Photo by: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Photo by: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

 

Beginning with the birth of Scarlet (J50) in December of 2014, our Southern Resident Orca population has experienced a veritable baby boom, with nine calves born in just over a single year! This could spell very good news for this endangered, underpopulated group of animals. Over the course of the year, we saw more babies born into J-pod and L-pod than we’ve seen since the 1970s. The nine new additions are J50 (Scarlet), J51 (Nova), L121 (Windsong), J52 (Sonic), L122, J53, L123, J54, and J55. So far the new babies include one female and three males, with five currently undetermined.

Why so many babies?

Scientists have shown that these orcas will have more babies if there is more food available in a given year. The orcas of the Southern Resident population eat mainly Chinook Salmon – and population studies show that the last few years have been relatively abundant for this particular species. There is hope within the scientific community that these numbers will continue to increase. There are many conservation programs that are focussed on recovering local salmon populations, including the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (USA) and the Pacific Salmon Foundation (Canada).

What does this mean for the future?

Currently the population of the Southern Resident Orcas is 84 individuals. There is hope that this recent baby boom becomes a turning point for the population, which would need to reach at least 120 individuals to no longer be considered “endangered”. The biggest threats these orcas face today are food availability, contamination from man-made substances, and increased human activity on the waterways.

While the new babies are great news, each calf has a 50% chance of surviving its first year of life.  This fact unfortunately has shown with youngster J55.  J55 was first documented on January 18 2016 and in late February was documented as missing and presumed dead.  We hope that J55 is the only fatality in this year’s Baby Boom and that the other 8 calves continue to flourish out here in the Pacific Northwest!