It seems like the Southern Residents just can’t catch a break. After the initial excitement over the sighting of a new baby in J pod, a closer look at the encounter by the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has raised some concerns.
The littlest Southern Resident (designated J50) was thought to be the offspring of Slick (J16), a 42-year-old orca who would be the oldest orca observed with a new calf in the 40-year history of monitoring this population. Female orcas stop giving birth and go through a reproductive senescence, much like humans, when they reach about 40 years of age. Though researchers took note of this unusual circumstance, it wasn’t until a closer examination of the photos of Slick and J50 that they suspected Slick may not be a new mom after all.
Photos of J50’s dorsal fin show tooth marks that may indicate that a difficult birth occurred, with other whales assisting by pulling the baby out with their mouths. The baby was also seen swimming away from Slick and being driven back by other family members – typically, new calves do not leave their mother’s side for the first couple months of their lives. These troubling signs led to the suspicion that Slick may actually be a new grandmother – her daughter Alki (J36) is 16 years old, close to the age at which these orcas start reproducing. At first review of the photos of the December 30th, 2014 observation, Alki appeared to be missing, leading Ken Balcomb of the CWR to suspect that Alki is the true mother of this new baby and may have died during a complicated birth, leaving J50 in the care of grandmother Slick, who sadly will not be able to provide milk to the nursing calf.
However, a recent update from CWR (as I write this entry) says that Alki was with J pod members in this encounter, though she was farther away from her mother and siblings than usual in this tightly-knit group. Rumors this afternoon of Alki being spotted today away from her family have yet to be confirmed.
It is possible that, if the birth was indeed difficult, Alki needed to rest and recuperate before assuming motherhood duties and left her new baby in the capable fins of grandma. Unfortunately, we won’t have any answers until the group is observed again. With continued monitoring, hopefully researchers will be able to figure out the true family dynamic. For now, we must hope for the best for this new baby, who appeared healthy and full of energy in initial observations.
This disturbing re-examination of what began as joyful news comes on the heels of tragedy for the Southern Residents earlier in December. Rhapsody, another young orca in J pod just entering reproductive age, was found dead off the coast of Vancouver Island. A necropsy revealed that she was pregnant and near full-term when she died, and preliminary results indicate that complications from her pregnancy likely contributed to her death. In the fall of 2014, a new baby in L pod disappeared less than two months after the first sighting. If J50 lives, he or she will be the first surviving calf born to the Southern Residents since 2012.
This critically endangered population is hovering just below 80 members (J50 puts them back to 78); they had 88 members when they were declared endangered in 2005, and 78 is their lowest count in 30 years. Both the Southern and Northern Resident populations are threatened by severe shortages of their preferred prey – Chinook salmon. Chinook populations have plummeted in the last century as dams and urban development have destroyed their riverine spawning grounds and overharvest has removed them from the ocean.
Without an adequate food source, orcas burn through their blubber stores – fat reserves that are loaded with pollutants and contaminants. The urban development that surrounds the Southern Residents’ range puts toxins and chemicals like DDT (a pesticide) and PBDEs (flame retardants) into the water, where they enter the food web. At the top of the food chain, orcas are the final stop for these toxins, which accumulate in their system and can cause problems with their reproductive and immune systems. Firstborn calves are hit particularly hard with a massive dose of toxins as their mother metabolizes years of stored contaminants into milk for her nursing offspring.
One of the best ways we can help these orcas is by ensuring they have an abundant and stable food source. Well-fed whales will not metabolize their toxic blubber and will have stronger systems to fight off the effects of pollutants, and will be better able to cope with other threats to their recovery. You can help WDC’s efforts to address prey shortages for the Southern Residents – sign our letter of support for the removal of four dams on the Klamath River, which will open up more than 300 miles of habitat for Klamath Chinook salmon. The more salmon available for the Southern Residents, the better chance little J50 (and all future babies) has to survive!