British Columbia

Video shows shrinking orca pod may have welcomed its first calf in more than a decade

Video taken off the coast of Oregon appears to show a baby orca swimming with K pod, a southern resident killer whale population, although researchers still need to confirm details about the young cetacean.

'Any new calf is really valuable and really, really great for the population,' biologist says

Video shot by John Goodell shows what appears to be an orca calf off the coast of Oregon. (John Goodell/YouTube)

Biologists and whale-watching enthusiasts are celebrating what appears to be a new orca calf in a southern resident pod that researchers say has been shrinking in recent years.

New video, taken by John Goodell, shows a small orca swimming with K pod off the coast of Oregon. 

It could be the first baby in a decade for this particular group of orcas, biologist Michael Weiss said — the last documented calf in that pod, that is still around today, was in 2011, a male named Ripple (K44).

"Any new calf is really valuable and really, really great for the population," said Weiss, who works with the Centre for Whale Research (CWR) based in Friday Harbor, Wash.

 

But before scientists can confirm anything, they'll head out to the water to learn more, including observing the calf's behaviour and watching to see which females it spends the most time with to determine the mother. Right now, Weiss says, it appears to be swimming with K20.

Biologists will also take photos of the new addition, and examine its dorsal fin and saddle patch — the grey saddle-shaped patch behind the dorsal fin — to identify it. They'll also be looking at general health and body conditions. 

Weiss says the number of females who are of reproductive age is the main factor for the pod's decline.

According to the CWR, female whales reach reproductive maturity at 15 years old, and remain able to become pregnant until age 40. That would mean there are about five females in the K pod that could reproduce right now. 

Because the pod needs more females to help it grow, Weiss says he hopes the new calf is a girl. 

"One calf isn't going to save the population, but [it would be good to get] some signs that this pod is still capable of reproducing."

CWR says the survival rate of orcas in their first year is 37 to 50 per cent. 

Research from the University of Washington shows that about 69 per cent of orca pregnancies are unsuccessful — a calf was never seen and it was assumed that the pregnancies failed.

"It is cause for cautious optimism," Weiss said.

"We never know with these little calves how long they're going to be around. But we're really pulling for it."

Artwork with the words 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE cbc.ca/killers' written on it. The artwork is an abstract depiction of whales in water.

For more on the threats to the southern resident killer whales and the efforts to save them, check out CBC British Columbia's original podcast Killers: J pod on the brink, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. 

With files from Joel Ballard

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