SEATTLE — A newborn orca in the endangered pod that frequents Puget Sound is an encouraging sign following the death earlier this month 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 Wednesday. “It’s good to see a positive sign.”
The baby orca was discovered Tuesday by Center for Whale Research scientist Ken Balcomb and another scientist monitoring members of J-pod off the Canadian Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
The presumed mother is J-16, a 43-year-old that has had three surviving calves, Balcomb said. The baby killer whale was estimated to be a day or two old and appeared healthy. It has been designated J-50.
The birth makes 78 orcas in the southern resident killer whale population that spends time in the inland waters of Washington and Canada. They are an endangered species in Canada and the U.S.
Now, everyone is hoping J-50 can survive. An estimated 35 to 45 percent of orcas die in their first year, Garrett said. The Puget Sound population is in danger, with a limited supply of their favorite food, chinook salmon.
Killer whales are 7 to 8 feet in length at birth and weigh about 400 pounds. They are born after a 17-month gestation and nurse for at least a year, Balcomb wrote on the Center for Whale Research website.
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, though her next most recent calf (J-48) was born and died in December 2011 in Puget Sound, Balcomb wrote.
It has been 2½ years since the last successful birth in the population. If orca calves don’t survive, the iconic whales face certain extinction, he said.
That’s why the death of the pregnant 19-year-old killer whale J-32 in early December in British Columbia waters was so distressing.
The fetus had died, and a resulting bacterial infection killed the mother, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said.