No vital statistics have been reported yet, including the calf’s gender, but The Center for Whale Research couldn’t wait to send a news release on September 6: “A brand new calf in J pod!”
Researchers had learned on September 5 that J pod was near Dungeness Spit in U.S. waters in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another large group of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) was a few miles away in Canadian waters and swimming toward J pod. The Center launched three boats in hopes of finding a cluster of whales from J, K, and L pods, known as a “super pod.” The crew’s goal: photo-identify every individual whale for a population census. Here’s what they saw:
J pod, in its entirety, had returned to San Juan Island on September 1, and remained in that area. The Center noted that the pregnant J35 (Tahlequah) and J41 (Eclipse) hadn’t yet given birth. Then, on September 5, another report came in of the sighting of a very small calf. Researchers Dave Ellifrit and Katie Jones, plus guest veterinarian Dr. Sarah Bahan, went to check and identified the mother as Tahlequah. I can only imagine their joy.
After the mournful death of another of Tahlequah’s calves in 2018, this news likely brings joy around the world. Tahlequah carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days while the pod traveled about 1,000 miles around the Salish Sea. It was termed a “Tour of Grief.” Perhaps the super-pod seen on September 1 arrived to welcome its newest member, designated as J57.
The Center crew knew the calf hadn’t been born the day they saw it because the newborn’s dorsal fin was upright; it takes a day or two to straighten after being bent over in the womb. Thus, they assigned September 4, 2020 as J57’s birthday. They described the new calf as “healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life.” Here are the first baby pictures released to the public by CWR researchers Katie Jones and Dave Ellifrit.
Although there’s not much information about J57, The Center for Whale Research notes most calves are 7 to 8 feet long and weigh 300-400 pounds at birth. For the first year or two, an orca baby stays very close to its mother, swimming in her slipstream. Newborn calves suckle for short periods, dozens of times a day. Mother’s milk is extremely rich, possibly containing 40-60% fat. Calves may start experimenting with solid food at a young age, but likely don’t fully wean until around the age of three.
Amidst the excitement of this birth, there’s also caution. About 40% of calves die early in life. This high mortality rate is related to reduced prey (especially Chinook salmon the SRKWs favor), boat traffic noise that interferes with the whales’ communication about the location of food, and pollutants such as PCBs. The toxins pass from mother to calf during pregnancy and nursing. It’s likely all three of these threats interact, increasing risks to these endangered whales.
Let’s all raise a glass to Tahlequah for her strength to carry her calf to term. And to her new “precocious and healthy” baby, J57. And let’s send healthy thoughts to Eclipse, that her pregnancy will add another member to the family.