Center for Whale Research names newest orca calf

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has announced that the newest killer whale calf, designated J-46, should be known as “Star,” because the young animal has garnered so much attention.

This newborn calf could become a poster child in the effort to save the Southern Residents from extinction.

Ken’s naming announcement came as a surprise to me, because he rarely uses names for our local orcas. Like most killer whale researchers, Ken and other staffers at the Center for Whale Research generally call the whales by the alpha-numeric system set up by researchers many years ago.

Ken Balcomb is widely acknowledged as the keeper of the census for Southern Resident orcas, and we generally wait for him to acknowledge the birth of a new calf and to give it a number.

Ken told me he hopes to raise awareness about the connection between the survival of the orcas and the abundance of salmon, particularly chinook.

“I was trying to tie this into the fish,” he said. “This (calf) is the star of the show now, and its survival is dependent on the fish.”

Ken’s move kind of bucks the tradition of having The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor name the Southern Residents. (The Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia names the Northern Residents.) Generally, the whales don’t get a name for several months or a year, because a fairly large percentage of calves die before their first birthday.

Balcomb was one of the founders of The Whale Museum and its “Orca Adoption Program.” He has told me on several occasions that donors to the adoption program often believe that their contributions go to research by the Center. That’s not the case, although The Whale Museum runs educational programs, including an on-the-water effort called SoundWatch. (After my initial post, Whale Museum Director Jenny Atkinson e-mailed me to say that the organization does do some research in connection with its educational programs.)

“I’ve been thinking about this fish thing quite awhile,” Ken told me. “The general public has to be more informed and realize what is at stake here. I wanted to get a name in there and make this (orca) the ‘star’ of the program.”

Ken and his staff have prepared a written explanation about the new name on the Center for Whale Research Web site, which includes baby pictures of the new calf. Here’s a portion of that text:

“We could not ask for a more charismatic indicator, a baby whale, to measure the success of our renewed efforts for restoration. J Pod is the most-watched family of whales in the Pacific Northwest, or perhaps the world; and this is the first year in recent decades that they have produced three babies in one year. We will all be watching, here and worldwide, carefully and respectfully, to see if they beat the odds and all survive. This is the reality show that really means something.”

For their part, folks at The Whale Museum are taking the Center’s naming of the new whale in stride. Jeanne Hyde, who runs the Orca Adoption Program, said her organization will continue its normal naming process next year, when there could be four calves to be named.

“Star” might be a fitting name for the new whale, considering that its mom is named Polaris — also the formal name for the North Star.

“The name ‘Star’ will be one that an awful lot of people will submit,” Hyde said. “We have a process, and we will follow that process.”

That process includes a public vote from a roster of finalists for each whale to be named.

Jeanne told me the naming of killer whales goes back to the early 1980s, when the federal government was considering permits for the capture of killer whales. Opponents of the capture began to name the orcas to change human perceptions and to help people realize that orcas are individuals, each with its own characteristics.

“One of the ways we can help the whales is to connect people to them,” Hyde said. “Names are important. People can connect with the name “Granny” more than to “J-2.”

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