Updated 5:10 pm, Monday, September 8, 2014
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.