Newborn orca good sign for endangered killer whales
A newborn orca whale has been spotted. It is living in the endangered pod that frequents Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington. The calf is an encouraging sign following the death of a pregnant killer whale from the same group.
"That was a pretty hard hit," Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network said. "It's good to see a positive sign."
Orcas are also known as killer whales. Their complex, cohesive family groups are called pods. The baby was discovered by Center for Whale Research scientist Ken Balcomb and another scientist. They were monitoring members of J-pod off the Canadian Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
The presumed mother is J-16. She is 43 years old. She has had three surviving calves, Balcomb said. The new baby killer whale appeared healthy. It has been designated J-50.
Brad Hanson is a wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries. He said he had noticed that satellite tracking showed the whale pod to have ducked into a narrow, protected passage. It's between Shaw and Orcas islands. It's an area where he'd never seen them travel before.
"I was sort of scratching my head about why they'd go into that area," he said. "The whales tend to use particular channels. It was a very unusual travel route. They may have been seeking an area of sheltered water for the birth."
The birth makes 78 orcas in the southern resident killer whale population. Those whales spend time in the inland waters of Washington state and Canada. They are an endangered species in Canada and in the U.S.
Now, everyone is hoping J-50 survives. An estimated 35 percent to 45 percent of orcas die in their first year, Garrett said. The Puget Sound population is in danger. There is a limited supply of chinook salmon. That is their favorite food.
Killer whales are 7 to 8 feet in length at birth. They weigh about 400 pounds. It takes until their early teens for females to mature and late teens for males to mature. It is good news that J-16, the mother, is a proven producer of calves. Unfortunately, her next most recent calf (J-48) was born and died in December 2011 in Puget Sound, Balcomb wrote on a website.
It has been 2 1/2 years since the last successful birth in the population. If orca calves don't survive, the iconic whales face certain extinction, he said.
Critical thinking challenge: Why do biologists use letters and numbers instead of names to identify the whales? How does this alpha-numeric system help biologists know whos who?"