7-Week-Old Baby Orca Missing, Presumed Dead

Screen shot 2014-10-21 at 6.41.34 PMScreen shot 2014-10-21 at 6.42.02 PMAssociated Press and Seattle Times staff

FRIDAY HARBOR — A killer whale born to much hope in early September apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.

The baby was the first known calf born since 2012 to a population of endangered orcas that frequent Puget Sound in Washington.

It has not been seen since its pod returned in recent days to inland waters of western Washington, said center’s Ken Balcomb.

“The baby is gone,” he said Tuesday.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, Balcomb said.

“A baby would not be without its mother for that long of a period. They generally stick right with its mother,” said Shari Tarantino, president of the board of directors at Orca Conservancy, a Seattle-based non-profit.

The baby’s body has not been found, she said, but it would be hard to find unless it washes ashore.

The baby was a member of “L pod,” one of three closely tracked families within the dwindling Puget Sound population.

Researchers observed the pod, but not the baby, on Friday in Puget Sound, on Saturday in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and on Monday in Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Victoria, British Columbia.

The mother is there, aunt’s there, big brother,” Balcomb said. “The baby didn’t make it.”

That leaves 78 killer whales in the Puget Sound population.  In 2005, the group was protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The newborn was spotted in the first week of September off San Juan Island. Two other whales are presumed dead after disappearing earlier this year, so the birth was hailed.

“We were being guardedly optimistic that a turning point had been reached, but that is not the case,” Balcomb said.

The unique population numbered more than 140 animals decades ago but declined to a low of 71 in the 1970s, when dozens were captured for marine parks and aquariums. Then orcas were listed as endangered in 2005.

The striking black and white whales have come to symbolize the Pacific Northwest. Individual whales are identified by slight variations in the shape of their dorsal fins and distinctive whitish-gray patch of pigment behind the dorsal fin, called a saddle patch.

The Puget Sound killer whales primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. Offspring tend to stay with their mothers for life.

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L120 Declared Deceased / Center for Whale Research Reporting

Monday, October 20, 2014.

Contact: Shari Tarantino, President – Board of Directors @ 216-630-5177 / orcaconservancy@gmail.com

Orca Conservancy regrets to inform you that seven week old L120 of the endangered population of Southern Resident Killer Whales has been declared deceased.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said, “L86 was seen and photographed on Friday, Saturday, and Monday, all without L120.”

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(photo credit: Center for Whale Research)

….Survivorship from near the time of birth to about 6 months of age was estimated to be about 60% through 1987 (estimated a few different ways, none of which were very precise, but all giving the same answer within a few percent).

Lactating females burn two-four times as many calories as other females. It’s hard to produce enough milk when food is hard to find, and it’s hard for a calf to survive when it does not get enough to eat.

Hood Canal used to be an important feeding area for SRKWs, but they lost interest in it while restoration was in progress. Fish runs are much stronger there now than they were 30 years ago but SRKWs haven’t rediscovered it.

In about 15 years, SRKWs should see benefits from the Elwha Dam removal. We hope we’ll still have enough of them left then that it will matter. We need to be doing a lot of additional restoration work to get population growth back in the 3%/yr neighborhood that we know is feasible.

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VICTORY FOR SRKWs – PUD Abandons Tidal Energy Project



Contact: Shari Tarantino, President – Board of Directors, Orca Conservancy / (216) 630-5177

October 1, 2014

Snohomish PUD Announces:  Admiralty Inlet Tidal Power Project not to advance due in part by opposition from Washington tribes, Pacific Whale Watch Association, and Conservation Groups lead by the Seattle based Orca Conservancy.

The announcement came on news that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has decided not to fund 50 percent of the project as originally planned. SnoPUD announced Tuesday that it can’t move forward without those federal dollars.

Most, however, point to a growing wave of opposition by Washington tribes, whale watch operators and conservation groups to the siting of these four massive, perilously exposed and extremely loud turbines in sensitive wildlife habitat as the reason the DOE pulled the funding.

“We’ve said from the beginning there clearly wasn’t enough information about the effects that these experimental turbines would have on wildlife,” explains Orca Conservancy’s President Shari Tarantino. “And, with 79 Southern Resident Killer Whales left, that just wasn’t a gamble we were willing to take.”

The Snohomish PUD, by its own admission, hoped to place these turbines squarely in the path of orcas and 12 other federally protected species listed under the ESA.  Other possible sites were explored, but the Admiralty Inlet location was chosen primarily to save money in installing, maintaining and, in the event of approaching whales, manually braking the turbines to avoid injuries. The PUD estimates the time between a report of incoming wildlife and a diver-initiated shutdown of the blades at approximately five hours. Orcas are the fastest marine mammals on the planet, capable of speeds of about 35 miles per hour.

The turbines not only posed a threat to any creature coming into contact with them, they’re also dangerously loud. SnoPUD admits that the blades would have produced noise source levels up to 180dBs, and that research has shown that killer whales react strongly to a received level of 135dBs – the pain threshold.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,”  continued Tarantino. “It’s a victory – and we’ll take it – especially for this endangered population.”

