Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

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