Whales

J56, a female orca calf, swims with her mother J31. 

The Southern Resident orcas returned to local waters July 5 after a two-month absence — and they brought some good news.

J and K pods were sighted July 5 off San Juan Island after being absent from inland waters for most of May and all of June. With J31 was a female orca calf, designated J56, the San Juan-based Center for Whale Research reported.

The calf was first sighted near Tofino, B.C. on May 30. On May 31, Brian Gisborne of Environment Canada obtained photographs showing that the baby still had fetal fold creases on its side, “indicating that it was probably born less than a week earlier,” probably May 24, the center reported. The orca calf was photographed again by Tofino-based whale watchers on June 9.

The Southern Resident orcas usually return to interior waters in May to feed but, a decline in the population of their prey — Chinook salmon — has forced the whales to spend more time in coastal waters, orca researchers and advocates say.

“We had had numerous reports from colleagues with Environment Canada and others of the (Southern Resident) pods feeding along the coast of British Columbia in May and June this year during a time when they historically frequented interior waters of the Salish Sea to feed on the early summer runs of Chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River,” the center reported. “The salmon runs to the Fraser River have been very poor in recent years, so the whales must feed in coastal waters to survive.”

J56’s birth brings the Southern Resident orca population to 77, the center reported.

“This is a very welcome addition to this endangered population of whales that has experienced so much bad news recently with whales appearing skinny and passing away,” the center reported. “We can say which whales are missing after we encounter the entire (Southern Resident orca) population later this summer – we hope.”

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