Newborn orca whale calf spotted, second may be coming soon

Dec 28, 2023, 4:35 PM

Image: A new whale calf was primarily observed near adult female J40 on Dec. 26, 2023. (Photo court...

A whale calf was primarily observed near adult female J40 on Dec. 26, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Maya Sears, NMFS Permit 27052, via the Center for Whale Research)

(Photo courtesy of Maya Sears, NMFS Permit 27052, via the Center for Whale Research)

A new member of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale (orca) population has been spotted around Puget Sound, and a second may be on the way, researchers said.

The Center for Whale Research confirmed on its social media channels and on its website this week a new calf was spotted with the J pod on Tuesday swimming close to female whale J-40.

“It’s great! It’s always fun to have a new one,” said Dave Ellifrit, the orca survey lead with the center.

Puget Sound killer whale researchers Maya and Mark Sears reported the appearance and snapped photos of the calf. It is believed the whale is just a few days old and it is not yet known if it’s a boy or a girl.

More on orcas in WA: Young orca calf spotted with pod of Southern Resident killer whales

“I guess they had been out on (Dec. 23) and the calf wasn’t there so it’s very young. A couple of days old,” Ellifrit said.

The calf is sticking closely to the 19-year-old female whale J-40, so she’s likely its mother. Ellifrit pointed out that J-40’s calf is her first known baby.

“From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like a healthy little calf. When they’re that young they’re always kind of lumpy and bumpy. They’ll fill out over the next few weeks,” Ellifrit noted.

An unexpected birth, with another possibly coming

Ellifrit said the birth of the calf was a bit of a surprise.

“She wasn’t a whale that we were expecting to have a calf because she didn’t look noticeably pregnant the last time we got (a look at) the whales from the air, this fall.”

In fact, whale watchers had been keeping an eye on a different female.

“J-46 — who’s a few years younger — is the whale we were expecting to have a calf this winter,” Ellifrit said. “She was looking pretty pregnant in mid-October, so if we’re lucky we might have a two-J-pod-calf winter.”

Two calves born in L pod during the summer

The center confirmed in July L pod members L-119 and L-94 each gave birth to a calf. At the time, the two calves were “very active and social” and neither showed any immediate signs of illness or abnormality.

Whale of a report: 2 new orca calves spotted in L pod

L-119’s calf is named L-126 and L-94’s is L-127. L-126 is L-119’s first calf, while L127 is L94’s third.

“I mean, every single addition we can get to this population is huge,” Michael Weiss, the center’s research director said to KIRO Newsradio in July.

These were the first calves born in L pod since 2021. These are also the first calves born in the L12 subgroup since 2018.

That’s still only three — with a possible fourth calf — born in one year to the endangered group.

“The whales who should be having calves aren’t having them as often as a population that you would expect is well fed,” he says.

Survivorship from the last baby boom in 2015 wasn’t quite what researchers had hoped for, Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said to The Seattle Times this week.

“It’s really, really good news,” Hanson said of the new calf. “It also comes with the trepidation of how they’re going to fare throughout the first few years of their life.”

More orca information

Unlike transient or “Bigg’s” killer whales that dine on a variety of marine mammals, Southern Resident killer whales eat Chinook salmon almost exclusively, a fish whose numbers are also dwindling.

The whales may also be expanding the area they travel in the search for food. Researchers who monitor the endangered whales say the animals travel a wide range, with some spotted from southeast Alaska to Monterey Bay, California.

“They have a huge, huge area that they cover over the course of a year,” Weiss said.

How did Tokitae die? Necropsy findings for beloved whale released

Researchers say underwater noise from vessels interferes with feeding, and pollution also takes a toll on the endangered whale population.

There are an estimated 75 Southern Residents killer whales, down from 98 in 1995.

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of her stories here. Follow Heather X, formerly known as Twitter or email her here.

Steve Coogan is the lead editor at MyNorthwest.

Contributing: Lisa Brooks, KIRO Newsradio

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