The sixth orca calf born since December — and the fourth born into J pod — was spotted off the west coast of San Juan Island on Saturday. Two years of robust chinook salmon runs are being credited for the baby boom.
Whale watchers and researchers have high hopes for the survival of the newest baby orca spotted near the San Juan Islands late Saturday afternoon, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
The baby was born into J Pod, one of three pods of southern-resident orca whales, and the pod most experienced at keeping babies alive, said Michael Harris, the association’s executive director, on Sunday.
“It’s fantastic, it’s great news. We’ve got a bit of a Brady Bunch out there right now,” Harris said of the latest addition, dubbed J53. The baby is the fourth born into J Pod this year.
First spotted off the west coast of San Juan Island, J53 was a bit of a surprise and is the fourth calf born to J17 — a 38-year-old whale who is a grandmother to other orcas, J46 and J47, Harris said.
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The birth was confirmed Saturday night with photos taken by the crew on the Maya’s Legacy, one of 36 operators in the whale-watch association in British Columbia and Washington. Photos of J53 have shown “fetal folds,” or folded skin, indicating it was born a few days ago, Harris said.
Another group, L Pod, has seen two calves born since December, including one born in March to a10-year-old whale, the youngest on record, Harris said. Orcas usually don’t give birth until they are 14 or 15, he said.
The sex of J53 hasn’t been determined yet, but Harris is hoping for a girl. He said only one of the other five baby whales born this year is female, with the overall population roughly split between males and females.
While male orcas born in the wild live 50 to 60 years, female orcas can live well into their 90s or beyond, he said, noting that along with J17, two “older” J pod whales gave birth at 43 and 44 years old this year.
A 50-year-old female orca from L pod died a few weeks ago, so the combined population of J, K and L pods in the wild now stands at 82, Harris said.
One member of L Pod, a whale called Lolita, is at the Miami Seaquarium.
Ten years ago, the combined population of the three pods was 78 when the southern-resident orcas were given protection under the Endangered Species Act, Harris said. Late last year, the population dropped to 77 after an orca died from an infection while giving birth.
At that point, “some of the most optimistic researchers were saying we might not be able to turn this tide, this slide toward extinction,” Harris said. “But not me.”
He credits robust runs of chinook salmon this summer and last summer for the current baby boom. Chinook salmon, another endangered species, makes up 90 percent of the orcas’ diet, Harris said.
He said researchers are already predicting “a very difficult run” with far fewer fish in 2016.
“It confirms what we’ve been saying for years — you can’t address recovery of orcas without addressing chinook,” he said. Right now, “there’s enough food in the water to support this kind of baby boom.”
Baby orcas have a 50-50 chance of surviving their first year, “so we’re not out of the woods with these babies,” Harris said, though he noted four have already survived three-quarters of their first year.
“J Pod is the most experienced having babies and raising babies and they’re the most urban,” so have experience keeping babies out of trouble from hazards like ship strikes, he said.
In recent days, the Vancouver Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have released detailed photos and videos captured by drones, Harris said. Based on those photos, researchers estimate another three to six whales could be pregnant, he said.
The images have also shown adult whales in J Pod “bringing salmon over to a mother and baby” and “baby-sitting” while a mother whale goes off to hunt, Harris said.
“It’s an extended family. They take care of each other,” he said. “We’ll see grandmothers or siblings giving mom a break. That’s what J Pod particularly does well.
“It’s that village. It takes a village (to raise a baby) and this village is activated right now.”