Are orcas making a comeback in the Pacific Northwest?

A new baby orca has been spotted off the coast of British Columbia. Are we witnessing an orca baby boom?

Jeanne Hyde/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching/AP
In this photo provided by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a newborn orca whale swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be the mother, in the Salish Sea waters off Galiano Island, British Columbia on Monday.

The endangered orca whales of the Pacific Northwest could be experiencing a baby boom. 

Spotted near British Columbia's Active Pass by researcher Jeanne Hyde and boat captain Spencer Domico of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, the calf, dubbed J52, is the fourth orca calf to be seen in the region in three months. 

The Center for Whale Research (CWR), a non-profit that studies the orca whale population in the Pacific Northwest, has confirmed the sighting, adding that they will need to conduct their own detailed observations to determine who the mother is.

When first observed, the calf still had its fetal folds, which means that it was at most a few days old. It appeared healthy to the whale watchers, the CWR said. 

The whale watchers were observing a small group of whales called J16, a subgroup of the J pod, one of three pods in the region. They initially confused the new calf with another calf, J50, that had been born three months ago.

"And as they passed in front of the boat, I saw a small calf surfacing next to J16 and said, 'there's the baby.'" Ms. Hyde said in a press release. "But then J50 surfaced behind all the rest. That's when I told Spencer, 'I think there are two calves!'"

The CWR monitors three major pods of orcas in the region; the J pod, K, pod, and L pod, according to the group's website. With the birth of this newest orca it brings the population to the J pod to 27 whales, according to the CWR. The group estimated the total wild population of this type of orca to be at 81, but this will not be officially measured until July 1, when the whale census is taken, based on of the number of whales alive on July 1 of every year. Researchers have to wait until the K and L pods to return from their coastal "forays," which is generally sometime in June, according to the CWR.

The orca population in the region has been in upheaval in recent years. The whales survival relies on Chinook salmon swimming into the Salish Sea, but the salmon population has also become depleted in recent years and are now classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, according to the Marine Science Center at Fort Worden State Park on Puget Sound. This leaves orcas having to travel longer distances in search of a steady food supply and the result has been a rise in malnourishment in some orcas, according to the report. 

“J-Pod is certainly doing all it can to rebuild the ranks,” explains Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, in the press release. "Let’s hope this baby boom means these endangered population has finally turned the corner.” 

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