Mixed emotions accompany latest births among killer whales

UPDATE, 9 p.m.
After a long day, orca researcher Brad Hanson got back to me, saying he spent about two hours with the whales yesterday as they moved from Edmonds past the Kitsap Peninsula during heavy weather. The whales were not surfacing normally, which raised concerns, he said. J-31 stayed with her dead calf a long time, and he cannot say if and when she finally let go.

“This shows the value of getting out there in the winter,” Brad said. “She will be an animal in the focus of any health assessment. On the flip side, we have a new calf that looked really good. It kept popping its head out to take a breath.”

With both delight and sadness, two new baby orcas have been reported in Puget Sound. One newborn calf appeared to be alive and doing well, researchers said. Unfortunately, one calf was dead, still being attended by its mother.

New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

“We’re excited to announce that NOAA Fisheries killer whale researchers documented a new calf during a research survey with J pod yesterday…,” states the Facebook message from the researchers. “The good news comes with some sad news, however. On the same trip, we observed J-31, a 20-year-old female who has never successfully calved, pushing around a deceased neonate calf.”

At age 20, this female named Tsuchi could have already had one or two calves that did not survive. It has long been speculated that up to half of all newborn orca calves don’t survive their first year.

I was not able to reach NOAA’s Brad Hanson, who was on the research outing, but Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research told me that he has confirmed the successful birth and designated the calf as J-55. Ken is in charge of the ongoing orca census.

The note from NOAA says the calf in “good condition” was swimming in close proximity to J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqu (pronounced “high-shka”). “So we don’t know who the mother is just yet, and it may take a few encounters before we know.” Hy’Shqu, by the way, had her first offspring in August 2012.

The new discoveries were made as the research boat followed the whales around the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula near Hansville, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who was observing the encounters from shore on Whidbey Island.

Amazingly, this is the ninth birth among the three orca pods since December 2014. There were no surviving calves born during the two previous years, and things had been looking truly bleak for the endangered killer whales of Puget Sound.

Now, six of the new babies are from J pod, and three are from L pod, bringing this population of wild orcas to 85.

“My prediction was that J pod would be the saviors if any could do it,” Ken Balcomb noted. “But they are coming on stronger than I would have imagined.”

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said the “baby boom” of orcas we have been reporting “is starting to sound like a long, sustained rumble — and it certainly is music to our ears.”

But news of the mother pushing around her dead offspring was heart-wrenching, he said in a written statement.

“It’s almost as if she wanted so much to be a part of this baby boom — to become a mother like so many in her pod — that she simply couldn’t bring herself to the bitter reality of losing her calf,” he said.

“And I guess we all have to be aware of reality,” he added. “This population has turned a corner, no question, but in no way is it out of the woods. We’ve got some tough salmon years ahead of us, and that means extra pressure on the whales. Let’s celebrate this baby J-55 and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

Chinook salmon, listed as a threatened species in Puget Sound, is the primary prey of the three Southern Resident pods.

For those of you following the killer whale tagging study, K-33 and likely the rest of K pod continued south along the West Coast until they nearly reached Cape Mendocino near Arcata, Calif., on Sunday. From there, they turned around and retraced their route back north, passing Heceta Head on the Central Oregon Coast this morning. For their full travels since tagging on New Year’s Eve, check out NOAA’s website of “Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Since Friday, K-33 has traveled down the Oregon Coast to Cape Mendocino, Calif., before heading back north. NOAA map
Since Friday, K-33 has traveled down the Oregon Coast to Cape Mendocino, Calif., before heading back north. // NOAA map

One thought on “Mixed emotions accompany latest births among killer whales

  1. So, Chinook salmon are doomed. One new killer whale and then another. Nature’s vicious way.

    Of course, the globe will warm 1 ten trillionth of a degree when the dead one rots. We’re all doomed I guess.

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