West Coast orca 'Class of 2015' a sign of hope for endangered species

One year after a "baby boom" of endangered southern resident orca whales on the West Coast gave conservationists and whale watchers hope for the population's future, the Pacific Whale Watch Association says eight of 10 of those calves are doing great.

Killer whale population faces many obstacles to recovery, but 2015's 'baby boom' calves doing well

Class of 2015 whales swim near Victoria, B.C. (Valerie Shore/Eagle Wing Tours and Shorelines Photography)

One year after a "baby boom" of endangered southern resident orca whales on the West Coast gave conservationists and whale watchers hope for the population's future, most of the "Class of 2015" calves are doing great. 

The southern resident killer whale population lives in three different pods in the Salish Sea off the south coast of B.C. and the north coast of Washington state. By December 2014, their dwindling population was down to 77.

'Boom, we have a baby! A New Year's baby'

Then came J-50 — a female calf first spotted on Dec. 30, 2015 , in Puget Sound, Wash. "Boom, we have a baby! A New Year's baby!" says Michael Harris of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), which represents 36 whale watching and ecotourism businesses.

"The way this whale was born was extraordinary," Harris says, referring to the fact that researchers believe J-50 was "midwifed" by members of its mother's pod

"We know that because immediately we saw rake marks from teeth on J-50," he said, "and orcas don't have surgical gloves."

J-50 with her mom J16 near Richmond, B.C. (Tasli Shaw/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

Then there was a baby boom.

Within one year, there were 10 known births in the population.

While two have since died, the other eight are thriving, and that's "remarkable" for a species that only has a 50 per cent survival rate within its first year of life, Harris says.

The PWWA calls them "the Class of 2015."

J-52 takes a leap. (Capt. Heather MacIntyre/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching)
L-121 plays near Friday Harbor, Wash. (Capt Heather MacIntyre, Maya's Legacy Whale Watching)

The 1st of the new whales is a real crowd pleaser.

The first baby continues to be the most energetic of the bunch, Harris says.

"We hate to put these human value sets on wild animals, but holy smokes," he said. "J-50 came into this world and would just not stop breaching, would just not stop leaping into the air and belly flopping all over the place. And we all looked and said, 'Gosh, we're not supposed to to this, but isn't that a happy orca?'"

J-50 is is very energetic. (Capt. Heather MacIntyre/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching)

The calves and their mothers are thriving.

The calves should be weaning from their mothers right about now, but they won't stray far, says Harris. Orcas often remain in the same pod as their moms their whole lives.

J-50 and and mom J-16 frollicking near Edmonds, Wash. ( Renee Beitzel/Puget Sound Express Whale Watching)
J-50 with her mother J-16 near Richmond, BC. (Capt. Gary Sutton/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

But orcas are still in trouble.

It's important to remember the population — which now sits at 82 — isn't out of trouble yet, especially if the region's salmon population continues to decline

"We've got fish issues, we've got tough times ahead, but for now we are just wrapping our big arms around these baby orcas and trying to fill ourselves with some hope," Harris said. "Firefighters don't rush to a building that's already burned down. We want people to understand that there is hope. This population can recover."

L-121 dives out of the water. (Capt. Heather MacIntyre/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching)
J-52 flashes some tail. (Capt. Heather MacIntyre/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching)