Multiple southern resident orcas are pregnant but another is ailing, researchers say

SEATTLE -- Another orca is ailing and several others are pregnant in the critically endangered family of southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.

NOAA Fisheries announced a "number of pregnancies within all three pods in the Southern Resident population" Tuesday. NOAA requested boaters give extra space to the pregnant whales, as well as an orca that they believe is sick.

A 27-year-old male called K25 is thinner than in previous years, according to scientists who regularly track the whales. Researchers say K25 lost its mother last year, and is likely struggling to find enough food.

"Female Southern Residents share prey with their male offspring which helps them meet the increased energy demands of their larger bodies," researchers said. "K25 no longer has that help, and is nearing the average lifespan of 30 years for male killer whales."

Including K25, there are only 74 southern resident orcas in the Puget Sound. They haven't had a successful pregnancy in three years.

NOAA scientist Lynne Barre said K25's body condition is not nearly as severe as now deceased orca J50's was this summer. Still, it's concerning.

"It's a warning signal," Barre said.

NOAA Fisheries is not planning any intervention with K25 at this time, officials said.

Aerial images collected this week also show K27, K25's sister, to be heavily pregnant, along with a number of other females in J, K and L pods.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association and the Whale Museum's Soundwatch Boater Education Program is asking boaters in the area of southern residents to slow down and give extra space to these vulnerable whales.

“This is one action we all can take to be sure that these whales can forage peacefully at a critical time for them,” said Jeff Friedman, PWWA president. “We ask that everyone please put the health of the whales first.”

Regulations limit viewing distance to no less than 200 yards, and 400 yards in the path of the whales. Whale watching association members reduce speeds to no more than 7 knots within 1 kilometer of whales.

On Monday, the governor's killer whale task force released draft recommendations for saving southern resident orcas.