SAN JUAN ISLAND — Researchers and whale enthusiasts are celebrating a new orca calf, which brings with it hope for the region's dwindling population of Southern Resident orcas.
"It gave everybody such a feeling of hope and joy," said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications director for the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
According to the Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research, the calf was born into the region's J pod — one of three family groups known to frequent the waters of the Salish Sea this time of the year.
While the Southern Resident orcas have made few appearances this year — none in August, Balcomb-Bartok said — the discovery of the new calf, designated as J57, came during a "super pod" gathering, where all three pods were in the same area at the same time, he said.
"There's nothing like celebrating a little bundle of joy," Balcomb-Bartok said.
The arrival of the calf, which will not be named for at least a year, is especially poignant, he said.
J57's mother, J35, also known as Tahlequah, made national news in 2018 when she pushed a dead calf for 17 days and about 1,000 miles, the Center for Whale Research said in a news release.
"We hope this calf is a success story," the group said in the release. "Her new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life."
According to the news release, J57 was spotted Saturday. Because its dorsal fin was upright — meaning it had straightened after being bent in the womb — the calf was likely born Friday, the group states.
Orcas have a gestation period of about 18 months, the release states.
J57's birth brings the Southern Resident population to 73, the release states. Another female in the pod, J41, is also pregnant.
While the arrival of new calves is something to celebrate, it is also a time to be "cautiously optimistic" Balcomb-Bartok said.
"Regrettably, with the whales having so much nutritional stress in recent years, a large percentage of pregnancies fail, and there is about a 40% mortality for young calves," the Center for Whale Research said in the release.
The Southern Resident orca population — which consists of J, K and L pods — was listed as endangered in 2005 for a variety of reasons, including lack of food.
The whales' main food source, salmon, have also struggled in recent years.
"Let's take that hope and turn it into action and save whales and preserve salmon habitats and protect our environment for future generations," Balcomb-Bartok said.
While the Southern Resident orcas have not been seen much in the area this year, when they have been spotted most of them seem to be healthy and well-nourished, indicating they are finding a food source elsewhere, Balcomb-Bartok said.
"So that gives us extra hope for this new little baby," he said.
In September 2018, the Southern Resident orca population was 74 — the lowest it had been since 1984.