Newborn orca whale calf missing, presumed dead

Jan 30, 2024, 5:14 AM

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)

The Center for Whale Research (CWR) confirmed on its social media channels and on its website Monday the youngest member of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale (orca) J pod, dubbed J60, was missing during a recent encounter with the pod.

On Saturday, the CWR researchers conducted a photo ID survey of J pod in San Juan Channel. During the encounter, photos were obtained of all other members of the pod, including all potential mothers for J60, but J60 himself was not seen, the organization explained.

“Given the young whale’s age, it was extremely unlikely J60 was off on his own for the duration of the encounter. While our protocols require at least three full censuses of the group to confirm mortality, we now believe that J60 is likely deceased,” the whale center wrote.

The CWR believes J42 likely was the calf’s mother. But, given the calf’s varied social partners in early life this will enter our dataset as a “probable” relationship. The center drew that conclusion “given the calf’s association patterns and the pregnancy status of J pod females in late 2023, it wrote.

Previous coverage: Newborn orca whale calf spotted, second may be coming soon

Late last year, Dave Ellifrit, the orca survey lead with the CWR, said the birth of the calf was a bit of a surprise and whale watchers had been keeping an eye on a different female.

“J46 — who’s a few years younger — is the whale we were expecting to have a calf this winter,” Ellifrit said at the time. “She was looking pretty pregnant in mid-October, so if we’re lucky we might have a two-J-pod-calf winter.”

The CWR confirmed in its online post Monday that J46 “was also heavily pregnant in late 2023.”

Two calves born in L pod in 2023

The center confirmed last 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.

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.

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

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

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

“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.

Whales in danger

As the CWR noted in its report about J60 Monday, “The mortality rate for young calves, especially those born to first time mothers, is very high in the southern residents.” This is due both to the generally poor nutritional status of southern residents, and the transfer of toxins from mother to calf during gestation and lactation.”

Those whales “need abundant, large Chinook salmon if they are going to be able to raise their calves to maturity, and keep the population going,” the center explained.

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.

Contributing: Heather Bosch and Lisa Brooks, KIRO Newsradio

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