, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, who also explained: “killer whales have a high percentage of miscarriages and infant death, resulting in a poor rate of reproduction.” That has scientists concerned.
How long is the gestation period?
The News Tribune cited a paper by John Durham in the journal Natural History, in which Durham and his two co-authors wrote about orcas: “Gestation lasts a year and a half, and the calf will then spend its entire life with its mother’s group, receiving help from close relatives in finding and capturing food, and in caring for its own offspring.”
Scientists have given the three pregnant orcas the labels of J36, J37, and J19,” and according to the nonprofit SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), whale J36, in particular, is close to giving birth, The Tribune reported.
The Post explained the pregnancies are significant since the total southern resident killer whale population is at its lowest point since the 1970s. Since 1998, just 44 orcas have been born while 81 have died or disappeared within that same time frame.
In 2018, one killer whale captured the world’s attention when after giving birth, she carried her dead calf for 17 days, covering more than 1,000 miles.