The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Iconic orca reveals what might be a baby bump

Breaching orca fuels speculation that famous but highly endangered Southern Resident population might soon get a spanking new and much-needed addition

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Is Rhapsody the killer whale just fat, or pregnant? Photo by ©Josh McInnes

Is she, or isn’t she?

That’s the burning question regarding the possibility—or likelihood?—that one of an endangered population of Pacific Northwest orcas is pregnant.

On Tuesday, a day after J32, also named Rhapsody, was photographed breaching off Victoria, British Columbia, marine mammal enthusiasts became engaged in a spirited debate on social media. Some were more hopeful than others, but everyone was rooting for an orca calf.

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Mock People magazine cover is courtesy of Tasli Shaw

Rhapsody belongs to J pod, one of three pods that make up the Southern Resident killer whales. As the images show, the 18-year-old female is revealing what looks to be an enormous baby bump.

If Rhapsody is pregnant, and delivers a healthy calf, it would represent a significant boon for J pod, which numbers only 25 animals. It would also be a boon for the overall Southern Resident population, which numbers only 80 animals. (There are three pods. K pod is the smallest, with 19, and L pod is the largest with 36.)

“It’s been since August of 2012 that we’ve seen a new calf in the Southern Residents, and yet there have been four losses since then, so we’re hoping to see at least one new baby this year,” says Howard Garrett, who runs Orca Network, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about whales of the Pacific Northwest. “It’s never easy to tell from how the females look whether they’ll have a calf or not, so it’s always a pleasant surprise, and we’d love to see some surprises this year.”

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Another view of Rhapsody; photo courtesy of ©Josh McInnes

Pleasant surprises are few and far between when it comes to the Southern Residents, the only endangered population of killer whales in the U.S.

They’ve endured hardships with sources ranging from pollution, to ship traffic, to a scarcity of salmon as their primary food source. Their current numbers are near an all-time low.

But because they’re such a valuable tourism resource, and so embattled, each Southern Resident is regarded as a celebrity by marine mammal enthusiasts. A new baby, to be sure, would be cause for celebration.

However, until a calf is seen, emotions are ranging from cautiously optimistic to doubtful.

Simon Pidcock of Ocean EcoVentures Whale Watching began a comment thread Monday on his personal Facebook page, on which many longtime orca observers were stating that all the baby talk is purely speculation, that J32 is just a well-fed and happy orca.

“J32 just looks like a fat healthy whale to me,” Pidcock wrote. “Even last year when they were getting nowhere near as much fish, she was still looking large. So great to see them foraging so much … feels like 7 or 8 years ago.”

Responded Melisa Pinnow: “Lots of people thought she was pregnant last year too. I think it is just a combination of her being well fed, the angle of the photo, and the way she sticks her belly out when she breaches. I won’t complain if she turns up with a calf. though.”

Tasli Shaw was more positive, and creative. She pieced together a mock People Magazine cover with the announcement, “It’s Twins! Or is it triplets? Our inside look at the life of Rhapsody and how she feels about the baby rumors.” (The mock cover is posted above.)

People Magazine last month week featured “Granny,” a Southern Resident who, at 102 years old, is believed to be the world’s oldest orca.

Perhaps soon the world’s youngest orca, son or daughter of Rhapsody, will be visible alongside mom.

After all, orcas typically have their first calves at about 15, so the timing is beyond right.

Researchers are painfully aware that J pod needs young blood to help the overall stock.

Said Victoria-based orca researcher Josh McInnes, who was among the photographers out with the mammals on Monday:

“Top predators have a tough life… especially social predators. Calves have a high mortality rate within the first six months. There is also the issue of inbreeding as the population decreases. As inbreeding occurs, so does the chance for harmful mutations, which lead to disease. This new calf could mean a future reproductive female or a male that may sire more calves.”

So as many are saying, here’s hoping the rumors are true!

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter

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