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It’s a girl: Researchers get closer look at J pod orca baby

UPDATED: Sun., July 7, 2019

Baby orca J56 cavorts near Pile Point, San Juan Island, on Saturday. The new baby, born in May, is female, breaking a streak of male births in the endangered population of southern resident killer whales. The gender of a second baby born in L pod last January still is not known. The two new births bring the total population to 76. (Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research)
Baby orca J56 cavorts near Pile Point, San Juan Island, on Saturday. The new baby, born in May, is female, breaking a streak of male births in the endangered population of southern resident killer whales. The gender of a second baby born in L pod last January still is not known. The two new births bring the total population to 76. (Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research)
By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

A new baby orca born to J pod is a female, researchers have confirmed.

The baby whale, probably born May 24, 2019, is designated J56 and her mother is J31, a 24-year-old.

The birth of a female orca is particularly good news for the endangered southern residents. There are only 76 of the whales that frequent Puget Sound, and their births have been overwhelmingly male in recent years. The gender of another baby orca born to L pod in January still is not known.

The whales returned to their usual summer waters the morning of July 5, with members of both J and K pods cruising by Lime Kiln Park where a large gathering of people watched for their first glimpse of the baby.

The whales’ arrival broke an unprecedented absence, with no sightings at all in the entire month of June and only a brief glimpse for one day in May. It was a short visit: the whales were spotted off Sooke, B.C., on Sunday afternoon, heading back out to the coast.

Canadian scientists with Environment Canada have reported numerous sightings of the southern residents feeding along the coast of British Columbia in May and June – the time when the orcas usually are in the interior waters of the Salish Sea between the United States and Canada, feeding on early summer runs of chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River.

However, those fish have been very scarce, so the whales have been feeding in coastal waters to survive.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was out with the southern residents on his boat Chimo on Saturday. He encountered the southern residents in the area of False Bay on the southwest side of San Juan Island.

The mother and her new calf were swimming in circles with her new calf and three other young females near Pile Point on San Juan Island, as if to show the baby off, Balcomb reported.

Not seen among the whales was either J17 or K25, two thin whales researchers are concerned about. The two also have not turned up in recent photos by Canadian scientists from their encounters with the southern residents, Balcomb said, “so it is not looking too good.”

It is too early to declare them missing, however; the Center for Whale Research is still compiling its annual survey of the whales, a process that takes all summer.

The southern resident killer whales are battling extinction. Lack of adequate, available food, as well as toxins and disturbance and noise from boats and vessels are among the three, intertwined causes for their decline.

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