March 28, 2007

Baby Orca Brings Hope

Posted by: May Evans

A new orca calf brings the endangered Puget Sound orca population up to 86.

Puget Sound is home to 3 pods, or groups, of Orca whales for at least 6 months out of the year. The pods, designated by the letters K, J, and L, provide scientists with a means of understanding the influence of humans on the health of Puget Sound. According to Bob Lohn, head of the NOAA Fishery Services Northwest regional office in Seattle, “These animals are part of Puget Sound’s cultural heritage and its ecology. We have an obligation to see that this population once again thrives.” This past fall, with the deaths of three adults and two calves, the pod population dropped to 85. But now, a new calf has been born.

L109, as the newest member of the L-pod, faces what could be a very difficult year. Scientists are unsure of who mothered the calf, but they have narrowed down the possibilities to two adult Orcas, a mother and her daughter. Orcas are contaminated with industrial chemicals and these collect in the fatty tissue and milk. These pollutants are then passed on to the first and second calves born to a mother. After that, "the mothers sort of clean themselves out," according to Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research. So if L109 belongs to the mother, it has a greater chance of survival because it will be her third calf, but it would be the daughter’s first, making it more susceptible to premature death. Experts say that if L109, whose gender has yet to be determined, survives through the summer, it has a good chance of living a full life.

The calf gives new hope to NOAA Fisheries Service, which has set its goal for local Orca recovery at a stable population of 120 animals. The most pressing dangers facing the whales are pollution, oil spills, the effects of boat traffic, and a lack of food. NOAA is working to combat these threats, and is seeking suggestions regarding the reduction of boat traffic-related trauma on the whales. Public hearings start in April, and in the meantime, be sure to download the “Whale Wise” boating guidelines.


Photo by Nancy Black, Monterey Bay Whale Watch