These eight baby killer whales are beating the odds

October 9, 2016

J50, nicknamed Scarlett, seen with the J16 family, is one of 8 orcas born in 2015 that is still alive, researchers say.

Whale watchers say eight orcas born in the past several months appear to be thriving, bolstering the endangered southern resident population that frequents Puget Sound.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, an industry group, said Monday, Oct. 3, that the so-called “Class of 2015” is all alive and well — good news for a population that has averaged about three new babies a year since 1976.

▪ J50, nicknamed Scarlett, was first seen on Dec. 30, 2014;

▪ J51, nicknamed Nova, was seen on Feb. 15, 2015;

▪ L121, nicknamed Windsong, was seen mid-February 2015;

▪ J52, nicknamed Sonic, was seen March 30, 2015;

▪ L122, nicknamed Magic, was seen Sept. 4 or 5, 2015;

▪ J53, nicknamed Kiki (short for Kikisoblu), was seen on Oct. 24, 2015;

▪ L123, nicknamed Lazuli, was seen early November 2015;

▪ J54, nicknamed Dipper, was seen Dec. 1, 2015.

Another calf, J55, was spotted on Jan. 18 but was presumed dead because it never has been seen again.

The update on the orca calves came the same week that NOAA Fisheries said the work of one of its scientists may have led to the death of an orca in the local pods.

A whale found dead off Vancouver Island in March was likely the victim of a fatal infection after a scientist failed to adequately sterilize a research tag that was shot into its body.

The tags contain satellite-linked transmitters that allow tracking of where the whales go in winter when they leave Puget Sound, in an effort to aid their recovery.

Natural forces also threaten the southern resident population.

“Every time we had a baby born to this population last year, people got giddy,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the PWWA. “And awesome as the news always was, I guess we sometimes had to be a buzzkill. We had to remind everyone that wild orcas have a 50 percent mortality rate out there, that half of these babies don’t make it through their first year. It’s a coin flip, we said.

“Well, now we can breathe a little easier.”

There are only 82 whales in the J, K and L pods today. According to NOAA Fisheries, all killer whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only the southern resident population and a transient population have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Orca Network, a nonprofit agency based on Whidbey Island, reports that as of Sept. 12, the spike in births has left the J pod with 28 members, the K pod with 19 and the L pod with 35.

These pods consist of approximately seven post-reproductive females (over 42 years old), 28 adult females (10 to 42 years old), 21 mature or adolescent males (over 10 years old), eight juvenile females (under 10 years old), 16 juvenile males (under 10 years old) and two juveniles of unknown genders.

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