Biologists and whale-watching enthusiasts are celebrating what appears to be a new orca calf in a group of southern residents that researchers say has shrunk in recent years.
A new video, taken by John Goodell, shows a small killer whale swimming with K-Pod off the coast of Oregon.
This could be the first calf in a decade for this particular group of orcas, said biologist Michael Weiss – the last documented calf in this group, which is still around today, was in 2011, a male named Ripple (K -44).
“Any new calf is really valuable and really, really great for the people,” said Weiss, who works with the Center for Whale Research (CWR) based in Friday Harbor, Washington.
But before scientists can confirm anything, they’ll head into the water to find out more, including observing the calf’s behavior and watching which females it spends the most time with to determine the mother. Right now, Weiss says, he seems to be swimming with K-20.
Biologists will also take photos of the new addition and examine its dorsal fin and saddle patch — the gray saddle-shaped patch behind the dorsal fin — to identify it. They will also look at general health and body conditions.
Weiss says the number of females of childbearing age is the main factor in the decline of the pod.
According to the CWR, female whales reach reproductive maturity at age 15 and remain capable of becoming pregnant for up to 40 years. That would mean there are about five females in the K-Pod that could be breeding right now.
Because the pod needs more females to help it grow, Weiss says he hopes the new calf is a girl.
“A calf will not save the population, but [it would be good to get] some signs that this pod is still capable of reproducing.”
The CWR reports that the survival rate for killer whales in their first year is 37-50%.
Research from the University of Washington shows that approximately 69% of orca pregnancies fail — a calf was never seen and the pregnancies were assumed to have failed.
“That’s cause for cautious optimism,” Weiss said.
“We never know with these little calves how long they’ll stay. But we really care.”
For more on the threats facing Southern Resident Killer Whales and the efforts to save them, check out CBC British Columbia’s original podcast Killers: J pod on the bordk, hosted by Gloria Macarenko.