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Boaters asked to give space, slow down to help pregnant orcas in J-Pod

J pod returns to the Puget Sound region in early September 2021. (Photo: David Haeckel)

There’s happy news for the Southern Residents as three orcas in J-Pod are pregnant.

The whales appear to be in the later stages of the pregnancy as well, which means we could see new babies in the next several months.

Orcas return to Puget Sound, signal ‘remaining health to these waters’

While this is a good indication that the orcas are doing well and will hopefully be able to boost their numbers, it also represents some dangers. Orca mothers are at their most vulnerable during pregnancy and right after giving birth. Miscarriages and the loss of young calves is common, especially as the orcas battle starvation.

“Certainly the late stage is more energetically taxing for the animals than earlier stages are. And once the calf is born, that lactation stage also is really taxing,” explained Jessica Stocking with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

With that in mind, the WDFW is asking boaters to leave some extra room if they come across the orcas in the Sound. The law requires boats to stay 300 yards to the side and 400 yards in front or back of the orcas, but staying a half-nautical mile — about 1,000 yards — away would offer even more protection.

The law also requires boaters to go no faster than seven knots. Try to keep noise down as well, as engine noise can interfere with the orcas’ use of echolocation — critical for finding food.

“We ask that boaters give the whales a little extra space,” Stocking said. “If there’s more than one boat, certainly backing off a little farther, and slowing down around the whales is really important as well because the noise can make it harder for them to forage.”

The Southern Resident population is at just 74, the lowest its been in decades. Even though the orcas are starting to find more food and look a little healthier, it will still take many years — and much diligence from us — to get their numbers back up.

“It’ll take a while for the population to rebound — it’s just a slow trajectory,” Stocking noted. “Even as we’re doing what we can right now, we’ll need a while before we see really meaningful results.”

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