Another new calf in J pod raises hopes for Puget Sound orcas

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research filled me in today on the third orca calf spotted in the Puget Sound region in the last month.

The animal looks healthy, he said, much more healthy than its sibling who died two years ago before its first birthday.

In comments on the story that went up on kitsapsun.com this afternoon, some people expressed legitimate concerns for these whales, because they are ingesting chinook salmon, which are known to contain elevated levels of toxic chemicals.

Our good friend Sharon O’Hara asks, “More importantly, sorry for asking, aren’t the salmon toxic? Are the calves immune to the toxicity of the mother milk from the salmon they ingest?”

“That’s what I’m thinkin’,” adds Morganm12.

While Puget Sound chinook do carry a higher toxic load than salmon in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, I don’t think it means that the Puget Sound orcas, which eat them, are necessarily doomed.

Rather than launching into an off-the-cuff discussion about the synergistic effects of food supplies, disease and stress, I’ll try to get gather up some hard data to support my ever-optimistic outlook. Stay tuned, and feel free to jump in if you have some real information about the toxic problem.

For those who haven’t seen my story, I’ll paste the entire text below:

Third Newborn Orca in Puget Sound Looks Healthy

By Christopher Dunagan

The third newborn killer whale spotted in the Puget Sound area within the past month looks healthy and energetic, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.

The two previous newborns also are looking good, he said.

It is unusual to identify three newborn calves among the three Puget Sound pods in one year, especially in the winter when the animals are frequently traveling in the Pacific Ocean, he said.

News of the three births comes as a positive sign among some serious setbacks for the population, which now stands at about 85. Seven orcas, including adults and calves, turned up missing and were presumed dead last year. Also missing since October is L-57, or Faith, the most recognizable of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet in 1997.

The newest calf, J-45, was identified Tuesday as the offspring of J-14, named Samish. The 34-year-old mother gave birth to another calf, J-43, two years ago, but it did not survive its first winter.

Balcomb said the calf that died looked kind of “sickly” after it was born.

“This calf (J-45) looks much better than J-43 — more filled out,” he said.

Samish, the mom, has three other surviving offspring. She comes from one of the most interesting family groups among the three Puget Sound pods. Ruffles (J-1), the oldest male in all three pods, is her great uncle. Granny (J-2), the oldest female, is her grandmother.

Two other newborn calves, first spotted in February, also are doing well. The calf J-44 has been confirmed as the offspring of J-17, known as Princess Angeline, a 32-year-old female.

Named for Chief Seattle’s daughter, Princess Angeline was one of the orcas featured in the “Free Willy” movies, according to information from The Whale Museum. She has two daughters.

The calf L-112 has been confirmed as the second offspring of L-86, named Surprise! She got her name because of the 14-year gap between her and her older sister, Ophelia. Surprise!’s first calf, Pooka, was born in 2005.

Killer whales are given names by The Whale Museum after they survive at least one year. The first year is usually the toughest, as the young animals must put on size and weight while keeping up with their fast-moving groups.

The food supply for the orcas, mainly chinook salmon, has been a concern the past few years. Puget Sound chinook are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

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