Hello, World! Baby Orca Surfaces, Joining Endangered Pod
This newborn Southern Resident killer whale calf was first sighted last week, just off the coast of San Juan Island in Washington state.
Dave Ellifrit, a research assistant with the island's Center for Whale Research, caught these glimpses of the whale calf on camera while he and colleague Jeanne Hyde were out on the water on Thursday, identifying whales.
“I'm the photo ID guy,” said Ellifrit, who has been working for 25 years to study and conserve the area’s killer whales. “I've got all these fins in my head, both residents and transients.” The shape and coloring of fins are used to identify orcas.
The mom in the image is J19, is a 36-year-old whale who is also mother to 10-year-old daughter J41. J19's newborn baby has been dubbed J51 and is the second known calf born this winter into the Southern Resident population of killer whales. Three distinct pods of the orcas live year-round in the waters between Monterey, California, and Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands, about 500 miles northwest of San Juan Island and Puget Sound.
Southern Resident killer whales have endangered species protections in both the United States and Canada because their numbers have been dropping steadily for decades.
“Back in the mid-late 1990s, we had a peak of nearly 100,” Ellifrit said. “It’s been going down more or less ever since.” J19 is “one of those young females who we wondered why she hasn’t had more calves.”
The main threat to Southern Resident killer whales is lack of food: Their favorite prey, chinook salmon, is also endangered. “A lot of their problems would be solved if they had plenty to eat,” Ellifrit said.
Increasing levels of industrial pollution are also hurting the whales.
“Toxins that build up in their bodies have effects on their reproductive and immune systems,” he said. “It would take generations and generations of things being a whole lot better than they are for this population to get past 80 or 90 whales.”
Little J51, who was estimated to be about one week old when these photos were taken, has brought the group’s total population up to 79 whales.
“A new calf always makes people happier around here,” Ellifrit said. “Every new calf is a hope. But we’ll feel a whole lot better about this calf when it grows up and has two or three calves of its own.”