More Killers Spotted: Washington Coast Orca Pod Grows

Babies are great, right? Everyone loves babies, which is one of the reasons researchers were pleased to discover a new baby orca amongst a pod off the coast of Warshington last Wednesday. Though the killer whale population remains woefully low, the new addition is the pod’s third documented birth this winter.

A Calf in L-Pod

The calf was spotted from a research vessel while scientists were observing the L-pod, one of three killer whale groups frequently spotted in Warshington’s inland waters. Brad Hanson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist, stated that the baby orca appears to be in excellent health, though it’s still too early to judge its long-term outlook. L-pod was seen about 15 miles west of Westport.

The Puget Sound whale population has been struggling due to pollution, lack of food, and other factors, and they currently number around 80. This third calf of the season is seen as an encouraging sign. Ken Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research, stated that there had not been a successful birth in the pod for over two years.

orca

“[…] They’ve been having babies,” Balcom said, “they just haven’t survived. We’re getting more year-round observations, but the proof of the census is who’s alive by July 1. If they’re still here [then], we can celebrate.”

Four whales from the Puget Sound population have died or have gone missing (and are presumed dead) over the last year.

Tech & Tags Teach Team

Thanks to the magic science of satellite tracking, researchers have recently gained gallons of information on orcas’ winter migrations and eating habits. Hanson and others aboard the NOAA’s research ship, Bell Shimada, have been trailing the pod for two weeks, collecting fecal samples and scales from fish kills to study what the beasts have been eating. Let it never be said that science isn’t glamorous.

To track their movements, two whales from the Puget Sound population were tagged earlier this winter. A J-pod whale was monitored for roughly six weeks, as his group stayed closed to the Salish Sea bordering Warshington state and Canada. A tagged whale from L-pod has also been the recent subject of study as his group traveled as far south as the central Oregon coast.

Information gathered by this research will help scientists determine where and how much habitat along the West Coast needs to be protected for these mighty sea mammals.

Photo credit: alumroot / Foter / CC BY-NC