Two new baby killer whales have been spotted off the southern coast of Vancouver Island, raising the count of the beleaguered southern resident population to 85.
The orca calves were spotted on Feb. 6 off the Victoria waterfront, according Ken Balcomb, the executive director of the Centre for Whale Research in Washington state's Friday Harbour.
There are other reports the whales have been spotted in Nanaimo as well. One of the babies was in L pod and the other was in J pod, he said.
While any increase in the population is good news for the troubled southern resident population, the two births this winter are not unusual, said Balcomb.
"Over the 33 years we've been looking at them here, we have had anywhere between none and upwards of seven born in some years, really good years," he said.
Last year, seven resident whales died, including two of three newborn calves, he said.
"Two is good for recent years. We had three last year but two of them didn't make it. Both of these [new whales] look good so we are optimistic we'll be seeing them again in the spring and throughout the summer."
All 3 resident pods spotted together
The sighting was doubly unusual because it was the first time that all three southern resident pods were spotted together in the area together during the winter months.
J pod often winters in the northern waters, but in recent years, K and L pods have wintered in California, but a collapse in the salmon runs in that area may have forced them to winter in northern waters this year.
"The California travels were probably due to some pretty good years for salmon off the Central Valley, Sacramento River system. And that crashed last year and is poor this year, and so the whales probably were just obligated to stay in the northwest," said Balcomb.
Balcomb said the whales' survival is tied to the health of the salmon population, and he noted a large number of Chinook salmon have been caught in local fishing derbies recently.
"We've had years of troubled times [with] the salmon that they eat. Right now we have 85 whales. The population should be over 100 in order to be viable. It creeps toward a hundred and then drops back down when we have bad fish years."
One of the L pod males, 31-year-old L57, was not spotted by researchers, raising concerns it may have died, but Balcomb said the whale could simply have been in a different area when researchers spotted the pods.
In October, six environmental groups filed a lawsuit in Vancouver against the federal government, accusing it of failing to protect the endangered and threatened killer whale populations off the B.C. coast.
Killer whales face many serious threats throughout their habitat on the B.C coast, such as declining salmon stocks, increased boat traffic, toxic contamination, and acoustic impacts from dredging, Lance Barrett-Lennard, co-chairman of the DFO's resident killer whale recovery team, said at the time.