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Update / L120 / September 13, 2014

L120 Update from Heather MacIntyre: Photos taken this evening (9/13/14) off San Juan Island from the M/V Legacy with Legacy Charters, just west of False Bay.10655435_589639011144517_6041618173989077756_o

“Two week old L120 seems to be doing very well! Tonight we were the only boat with her for a little while, we got to watch as she nursed and traveled with L86 Surprise (her mother), and probable Auntie L27 Ophelia.10551569_589638881144530_1055846902648864080_o

There was lot’s of rolling around towards the surface behind L86, at which point L27 would promptly position herself halfway behind the two, probably to make sure everything was occurring properly! We saw small splashes at the waters surface, then they continued traveling.10661830_589638777811207_2430105914271051403_o

The pink/orange coloration comes from an extremely thin blubber layer that the calf is born with. Blood vessels are close to the epidermis and will make the calf appear orange/pink. As soon as the blubber layer thickens (from nursing on her mothers milk), the patches will turn white.”10667662_589672991141119_1448053800_o

Photo Credit: Heather MacIntyre, 2014 / Legacy Charters


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Newborn Calf Spotted Among Endangered Orcas For The First Time In Years


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Researchers tracking endangered killer whales in the North Pacific made an encouraging discovery over the weekend after an infant calf was seen swimming with the pod — representing the first birth among the threatened population in nearly two years.

A team from the Center for Whale Research (CWR) spotted the newborn near San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington state, among a group of orcas known as L pod. The new arrival, designated L120, is the second calf born to a 23-year-old orca known as L86.

CWR biologist Dave Ellifrit was able to capture several images of the adorable young family.

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L pod is part of a community of orcas near the Puget Sound known as Southern resident killer whales (SRKW), the only population to be listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Just last month, the CWR issued a report noting that the population had fallen to just 78 orcas, the lowest seen since 1985.

This recent birth pushed their number back to 79, reviving hope that the group may be able to stem the population decline. Little is known about birth rates among orcas, but it is believed that mature females can produce offspring every five years.

Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says that while the sight of a new calf among the endangered pod is a welcome one, it’s too soon to say that SRKW are making a comeback.

“This is great news. But every time a baby’s born, we’re careful not to pass out the cigars too soon. Infant mortality is really high among wild orcas, especially these Southern Residents,” Harris said in a press release.

“This little whale has a tough road ahead. Every birth is exciting, but we’ll be especially thrilled and relieved to see L120 rolling back into the [Puget] Sound and Straits next summer.”


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Orca calf born to Puget Sound resident pod

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Susan Wyatt, KING-TV, Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. / 6:27 p.m. EDT September 7, 2014

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 10.39.08 PMSEATTLE — The Center for Whale Research is celebrating the birth of an orca calf in the Salish Sea, the first one since 2012.

The proud mother is 23-year-old L86, and this is her second calf. The newborn has been designated L120.

The birth is sorely needed in the Southern Resident Community population, Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said in a press release. Their numbers had just dipped to 78, the lowest count in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the Northern Resident Community of British Columbia have steadily increased in numbers, and transient or marine mammal-eating orcas seem to be thriving in the Sound and Straits.

Yet the Southerns continue to struggle to recover, Harris said. Researchers attribute the problem to lack of prey, primarily their preferred diet of wild Chinook salmon.

A Pacific Whale Watch Association crew was the first to snap and post the baby photos.

“We wouldn’t have known about it, but heard from David Elifritt out on the water that L86 had a new calf, and then ran into them,” said Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Whale Charters on San Juan Island. “What a thrill to be there at the right time in the right place. Everyone on board was so excited. I’ve never seen a calf born, but it’s always a thrill to be there the day a new calf was discovered.”

“I remember someone saw a shot of L86 breaching back in June and word got out that she had a little ‘baby bump,'” Harris said. “This is great news. But every time a baby’s born, we’re careful not to pass out the cigars too soon. Infant mortality is really high among wild orcas, especially these Southern Residents. This little whale has a tough road ahead. Every birth is exciting, but we’ll be especially thrilled and relieved to see L120 rolling back into the Sound and Straits next summer.”


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Newborn killer whale spotted in Washington waters

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By PHUONG LE, Associated Press
Updated 5:10 pm, Monday, September 8, 2014
Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 10.31.27 PM

SEATTLE (AP) — Whale researchers are celebrating the newest member of a population of endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound in Washington state.

The baby orca spotted over the weekend in waters off San Juan is the population’s first calf born since 2012. A researcher saw it swimming between two adult females, most likely the orca’s mom and aunt, said Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research, which keeps a census of the whales.

The orca is probably less than a week old, he said. Researchers don’t know yet whether it’s a boy or a girl.

The baby is a member of the L pod, one of three extended families of whales that are closely tracked and photographed by researchers.

Its birth is reason to celebrate, Balcomb said. But he cautioned that orcas are still struggling to recover because of pollution, lack of food and other reasons.

The newborn orca brings the number of killer whales in the Puget Sound population to 79, Balcomb said. Two whales were confirmed missing and presumed dead this year.

The unique population, known as southern resident killer whales, numbered more than 140 animals decades ago but declined to a low of 71 in the 1970s when dozens of the mammals were captured live to be displayed at marine parks and aquariums across the country.

Orcas were listed as endangered in 2005, after local and regional efforts began in the 2000s to conserve them.

“The resident orcas that eat salmon are declining because the salmon population is also endangered,” Balcomb said Monday. “What we have to do is get really serious about wild salmon restoration and recovery, which is the food supply for these guys.”

He said billions of dollars have spent on salmon recovery, but orcas are still in decline. “What’s the issue here? Overharvests? Dams? Military exercises? What? We have to figure it out,” he added.

The striking black and white whales have come to symbolize the Pacific Northwest. Individual whales are identified by slight variations in the shape of their dorsal fins and distinctive whitish-gray patch of pigment behind the dorsal fin, called a saddle patch.

The whales are given designations based on whether they belong to J, K or L pod. The newest member is L-120.

Dave Ellifrit, a researcher with the center, came across the newborn Saturday while doing routine photo identification of whales, Balcomb said.

Killer whales can be found in many oceans, but the distinct Puget Sound population can be found most summer months and fall in Washington state waters.

They primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. They travel in three families, or the J, K and L pods. Whales from the same pod tend to spend most of their time together, often grouping around older females.

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