Difficult Births in Killer Whales

Difficult Births in Killer Whales

J50, a southern resident killer whale that was featured much in the news lately, was instantly recognizable by the scars on her back, and many people attributed them to having a difficult birth. It was speculated that a family member may have acted as a “midwife” by physically pulling her out of the birth canal with their teeth. 

J50′s extensive scarring. Photo by Gary Sutton.

She is not, however, the only calf to have been documented with scars at birth. AB37, pictured at the top of this post, was a Southern Alaska resident killer whale born to AB6. AB37 was photographed shortly after birth with extremely severe scarring, even more prolific than J50′s. There was not much to be said about AB37 and her scars apart from the short description in the book “Killer Whales of Southern Alaska.” AB37 unfortunately was a likely victim of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as she disappeared soon after the spill at the young age of 3. Her entire family is now deceased, many of them also being lost to the oil spill. 

Might these scars be evidence of true killer whale “midwifery?” It’s virtually impossible to know. A killer whale birth has never been closely observed in the wild. The recent discovery of infanticide in transient killer whales has brought up the possibility that these scars are not necessarily from a family members aiding in a birth but actually something more far sinister. While infanticide hasn’t yet been observed in resident killer whales, it’s entirely possible the scars on these infants are in fact the result of marauding males attempting to kill them in order to force their mothers back into estrous so he could father calves instead of his rivals. Or perhaps these scars are from something else entirely that we still have yet to discover. 

One thing is certain: the first moments of life for these tiny whales were full of mystery and difficulty. 

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Photo by @west.coast.soul⠀
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A Rare Baird’s Beaked Whale Sighting! To…

A Rare Baird’s Beaked Whale Sighting! To read this story (and more!), follow the link in our bio
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ooh-love: Beluga whales adopt lost narwhal in…


Beluga whales adopt lost narwhal in St. Lawrence River


It took 6(!) years of observing whales to finally get a photo of a “rainblow.”

These only occur when light hits the water droplets created by a whale’s exhalation (warm air from the lungs meeting cool air outside) and is reflected inside the drops before being refracted outside, creating the colors of the visible light spectrum. Just like with normal rainbows, the sun has to be behind you in order for you to see it.

It may sound simple enough, but given whales do not stay still and sunny days are relatively rare here in Alaska…it’s hard for all the conditions of a rainblow to be met!

Quotes from NOAA about the SRKWs



“Yes, it would be better if there was more food, however these whales seem to be finding enough food.” 

“If your plan for the orcas’ survival is based on breaching the Snake River dams, you will watch the orcas go extinct.”

While I agree that the dams are not the only issue at play here, denying that they play a major impact on the Chinook salmon population as well as denying that the SRKWs are starving when the transients are doing just fine is absolutely ridiculous. NOAA, it’s time for you to start listening to the Center for Whale Research. They know these whales far better than you do. You already killer L95 Nigel with your negligence, don’t be the reason anymore die.  

The whales aren’t starving? Weren’t these guys supposed to be scientists?

I would like to point out that NOAA is a large multidisciplinary agency and that the biologists work for a different section than the managers do. It is the job of the biologists to study the animals, figure out what the problems are, and then provide managers with the evidence needed to create effective management. It is the job of the managers to actually use that information and make decisions.

This is my general plea to not go after the biologists for NOAA. They have collected much of the data that has shown us what the problems the SRKW are facing (prey depletion, vessel/noise disturbance, and toxins). I truly do not believe they are the people we need to be upset with. By all means, be upset with NOAA management (I am upset too!) because it’s clear they are not doing their jobs.

Regarding the first quote, it was taken from an email response NOAA sent to somebody who contacted them about the SRKW. We do not know who from NOAA is replying to inquiries about the SRKW but I suspect it’s likely a PR or public outreach employee. It’s important to give these quotes some context.

I really like this comment from Robin Baird I saw on a Facebook post regarding NOAA actions For those that don’t know, Baird is a marine mammal biologist that has studied killer whales (including the SRKW) in great detail:

Your comments, and many other comments on this thread (and on this topic in general) imply that NOAA can and should do one thing and one thing only, and that they somehow have the power to do whatever they want, regardless of what ranchers and farmers want, what power companies want, and what state and tribal and local governments want. Any decision by NOAA can be challenged in court, and while you and I may think we know what needs to be done, unless you get the ranchers, farmers, fishing interests, tribes, and power companies on board (and probably a few other groups that I’ve forgotten about), any one of those groups could (and probably would) challenge any action in court. You should know that researchers and managers work for different parts of the agency and the job of the researchers is to build the evidence needed for effective management. It is the job of the managers to act on the evidence. Whether they act is another question, and that can be influenced by politics and the administration. Has everyone forgotten what the current administration has said and done in regards to environmental regulations since the administration came in?. As I’ve said in another posting, I don’t think complaining, or attacking NOAA (or any of the other constituents interested in water, or fish) is the solution. I think you should all use all this righteous indignation strategically.”

I believe he makes a very good point at not throwing all of our anger at NOAA. What about the politicians? Special interest groups? The physical act of breaching the Snake River Dams might be relatively straightforward but the politics surrounding it are not. As Baird pointed out, farmers and energy companies may not be so supportive of breaching the dams. How can we reach out to them and convince them that this needs to be done? What sort of political blocks need to be addressed? How is the current administration under Trump influencing NOAA management decision? How can we efficiently force NOAA management to take proper action in restoring salmon populations and habitat?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I can be sure that screaming at NOAA and NOAA alone is not effective.

We are incredibly lucky to have some amazing r…

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Photo: J19 “Shachi” by @gary_j27⠀
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This isn’t my research or photography, but I’m always on the hunt for cetacean themed clothing so I thought I’d share!

LOEA is based on San Juan Island, WA and focuses on marine-themed clothing and hats with a special emphasis on killer whales. Here are some examples!

I ordered this sweatshirt for myself:

The best part is that the artist, Jennifer Rigg, donates a part of her profits to the Center for Whale Research.

Definitely check the website out if you want some rad whale clothing from an independent artist that supports whale research!

Whale Watching Australia. To read this story (…

Whale Watching Australia. To read this story (and more!), follow the link in our bio.
Photo by @whale_watch_western_australia
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Check this incredible photo of a Narwhal!⠀ Nar…

Check this incredible photo of a Narwhal!⠀
Narwhals were once thought to be the “missing link” to the mythical unicorn. Research has now shown us that the long “tusk” of this Arctic whale is in fact a tooth that protrudes from inside their mouth out through their upper lip. ⠀
Photo by Bryan and Cherry Alexander⠀
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