Year-old orca baby alive and doing quite well

In May of last year, when all three Southern Resident killer whales returned to Puget Sound, they brought along a new baby, designated L-119. See Kitsap Sun, May 30, 2012.

L-119 breaches off San Juan Island on Sunday. Photo courtesy of naturalist Kaegan Shepherd, Five Star Whale Watching, Victoria.
L-119 breaches off San Juan Island on Sunday.
Photo courtesy of naturalist Kaegan Shepherd, Five Star Whale Watching, Victoria.

Apparently, since last fall, more than a few naturalists and researchers have been worried that this young calf may not have survived. Personally, I was not aware that this calf was “missing” until yesterday, when I received a news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association saying L-119 was alive and doing well.

The concern may have been justified, because L-119′s mother, a 25-year-old, had given birth to another calf that did not live long. L-119 was the second known offspring of L-77, or Matia. It’s nice to know that both are doing well.

L-119 was never officially taken off the list of living orcas, probably because sightings were too few. The official census is compiled by July 1, and Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research told me that his team has now seen and photographed all the orcas believed to be alive in the three Southern Resident pods. Their population now totals 82.

I’ll share with you the full news release from PWWA Executive Director Michael Harris:

L119 – SOUTHERN RESIDENT ‘COMEBACK KID’

Pacific Whale Watch Association Crews Spot Baby Orca — Once Thought Dead — Back With Family in Sound and Straits

About this time every year, researchers begin getting a good read on the current State of the Pods – how the Southern Resident Community of orcas is faring after much of the winter and fall out to sea. As resident pods make their way into the Sound and Straits in the summer months, on-the-water reports and photos from whale watch captains and crews begin making their way to The Center for Whale Research.

The return of the most wayfaring of our resident whales, L-Pod, to the area brought mixed news this year. Sadly, two female orcas are reported missing — 53-year-old L2, and 57-year-old L26.

But much to the surprise and delight of captains, naturalists and researchers, a baby orca once thought to be dead has now resurfaced, seemingly healthy, strong and as cantankerous as ever.

L119 is back! The calf hadn’t been seen by The Center for Whale Research since early last fall, even though sightings of other L-Pod whales trickled in over that time. Furthering concerns was that L119’s mother, 26-year-old L77, lost her first baby in 2010 just a few months after it was born.

Infant mortality is extremely high among the Southern Resident Community. Up to 40% of calves born into the population don’t make it through their first year. But once past that hurdle, Southern Residents – especially females – can live as long as humans, some reaching 100 years old.

“This is really wonderful news,” said Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a longtime orca conservationist and wildlife filmmaker. “We always hold our breath in June, waiting for those photos to start coming in off the water, waiting for The Center for Whale Research to go through them all and tell us how the whales are doing. And this time many of us have been especially anxious, awaiting word on our little girl, L119. Something really got us hooked to this particular one. She’s really a special baby orca up against some pretty big odds, but now we can say for sure that she’s made it through that first, tough year. Happy Birthday, L119!”

PWWA boats have a unique connection to L119. The rambunctious baby was believed to be first spotted by Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters on May 29, 2012, and then photo-documented by The Center for Whale Research the next day. She was seen and photographed again in September by Michael Colahan, Captain and Naturalist for Anacortes-based Island Adventures. And then for almost 10 months, nothing — until last Monday, June 17, when PWWA boats reported L119 off Cattle Point, southwest San Juan Island.

Whale watchers on both sides of the border are thrilled by her re-appearance.

“Our passengers were already having an amazing experience out there, seeing L-Pod come back in,” said Marine Naturalist/Manager Andrew Lees of Five Star Whale Watching in Victoria, BC. “And once we told them L119’s story, how we all thought she was gone, it just made it that much more special for everyone.”

HOW TO HELP: For all those who want to help L119 and her family, become a member of The Center for Whale Research! The Pacific Whale Watch Association is proud to be a longtime supporter of Ken Balcomb and his team. Help them help the whales. www.whaleresearch.com

One thought on “Year-old orca baby alive and doing quite well

  1. It’s a shame that there is so much science showing the contribution of motorized whale watching craft to the death rates of our local whales. There are now over 50 international peer – reviewed publications on the issues regarding boat / whale interactions, and not one of them documents anything positive, and all of them describe negative contributions to whale health and mortality.

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