Orca calf born to B.C.'s endangered southern residents
An endangered population of killer whales has grown after a newborn calf was spotted swimming alongside its mother, but the orca’s survival is anything but certain.
The new calf was first spotted Thursday in aerial footage that aired on American television, and later photographed by the Washington-based Center for Whale Research.
Photos of the little whale show it swimming with the L pod, one of several groups of southern resident orcas. The calf’s sex is currently unknown.
The birth brings the southern resident population to 75. But no calves born in the last three years have survived, and the dwindling population has been plagued by a series of unusual deaths.
“Approximately 40 per cent of newborn calves do not survive their first few years, but we hope that this one makes it to maturity, especially if it is female,” the Center for Whale Research said in a statement.
The good news comes on the heels of dire warnings for two adult southern residents, which scientists say are so thin that they’ll likely starve by summer. Seven adult orcas have died since 2016.
The biggest threat facing the orcas, scientists say, is declining stocks of chinook salmon. Of the 28 chinook populations in B.C., eight are considered endangered with another four considered threatened, according to a recent report.
In September, a young orca known as J50 died from starvation despite efforts to give her life-saving medication.
Two months earlier, a female orca was photographed trying to save her newborn calf, which died shortly after birth. The mother was seen pushing the dead calf to the surface for 17 days, apparently in an effort to resuscitate the newborn.
Canada and the United States both have launched efforts to boost the whale populations, including the designation of new protected habitats.
Southern resident orcas are known for spending their summers in the busy waterway between B.C. and northern Washington state. They migrate along North America’s Pacific Coast, swimming as far north as Alaska and as south as central California.
Southern resident populations have wavered between 70 and 99 whales since 1976. Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the whales are “currently facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery.”
Unlike B.C.’s transient orca whales, which use echolocation to hunt warm-blooded mammals like seals, resident orcas rely on salmon stocks.