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A Group of Endangered Orcas Has Gotten Busy Making Babies

Southern Resident killer whales have been on the decline, but new babies bring hope for the future

(Ralph Lee Hopkins/National Geographic Creative/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The past few years have not been fecund ones for the Southern Resident Killer Whales, Washington State’s endangered local orcas. Until late December, this orca population had only one birth since 2012—and that calf vanished less than a month later. But the whales could now be in a time of growth: a newborn calf spotted Monday marks the population's fourth birth in the last three months.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

The whale watchers were observing a small group of whales called J16, a subgroup of the J pod, one of the three pods in the region. They initially confused the new calf with another calf, [known as] J50, that had been born three months ago.

“As they passed in front of the boat, I saw a small calf surfacing next to J16 and said, ‘there’s the baby,’” [researcher Jeanne] Hyde said in a press release. “But then J50 surfaced behind all the rest. That’s when I told Spencer, ‘I think there are two calves!’”

This particular population of whales has been listed as endangered since 2005, as declining Chinook salmon populations (the whale’s preferred food), pollution and boat traffic have converged to keep their population low. The new calf—which still had deep fetal folds when it was spotted, indicating it was only a few days old—brings their numbers back up to 81 whales, what it was before the pods had four deaths in 2014.

But the numbers won’t be official until July, when researchers take an annual census. “It’s still far too early to think we’re out of the woods yet,” said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Biologists caution that the SRKWs have only a 50 percent survival rate their first six months.

In the meantime, NOAA has been tracking the SRKW via satellite tagging to help determine the most effective conservation strategies for the whales. These orcas’ movements are publically available, meaning that everyone can follow along and root for them.

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