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‘Cautious optimism’ for new orca calf as whales appear to be eating more

Tahlequah and her new calf, J57. (The Center for Whale Research)

It’s been 12 days since the Southern Residents’ new orca calf, J57, entered the world, and experts are cautiously hopeful.

The baby was born Sept. 4, 2020, to J35, also known as Tahlequah, who broke hearts in summer 2018 by carrying her dead orca calf for weeks.

The endangered Southern Residents have for years been battling starvation and other health issues brought on by a lack of Chinook salmon in the Puget Sound, polluted waters, and vessel noise, which can hinder their ability to find food.

In recent years, two-thirds of Southern Resident mothers have miscarried, and the orcas that are born have had trouble surviving past the first year of life.

With Puget Sound orcas pregnant, vessels asked to give space

But this summer, said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications director for the Pacific Whale Watch Association, the outlook for the Southern Residents appears to be changing a bit — and that comes just in time for the new orca’s birth.

“The good news is that many of the Southern Residents this year, in the photographs, in the aerial surveys, are looking healthy, are looking like they’re finding food,” he said. “So that adds a real positive note to the successful potential of J35’s latest calf, J57.”

Unusually, the Southern Residents have been disappearing for a month at a time over the spring and summer, but Balcomb-Bartok said this is likely because they have been off finding Chinook salmon, their main food source, somewhere where the Chinook are abundant. This could be anywhere from off the coast of Vancouver, B.C., to Vancouver Island, but wherever the Chinook are, he said, the whales will follow — just as people will shop at whatever grocery store carries the foods they want.

“It really correlates with food — if the shelves are bare, the whales aren’t there,” he said.

When they have been seen, he said they have seemed healthy and well-fed, unlike previous years. In the year that Tahlequah lost her calf, the orcas appeared emaciated.

“They come in like days of old — there’s almost a little bit of happiness and joy and health to them. It just feels good,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “And so I’m really optimistic — cautiously optimistic, of course — but I’m thrilled that this calf is coming out, that the health of the animals is looking decent.”

In the past few days, the orcas have not been able to be seen because of the smoke-related low visibility, but he said that “every indication is that the calf is probably doing well — there’s food to be had and whales are around.”

It’s not yet known whether the new baby is a boy or girl — it could take up to two or three years for a sighting or photo to confirm this.

Orcas are typically not named until they are a year old, but when the time comes for a name, Balcomb-Bartok has an idea he wants to propose.

“I would certainly love to name it ‘Hope,’ or something in a Native tongue that means ‘Hope,'” he said. “Because I think this is what this baby whale has done for me and for a lot of us, is give us hope.”

The situation is still precarious for the Southern Residents, especially with other orcas currently expecting babies. Boaters are required to stay at least 300 yards away on either side of the orcas, and 400 yards in front of or behind them. For more information on how you can help protect the Southern Residents, visit Be Whale Wise.

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