British Columbia

Pregnant killer whale J-32 was starving, necropsy reveals

Questions remain after a necropsy revealed a young female orca in the endangered southern resident population was malnourished when she died before giving birth to a full-term calf.

Young female died after failing to give birth to fetus

J 32, an 18-year-old juvenile resident orca dead on a beach near Courtenay, B.C. in 2014. A necropsy revealed the female whale was malnourished and pregnant when she died. (CBC)

Questions remain after a necropsy revealed a young female orca in the endangered southern resident population was malnourished when she died before giving birth to a full-term calf.

Preliminary necropsy results released by the Center for Whale Research indicate that J-32 had a thin layer of blubber and had not been feeding adequately for an extended period of time.

But the report also concluded the 19-year-old female likely died because she could not expel a nearly full-term fetus from her body, and that the fetus might have been dead for some time.

The necropsy on a Vancouver Island beach took most of the day and drew a crowd. (Allen Felker/

"The question is why did the fetus die, and why are we having so much trouble with reproductive success in this population?" said Kenneth Balcomb, the executive director of the center.

J-32,  also known as Rapsody, died near Nanaimo earlier this month. Her body was towed to a beach near Comox, where experts from several agencies conducted an necropsy.

Parts of the whale were removed for further analysis by officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The results of that analysis have yet to be released.

J-32 was one of only 12 reproductive-viable females in the endangered population.

Swimming in toxins

Southern resident orcas are thought to be the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, and tests have shown their blubber contains high levels of contaminants such as PCBs.

Now Balcomb is asking if that pollution contributed to the death of J-32 and her unborn calf.

"It's when they have a ripple effect, like not enough salmon, that they start metabolizing those body fats that are storing all the toxins and that's what's given the whammies to the babies, to the development of the fetuses," he said on Friday.

The whale that was found dead, J-32, that was found dead on Thursday is seen breaching in an earlier photo. (Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research)

J-32 was the fourth member of the endangered southern resident population to die this year, leaving only 77 whales in the population.

That is in sharp contrast to the other populations of transient and northern resident populations that are getting stronger.

"We don't know, is it development in southern areas? It may or may not be something to do with the salmon runs. If we knew the answer to that, we could probably help solve their problems," said Balcomb.

Restoring a plentiful food source must be a priority, he said.

"They need fish, they need salmon, they need Chinook salmon restoration as quickly as possible."

Tests continue on J-32 and the fetus to determine the causes of their deaths.

With files from Stacy Ross


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