Orca enthusiasts were flapping their flukes when they heard confirmation from Center for Whale Research last Tuesday of a new member of J-pod, one of three pods of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. The orca known as Slick (J-16), was seen with a new calf thought to be about a week old.
“We’re excited!” Howard Garrett of Orca Network told Joel Connelly of Seattle PI. “She (Slick) sets a new bar, a new record for the oldest to give birth, by a year or two.”
Slick, at 42 years old, has three other living calves, the oldest being Mike (J-26) at 23 years old. The new calf has been christened J-50.
Photo by Melisa Pinnow of sanjuanorcas.com
Considering the growing concerns for the dwindling numbers the southern resident whales, this birth is welcome and critical for the species survival. However, the happy news was soon impeded with a bit of enigma.
Mystery surrounding this birth soon followed when researchers discovered the calf had significant bite marks on the dorsal fin, indicating the potential of being pulled from the mother's womb. This discovery caused question of whether Slick was indeed the mother, or if the new baby had been birthed by Slick's daughter, Alki (J-36). As of New Year's Eve, Alki had not been seen traveling with Slick and the new calf. Typically this family group, known as the "J-16s", always travel together. Researchers felt that perhaps Alki needed to rest and Slick was acting as midwife and babysitter during her recovery. Further observation is needed to determine the mother of this important calf. Each member of the Southern Resident population, particularly females of breeding age, is significant to the future of the endangered population.
The question of this calf's mother, and the fact that Alki was not traveling with Slick and the calf, caused concern over whether or not this calf was nursing.
On Friday, Garrett told Ocean Advocate News that he still thinks Slick is probably the mom based on original photos and the initial certainty of Ken Balcomb and Melissa Pinnow. He says that there is no doubt Alki is traveling with them, even if she remains a few miles away at times. Balcomb is the Executive Director/Principle Investigator at Center for Whale Research. Pinnow is a Marine Naturalist with San Juan Excursions.
"Let's just say J50 has two moms," Garrett says.
We might never know who the mother is, but the baby seems to be thriving. That's all that truly matters.
The Southern Resident population had four other losses in 2014.
In August, two members of L-pod were announced to be presumed dead after they had been unaccounted for with their families this year. Lulu (L-53) was a 37 years old female, and Indigo (L-100) was a 13 year old male.
September brought excitement once again with a new calf (L-120) from mother Surprise! (L-86), but hopes were shattered just seven short weeks later with the calf's presumed death.
In early December, 18-year-old Rhapsody (J-32) was found dead, floating near shore. To make matters worse, the preliminary necropsy showed that Rhapsody had been pregnant. Her calf is thought to have died before she did, but the preliminary report also shows her blubber layer was relatively thin and dry of oil, consistent with an inadequate diet for an extended period of time.
Balcomb told OPB's Earthfix that lack of food and high pollution levels are to blame for the death. Chinook salmon, orca's main food source, is also endangered.
David Kirby reported in TakePart that Rhapsody's death brought the Southern Resident population down to 77, the lowest it had been since being put on the Endangered Species List in 2005. The Chinook salmon population has suffered greatly in recent decades due to pollution, over-fishing and dam construction.
The Southern Resident habitat is also far more polluted then the neighboring Northern Resident habitat, leading to toxin build-up in their bodies.
There has been some good news. The Elwha dam and the Glines Canyon dam were both removed last year, opening the waterways for salmon to return once again to their spawning grounds. The dam removal is a start, but it will take years for the population to recover...years the Southern Residents might not have to spare.
We are hoping for the best for new calf, J-50.