A new calf, born three weeks ago into a group of critically endangered southern resident orcas, appears “healthy and active,” leading experts to be cautiously optimistic.
The latest addition – a calf named L124 – is the second successful birth for 32-year-old mom, L77 Matia, who appears in good health. She also has a 7-year-old daughter named L119 Joy, having lost one calf previously.
The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Wash., reported seeing the new calf Jan. 11. While the gender has not been confirmed, it was “bouncing around” between its mother, sister and three other orcas in the pod. Many of the males in L-pod, both young and old, were “especially playful.”
The birth is cause for celebration; however, Dr. Lauren McWhinnie, marine biologist and researcher at University of Victoria, says things are still dire genetically.
This the first successful birth in three years for the resident orcas, made up of 75 members in the L, J and K pods.
Last July, a calf in the J-pod died shortly after birth and his mother J35 garnered international attention for what scientists have called a mourning ritual, involving carrying her dead calf over 1,500 kilometres over a period of nearly three weeks.
The survival rate for calves dramatically increases after the two-year mark.
“There are few reproductive females left and we are likely to lose another two whales this year,” says McWhinnie. “The odds are currently stacked against them. They are by no means out of the woods.”
One of the whales struggling is a “post-reproductive” female in J-pod.
“She is the matriarch. It is devastating as grandmothers take on a very important role in the pod,” says McWhinnie.
The second orca known to be sick and one researchers fear could die within months, is a male in K-pod.
“His mom died a couple years ago and his health has since been in decline,” says McWhinnie, explaining that calves stay with their mothers for life.
While all three pods of the southern resident orcas aren’t often seen all together in the Salish Sea, McWhinnie says they congregated together shortly after the recent birth.
“I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but you can’t help but feel like they came together to celebrate the birth,” McWhinnie says.
McWhinnie reminds people to give the orcas a wide berth, saying researchers in Washington and B.C. have both pulled back over recent years and are just doing non-invasive research so as not to add stress to the struggling group.
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