After more than two years, a pod of endangered orcas swimming off the coast of Washington state has a new baby. The newborn killer whale is now more than a week old.
On Dec. 31, the Center for Whale Research, a non-profit organization that conducts long-term study of killer whales, announced that the pod has a new baby. A day prior to that, Ken Balcomb, a scientist working for the organization, was monitoring the pod known as J-pod, which stays around Puget Sound, an inlet in the Pacific Ocean and part of the Salish sea, when he noticed the newborn orca.
"Official Conformation! Good news for the end of 2014! New baby in J pod-J16 has a new calf," the Center for Whale Research announced on Facebook.
The birth is particularly encouraging because it happened after a pregnant orca died earlier last month. The new baby whale named J-50 is the 78th member of the population that hangs around the coast of Washington state and Canada. This group of orcas is considered as endangered in both the U.S. and Canada.
Over half of the whales in the group were caught for captive display over 40 years ago and while the animal's population managed to rebound in the 1990's the number again declined by 20 percent in the 2000's leading to the U.S. placing the group in the endangered species list in 2005.
Wildlife biologist Brad Hanson, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that the exact cause of the population's decline is not yet clear but the declining supply of Chinook salmon, one of the species' major sources of food, is likely one reason.
The 43-year old whale J16, who have three other surviving calves, is suspected to be the mother of the new whale but experts think it is also possible that the younger female called J-36 is J50's mother.
Balcomb said that the more seasoned J-16 also had a calf in 2011 but it died within a month, a death not considered unusual for this marine animals at all. According to NOAA, between 35 to 45 percent of newborn killer whales do not survive past their first year. If J-50 manages to survive, it will be the Puget Sound population's most successful newborn in about two and a half years.
"I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction," Balcomb said.