[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] Newborn killer whale spotted in K pod


(Kitsap Sun)

Newborn orca spotted among returning whales
By Christopher Dunagan

Thursday, July 7, 2011

FRIDAY HARBOR — A newborn calf was spotted Wednesday in K pod, one of the three groups of killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea and Puget Sound, experts say.

The new calf was observed on a day when a majority of the three pods, known as Southern Residents, returned to the San Juans, as they do each year. This year's arrival is one of the latest returns on record for the orcas, which often come back to inland waters in June, experts say.

Arriving Wednesday were most of K and L pods, though J pod and small groups in K and L pods had been around. Another small group in L pod still has not been seen.

Of the groups spotted Wednesday, it appears that all the orcas are accounted for, said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. That means that none died over the winter. One of the whales that had not been seen anywhere since February was seen on Wednesday, he noted.

"Everybody was looking healthy," Balcomb said. "The big news yesterday was the new baby."

The newborn showed an orange hue, as most newborn orcas do, and it still had its umbilical cord attached, which means it was only days old. At one point the 17-year-old mother, K-27 (known as "Deadhead") rolled her calf over, revealing that he was a male. Frequently, the sex of young calves is not known for months or even years.

The new calf brings the number of killer whales in K pod to 20. K-ll, the oldest orca in K pod, went missing last summer, about the time another newborn calf, K-43, was seen for the first time. The latest orca has been designed K-44, taking the next available number.

The total population in all three pods is believed to be 88 at the moment. Because of declines in population since the mid-1990s, the whales remain listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Balcomb is waiting for all the groups to come back before announcing the annual census count for the Southern Residents, a project he has led since the 1970s, recently under contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Why the whales are late to arrive in the San Juans is unknown, Balcomb said, but it could be that more chinook salmon — their primary prey — are available off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where the whales were recently spotted.

"From the sport fishermen, I hear that the bite is pretty hot off the west coast of Vancouver Island," Balcomb said. "I don't think there is that much on the interior waters."

Researchers speculate that the whales may be able to share information about food availability. If nothing else, Balcomb said, their movements and excitement, or lack thereof, may provide clues about where food is most available.

Wednesday night, a large number of killer whales were heard on hydrophones along the west side of San Juan Island, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, which keeps track of whale movements. Thursday morning, they were hanging out near Eagle Point, near the south end of the island.

While the news of newborn calves is always promising, orca observers are still mourning the loss of J-1, believed to be the oldest male killer whale when he went missing last fall. He was known as "Ruffles" for his wavy tall dorsal fin and was probably the most photographed killer whale in the world. While the average male lives to about 30 years old, J-1 was believed to be twice that age at the time of his death.

As excitement builds for the returning whales, new federal rules went into effect this year, requiring boats to stay 200 yards away from the orcas — twice the distance allowed last year. The new rules apply to all types of boats, including motor boats, sailboats and kayaks in Washington state waters.

Exceptions include vessels actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels traveling in established shipping lanes and research vessels.

The rules also forbid vessels from following a route that would intercept a whale or stopping ahead of a moving pod.

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