Updated photos: Eyewitness describes birth of orca in Puget Sound waters

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This is a cropped version of the baby with the Southern Resident Killer Whales (Photo by Corey Vink, from Orca Spirit Adventures, Victoria)
 

The birth of an orca among the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound and surrounding waters is certainly cause for celebration, especially since the population of these orcas has fallen to a level not seen for more than a decade.

But the birth is also greeted with caution, because orca infant mortality is high.

“This is great news,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, in a news release.

“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.”

If the baby does return and there are no other deaths among resident whales, that would keep their numbers at 79, the lowest count in many years. The association’s news release added:

The birth is sorely needed in the Southern Resident population. … 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. Researchers attribute the problem to lack of prey, primarily their preferred diet of wild Chinook salmon. While the population is hardly out of the woods, any new baby is worth celebrating.

The resident population is precarious and protected because of the decline of salmon and also the heavy ship traffic in the straits and sound. The later point was driven home in a news release today by the Orca Relief Citizen’s Alliance, which is calling a Whale Protection Zone off the west side of San Juan Island, where the Orca can rest and feed.

The birth story

Here’s an eyewitness account of the birth by Brian Goodremont, U.S. President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (thanks to Michael Harris, Executive Director of the association for sharing the email. Some minor editing throughout):

…  I’m pretty sure I witnessed the birth not knowing what I was seeing.

There was some very unusual behavior from that “resting” group of whales. They appeared to be resting and directional slowly east.

In a matter of 5 minutes however they stayed in the resting line-up but did three full circles within a 200 yard radius, eventually continuing south. During the direction changes there were occasional spy-hops (when the whale pokes its head above the water).

When the direction was again Southeast towards Salmon, the spy-hops became more prominent and increased in height. A couple of the spy-hops you could see pectoral flippers jiggling, almost like the whale spy-hopping was trying to stay in that position.

Shortly after about 5 spy-hops, I saw a small cetacean being pushed to the surface on the rostrum of one of the adult females. I was looking into the sun with guests on my bow, so I wasn’t sure of what it was that I saw.

And there you have it the birth of an Orca!

“It was a thrill to see it! Our passengers were so excited. We didn’t discover it, but happened to have the camera pointed in the right spot at the right time,” said Capt. James Maya of Maya’s Westside Whale Charters on having spotted the baby orca (you can find his photos in the gallery above).

The Center for Whale Research confirmed the birth Saturday in their Facebook post:

Yeah! Great news! We finally have new calf in L pod. L86 was seen today by CWR staff with a brand new calf who will be designated L120. This is the first new calf in the SRKW population since 2012.

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

 The decline of resident orcas

While there have been record sightings of transient killer whales, the local resident whales have been in decline.

The Associated Press reported last weekend:

With two new deaths this year and no new calves since 2012, the population of endangered killer whales in the Puget Sound continues to decline.

The number of whales in J, K and L pods has dropped to 78, a level not seen since 1985, According to a census by the Center for Whale Research. Adding to the concerns, the whales appear to be “splintering” from their pods, which are their basic social groups.

Since 1976, Ken Balcomb of the research center has been observing the Puget Sound orcas, or Southern Residents as they’re known among scientists. Balcomb compiles an annual census of the population for submission to the federal government.

Historically, all three pods of orcas have come together in the San Juan Islands during summer months, often feeding and socializing in large groups, Balcomb noted. But for the past few years, the pods have divided themselves into small groups, sometimes staying together but often staying apart.

“What we’re seeing with this weird association pattern is two or three members of one pod with two or three from another pod,” Balcomb said. “It’s a fragmentation of the formal social structure, and you can see that fragmentation going further. They are often staying miles and miles apart and not interacting.

“If we were trying to name the pods now, we couldn’t do it,” he added. “They aren’t associating in those patterns anymore.”

So, the new birth is a relief but the struggle to keep the resident whales intact and viable continues.

About orcaconservancy

Orca Conservancy is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working on behalf of orcinus orca, the killer whale, and protecting the wild places on which it depends. Successful Petitioner and Litigant in historic U.S. District Court case to list Southern Resident orcas as "Endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act -- the first-ever federal protection for the population. Leader in the Springer Project, the first-ever successful translocation and reintroduction of a wild killer whale, a rescue that captured the attention of the world.
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