Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.

One thought on “Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

  1. I am so elated that there are 4 babies now but of course still cautious as to their survival but in reading this story, I am even more intrigued in their social structure and can’t wait to read more about the newest member and how he/she came to be!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

Enter the word yellow here: