By Lynda V. Mapes
Feb 17, 2020
A new baby has been born to the L pod family of southern resident killer whales, scientists reported.
Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, confirmed the birth Wednesday.
The mother is L86, and the sex of the baby, L125, is not yet known.
After word that the J, K, and L pods were in Haro Strait, near San Juan Island, the center dispatched two boats with field researchers, where they encountered and photographed the new calf.
“It is nicely filled out and appears to be a nice young perfectly normal little calf,” said David Ellifrit, the center’s photo identification expert.
The baby’s size and shape are typical of a calf in good condition. It is so young — just a few weeks old — that it still has fetal folds showing on its skin.
This is the first calf born into L pod since January 2019.
Other calves born to the southern residents also were seen Wednesday: J57 and J58, both born in 2020, looked to be doing well.
The birth is a bright spot for L86, who also was the mother of L112, killed by blunt-force trauma in 2012, Balcomb said.
She had another calf, L120, that was born and died in 2014. Her first calf, L106 was born in 2005 and is still swimming near his mother today, Balcomb said.
The southern residents are endangered, so every baby counts.
The newest birth brings the population to 75 in total. The first complete count of southern resident killer whales, which took place in 1974, found 71 whales.
L86, nicknamed Surprise!, was born in 1991.
“It’s just wonderful to see a new birth this early in the year; it’s pretty exciting,” said Deborah Giles, researcher with the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. “It gives you hope for the other ones.”
Another orca, J46, also known as Star, was very visibly pregnant last fall but she lost the calf, according to Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director at SR3, a science research nonprofit based in Seattle.
Fearnbach and John Durban, senior scientist with Southall Environment Associates, photographed her on multiple occasions using a drone and from their research documented that she was no longer pregnant in December.
The southern residents lose about two-thirds of their pregnancies, according to research led by Sam Wasser at the Center for Conservation Biology. The losses were linked in the research to nutritional stress.
The southern residents face at least three known threats to their survival: noise and disturbance by ships and boats, pollutants, and lack of food, especially chinook salmon, their preferred prey.