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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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New orca babies grow endangered southern resident population


SEATTLE — There’s not just one, but two new babies in the L pod of the endangered southern resident orcas.

The Center for Whale Research spotted the two calves — new additions to the L12 subgroup — in the Strait of Georgia off the shores of Canada on Friday. According to the center, the babies are at least 2 months old and were active and social with the other orcas.

The babies, L126 and L127, are the offspring of moms L119 and L94, according to the center. They are the first calves born in the L pod since L125 was born in 2021, and the first in the L12 subgroup since 2018.

One of the calves was first photographed swimming off the coast of Tofino, B.C., last month alongside members of the L77 matriline.

“We’re always kind of cautiously optimistic with these new babies, because the mortality rate in the first year is quite high,” Michael Weiss, research director for the Center for Whale Research, said in an interview after one calf was spotted. “But we’re hopeful.”

So far, the babies appear healthy, Weiss said Saturday. The center is working to confirm the sexes of the orcas, and will look at drone images to get a better idea of the orcas’ body condition.

Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saw the J pod and the L12 subgroup off the shore of San Juan Island on Saturday morning, apparently foraging for fish.

More recently, as the southern residents have spent less time in inland waters like the Salish Sea, researchers have had a harder time getting eyes on pregnancies.

L127 is L94’s third calf, according to the center. L119, who appears to be a first-time mom, is only 11 years old.

“I’m not really overly concerned. It’s young, but it’s not ridiculously young and L119 — she has her mom, the kid’s grandma,” Weiss said. “There’s family around to help take care of the kid.”

Hanson said he was excited about the two new calves.

Survivorship during the last baby boom in 2015, Hanson said, wasn’t quite what researchers had hoped for.

“The foundation to recovery is new calves in the population,” he said. “We’re hopeful that instead of being skewed toward male, like the past, that we’ll have more females, because that’s where the reproductive future is for the population.”

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The L pod is one of three families within the southern resident orca population. According to the center’s 2022 census, the L pod had dropped to its lowest number since the survey began in 1976.

That census tallied just 73 orcas, one of the lowest population counts among the J, K and L pods of whales since 1974, when 71 orcas were counted following the live capture era, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The population peaked at 98 in 1995, but declined by almost 20 percent by the end of the decade, leaving 80 whales in 2001.

The southern residents have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 2005 and a recovery plan was finished in 2008. In 2015, they became one of NOAA’s “Species in the Spotlight,” an effort to raise awareness and save “the most highly at-risk marine species.”

Generally, the southern residents are struggling to survive in the face of at least three threats: lack of chinook salmon in their foraging range, pollution and underwater noise that makes it harder for them to hunt and communicate with each other.

More recently, researchers have found two-thirds of southern resident pregnancies end in loss because of lack of food.