2015 is set to be remembered as an all-timer for the Southern Resident Killer Whales! The Center for Whale Research has just announced a new baby orca in J Pod – J54!
We don’t know the sex of the young orca, but its mother is J28, a twenty-two year old female Southern Resident Killer Whale in the Pacific Northwest. The mother had a previous baby designated J46, a female, born in 2009 and still surviving. This brings the known births of Southern Resident orcas to eight since last December, and the total population of the population as of now to 84 known individuals. 1977 is the only previous year in the past forty years in which as many baby killer whales were born into this community of whales, and there were nine in that year. From calculations accounting for all reproductive age females, we estimate that typically up to nine babies could be produced each year, but there is usually a high rate of neonatal and perinatal mortality, and we have seen only three babies annually on average. In the years immediately following poor salmon years, we see fewer babies and higher mortality of all age cohorts.
The new baby, J54, was first seen on 1 December 2015 by several whale-watchers near San Juan Island, and photographed with J28 by Ivan Reiff, a Pacific Whale Watch Association member. However, the 1 December photographs were not conclusive in that they did not reveal distinct features of eyepatch and “saddle” pigment shape that could unequivocally rule out that it was not another baby being “baby sat” by J28. Today’s photographs in Haro Strait between San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island confirm the distinct features required for alpha-numeric designation. The new baby is estimated to be two and a half to three weeks old as of now. The family, including mother and sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, and cousin, and other J pod members continued North in Haro Strait and Swanson Channel by sunset. Presumably, they are destined for the Strait of Georgia where J pod spent an extended amount of time last December.
It is clear that the Southern Resident population (in particular J pod) is investing in the future, and that survival of all of the new calves and their mothers and relatives depends upon a future with plentiful salmon, especially Chinook salmon, in the eastern North Pacific Ocean ecosystem. This may be problematic with pending and unfolding Climate Change that is anticipated to be detrimental to salmon survival, in the ocean and in the rivers. Warmer ocean waters are less productive, and rivers without continual water (no snow melt – rains runoff too quickly) and with warmer water are lethal to salmon. The Pacific Salmon Foundation and Long Live the Kings are non-profit organizations concerned with the declining survival of juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea, and the Center for Whale Research is a non-profit organization concerned with the survival and demographic vigor of the Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea and coastally from Vancouver Island to California.
PHOTO: Dave Ellifrit, the Center for Whale Research.