Conservationists welcome Puget Sound's sixth baby orca

Researchers with the Center for Whale Research say they have spotted a newborn orca, the sixth baby born to Puget Sound's orca pods in 10 months.

Heather MacIntyre/The Pacific Whale Watch Association/AP
Newborn orca calf J53 is seen with it's mother J17 off San Juan Island, Wash., on Saturday. The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor confirmed on its Facebook page this weekend that a newborn orca designated as J53 was seen traveling Saturday in Haro Strait with a 38-year-old orca known as Princess Angeline. It's the sixth baby born to Puget Sound's three orca pods since last December, boosting their numbers to 82.

Puget Sound's endangered resident orcas have welcomed yet another new addition.

The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor confirmed on its Facebook page this weekend that a newborn orca designated as J53 was seen traveling Saturday in Haro Strait with a 38-year-old orca known as Princess Angeline.

Conservationists are thrilled. It's the sixth baby born to Puget Sound's three orca pods since last December, boosting their numbers to 82.

The population off the coast of Washington and British Columbia hit a 40-year low in December, when a pregnant orca died in the Georgia Strait, near Vancouver. 

"Not only did we not have the baby coming that we needed, but we also lost a breeding-age female," said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association at the time. "We thought we were on an irreversible slide to extinction."

But by the end of the spring, four calves had been born, and a fifth came in September.

About 35 to 45 percent of newborn orcas don't make it past their first year, according to NOAA. If these babies survive, they will be the first successful newborns in the Puget Sound population in about two and a half years.

Michael Harris says the whale watch community is referring to the baby boom as the "class of 2015."

There could be more babies on the way. Federal biologists recently used drones to take thousands of images of the orcas, and they said several appeared to be pregnant.

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