Expecting Southern Resident orca?

J-32, a Southern Resident orca, leaps from the water with a big belly. She may be pregnant.  - Gary Sutton photo
J-32, a Southern Resident orca, leaps from the water with a big belly. She may be pregnant.
— image credit: Gary Sutton photo

Rhapsody, formally known as Southern Resident orca J-32, may be pregnant.

It’s by no means certain, as the only evidence are recent pictures of the 18-year-old female with a curiously round belly. Island experts are highly skeptical, but admit she is the right age, and could very well be carrying an unborn calf.

“It really is just a fun rumor; I wouldn’t substantiate it,” said Howard Garrett, a founder of the South Whidbey-based Orca Network.

However, he said it is possible.

“It may well be,” Garrett said. “She does look a little large.”

Unfortunately, short of a physical examination or collection of feces — a difficult task to say the least — there is no surefire way of knowing when an orca is pregnant. Researchers can only guess and wait and see, he said.

Southern Resident orcas, which travel between California and Alaska, are a distinct population segment of a sub-species composed of J, K and L pods, totaling 80 individuals. They’re unique in that they don’t interbreed with other orcas of the world.

According to Garrett, it’s no surprise people are on the lookout for newborns. One or two per year are common, but the last recorded birth was nearly two years ago, in August of 2012.

“It’s way overdue to see a new baby,” Garrett said.

He noted that the sub-species has lost four individuals in the past year and a half — older members that have disappeared and are presumed dead — so a newborn would be a welcome addition.

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