Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.

The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

“This is a very welcome addition to this endangered population of whales that has experienced so much bad news recently, with whales appearing skinny and passing away,” the statement continues.

Having a new female among the Puget Sound clans is especially promising to the population. If she can survive and remain healthy, this new addition may add one or more young whales to the population.

The new baby whale was designated J-56, and her probable birth date was listed as May 24. Her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi, was reported to have had an unsuccessful birth in 2016 with no other known pregnancies. Tsuchi has been seen to help several other new mothers in recent years, however.

As with each new encounter by scientists with the Center for Whale Research, photos were taken of the whales seen on Friday. Once all the groups have been observed and the researchers are confident that they’ve seen all the whales still alive, the center typically releases a report of any whales presumed to have died.

The official census of the southern resident killer whale population provides a listing of the whales that have been born and died over the past year, effective July 1. The report is provided to the National Marine Fisheries Service on or before Oct. 1.

The newborn orca was first sighted by researchers affiliated with a whale-watching company on May 30 near Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The young whale was spotted again the next day by a research contractor with the Canadian government and then again on June 9 by the whale-watch researchers, according to the statement from the Center for Whale Research.

“We had numerous reports from colleagues with Environment Canada and others of the SRKW pods feeding along the coast of British Columbia in May and June this year during a time when they historically frequented interior waters of the Salish Sea to feed on the early summer runs of Chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River,” the statement says.

“The salmon runs to the Fraser River have been very poor in recent years, so the whales must feed in coastal waters to survive.”

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