L121 is the newest Southern Resident orca, and one of three calves born during the past three months. Photo courtesy of Candice Emmons/NOAA Fisheries

When it was learned that a calf had been born to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whale population last December, it was deemed highly significant for a group with fewer than 80 members.

When a second calf was discovered with the Southern Resident orcas earlier this month, it provided researchers with hope that maybe the beleaguered population off the Pacific Northwest is finally going to grow, rather than slip closer toward extinction.

This week, NOAA Fisheries announced that a third calf has been added to the Southern Residents, bringing their number to 80, and this seems to represent nothing short of a baby boom.


Newborn Southern Resident killer whale, L121, swimming with its presumed mother; photo courtesy of Candice Emmons/NOAA Fisheries

"The calf looked energetic," biologist Brad Hanson, who is part of a month-long orca research cruise that is still in progress, stated Thursday on Facebook. "We have five more days on the cruise and look forward to more observations."

The new calf (L121), spotted off Westport, Washington, belongs to L pod, which is one of three pods that comprise the Southern Residents. It increases L pod's population to 35. J pod, to which the other two calves were born, numbers 26 orcas, and K pod numbers 19.

The Southern Resident orcas prey almost exclusively on salmon, and their long-term survival is dependent on healthy salmon runs.


Calf born earlier this month to J pod; photo courtesy of Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research

Poor salmon runs in recent years forced many of the killer whales to travel beyond their typical range--as far south as Central California--in a mostly fruitless search of prey. Their numbers are so small that the loss of a single orca is cause for alarm, just as a new birth provides hope.

And the hard times continued throughout much of last year.

Before the addition of the calf (J50) to J pod in late December, the group lost a productive female cataloged as J32, who died of presumed complications relating to pregnancy while carrying a near full-term baby. That essentially represented the loss of two orcas from J pod.

So when the second calf (J51) was discovered with J pod in early February, scientists expressed renewed hope that 2015 would be productive for the Southern Residents.

"We're thrilled to see a new J pod calf so soon after J50's birth in December," said Howard Garrett, who runs the Orca Network, based in Freeland, Washington. "And we hope those two babies will deepen everyone's resolve to do whatever is needed to bring back abundant Chinook salmon runs so that they'll grow up healthy and strong."

The latest birth comes about a year after L pod had lost a calf that went missing and was presumed dead two months later.

Each pod has unique characteristics and dynamics. L pod, for example, is basically a coastal group that may be the largest pod, but has very few reproductive females.

Said Garrett, "Just to stay at around the 80 whales, the Southern Residents will need to have more than two babies per year, so this is a good start. But these three [calves] are the first survivors for the past 2.5 years, so we're still hoping for more new ones."

Ken Balcomb, lead researcher for the Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research, was considerably less optimistic, given the high mortality rate among Southern Resident calves.

Balcomb told the Kitsap Sun, "Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they make it into the summer?"

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