Yesterday we were greeted by the happy news that there is yet another new calf in the endangered Southern Resident community of orcas, and the sixth born into the familial grouping known as J Pod.
NOAA scientists observed a new calf travelling between J14 Samish and J37 Hy’Shqa on in the last few days and confirmed the sighting yesterday. Right now there is no confirmation on which female is the mother, but that is not unusual as all females within a family will take an active role in raising calves. Both females are proven mothers, J14 raising three calves: J37 born in 2001, J40 Suttles born in 2004 & J45 Se-Yi'-Chn born in 2009, and J37 successfully raising one calf: J49 T'ílem I'nges born in 2012. This family, known as the J14s, is associated with one of the most incredible individuals in the Southern Resident community, J2 Granny, who is estimated over a century old. Due to their association, J14 is thought to be J2’s granddaughter and J37 is thought to be her great-granddaughter. I am personally very excited to see the relationship between J2 and this new babe! In the past she has taken an active role as babysitter for young J Pod mothers, this summer it was not unusual to see her surrounded by multiple baby dorsal fins.
Orca calves are born after a 16-17 month gestation period at about 300-400 pounds and are right around six feet long. When determining if a calf is a new addition to the population, it is not only important to look at the social structure around the calf, but also the skin and pigmentation of the calf in question. Newborn orcas, and most other cetaceans, are born with what are called “fetal folds”. These folds are creases in their skin that are residual from being folded up in their mother’s womb and disappear a few days after birth. The pigment of the calf is also indicative of its age. New calves have very little blubber under their skin, resulting in a rosy, orange glow in all of their white spots. This orangey-look will dissipate as the calf puts on weight drinking its mother’s fat and nutrient-rich milk. This past summer we relished watching the calves J50 Scarlet, J51 Nova, J52 Sonic and L122 Windsong fattening up and losing that baby glow. Totally bittersweet, like watching your nieces and nephews grow up before your eyes, but also very exciting!
J14 or J37 will join all of the new mamas in the community: J16 Slick and her daughter J50 Scarlet, J41 Eclipse and her son J51 Nova, J36 and her son J52 Sonic, L94 Calypso and her son L121 Windsong, L91 Muncher and her son L122, J17 and her new calf, born in October, J53, L103 Lapis and her new calf L123, and J28 Polaris and her new calf, born in December, J54. The population of Southern Residents currently stands at 85 individuals. I think it is also important to take a moment to recognize a loss within the community. On the same encounter that NOAA observed J55, they also observed female J31 Tsuchi carrying a deceased infant. Killer whale grief has been documented in wild populations, and it is not unheard of to see a mother supporting her deceased calf at the surface. These situations illustrate the incredibly complex social and emotional lives that orcas live, and also goes to show just how fragile these new bundles of joy can be; killer whale calves experience about a 50% mortality rate within their first year. This deceased calf is J31’s first known birth and would have been the tenth calf born into the population within the last fourteen months.
Amongst all of these births it is easy to get excited and lose track of the bigger picture in the conservation story of these beautiful mammals. It is always hard for me to process that these whales are some of the most endangered and threatened creatures on the planet and that they still need our help to survive. The Southern Residents are almost exclusively salmon eaters, with the threatened Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, making up the majority of their diets. Science has shown that during the summer months 80% of the whales is made up of this one species of salmon! As a whole we are seeing the salmonoid species’ populations decline, which spells bad news for the future of these adorable new calves.
By joining us on any of our Whale Watch and Wildlife Tours or Kayaking adventures you are helping to support ongoing conservation in the Puget Sound. If you want to get even more involved, or want more information on preserving the future of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, we recommend and support the following organizations:
The Center for Whale Research (http://www.whaleresearch.com/)
Save our Wild Salmon (http://www.wildsalmon.org/)
Long Live the Kings (http://www.lltk.org/)
Happy Whale Watching, hope to see you out on the water this season!
Naturalist Sarah McCullagh