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This dead right whale calf had injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Photo: FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

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Southern Resident orcas: Reason for Hope

Female Southern Resident orca calf L127 swimming with larger orca, its mom L94 (photo credit: Center for Whale Research)
Female Southern Resident orca calf L127 swimming with Mom L94 (photo credit: Center for Whale Research)

We were thrilled to hear the news that not just one, but TWO new calves have been confirmed in the endangered Southern Resident population.  Welcome to the world, L126 and L127! 

 After reports of a possible new baby seen with a family group in L pod of the Southern Resident community, we eagerly awaited another sighting and confirmation from the Center for Whale Research (CWR). CWR has been maintaining the Orca Census for the Southern Residents since 1976, maintaining an annual population count and tracking births and deaths.  The initial report came from a quick sighting off the coast of Canada, and everyone was hopeful the Southern Residents would make another appearance in their summer home in the Salish Sea, allowing researchers at CWR to confirm the new baby. 

Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long!  With changing habitat use patterns likely connected to the availability of their preferred food, Chinook salmon, the Southern Residents have been spending less time in this historic summer habitat.  Some family groups are now rarely seen in the summer, complicating CWR’s survey efforts and sometimes delaying the official annual population counts.  But maybe this year, the orcas knew we needed to wrap up Orca Month with a big splash, and they visited the Salish Sea just a week after the news of a possible new calf, showing off *two* new babies in L pod! 

Orcas are highly social and in the Southern Resident community, both male and female offspring stay in their mother’s family group for her lifetime.  The long-term study by CWR led to the discovery of these tight social bonds in the Southern Resident population and their family-oriented culture.  That starts as soon as they are born, which usually makes it easy to identify mom – she’s the orca with the brand-new baby right at her side.   

The two proud mothers of the new calves are first-time mom Joy (L119), with L126, and Calypso (L94), with L127.  CWR gives new members of the Southern Resident population their official alphanumeric designation once confirmed – J, K, or L for the pod plus the next number in the sequence for that pod.  So L126 and L127 are the 126th and 127th whales to be identified in L pod since 1976. 

Nicknames will be decided later with The Whale Museum and input from the public.  While the nicknames may be given before the sex of a new calf is known, thanks to CWR’s drone research, they have already confirmed that L126 is male and L127 is female! 

Image showing pattern on underside of a female orca with a rounder white patch, males have an elongated white patch.

L126 and L127 are the first new calves in L pod since 2021, but last year we welcomed new calves in both J and K pods, including the first K pod calf since 2011!  The newest J pod baby, J59, was born into a family group whose names have traditionally been given by the Samish Nation, native people of the Pacific Northwest who consider the orcas family.  In June, members of the Samish Nation held a naming ceremony for J59 and gave her the name Sxwyeqόlh (pronounced Swee-a-kosh), which means Reason for Hope Child.  We are grateful to the Samish Nation for honoring this new calf with such an inspirational and significant name, and for reminding all of us that there is always a reason for hope for the Southern Residents.

The joy of new calves and the reminder that the orcas are still out in the water, living their lives, encourages WDC to keep working with our partners to ensure their recovery.  Recently, we’ve seen positive momentum with the start of dam removal on the Klamath River, which will boost a key source of Chinook salmon off California and Oregon, and the state of Oregon advancing our petition to add the orcas on the state endangered species list.

These steps forward happen only with the help and support of our Orca Heroes – join us and you can be an Orca Hero, too!

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