The morning of Friday, July 5, J and K pods of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population finally made an appearance – with a new baby – in inland waters off San Juan Island for the first time in more than two months, according to the Center for Whale Research.
“As of about 8 a.m., at least some and maybe all the Southern Residents are back in the San Juans, at last,” Orca Network co-founder Howard Garrett said in a Skagit Valley Herald story.
The whales were reportedly moving north through Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.
A large crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park awaited the pods’ arrival to get a glimpse of the new baby whale first reported May 30 on the British Columbia coast near Tofino by a local whale watch company.
Brian Gisborne, a research contractor with Environment Canada, obtained photographs the next day showing that the baby still had fetal fold creases on its side, indicating that it was probably born less than a week earlier, the Whale Center stated. Another photo of the baby whale was taken June 9 by the Tofino-based whale watchers.
The new baby whale is a female, designated J56, and probably born May 24. Its mother is J31, a 24-year-old whose most recent birthing in January 2016 was unsuccessful. She has had no other known pregnancies in the past 10 years.
Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, new mother J31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females.
“It looked for very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population,” wrote the Center in its news release. “In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!”
The Whale Center received numerous reports from colleagues with Environment Canada and others of the orca pods feeding along the coast of British Columbia in May and June this year.
Of the three family groups — called J, K and L pods — one was last seen in the interior waters in January, one in February and one in May.
The absence is unusual for the whales, which usually spend much of May through September in the area, primarily feeding on the early summer runs of chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River, according to the release. It also noted that salmon runs to the Fraser River have been very poor in recent years, so the whales must feed in coastal waters to survive.
The Whale Center called the new baby a “very welcome addition” to this endangered population of whales. The pod has recently had whales appearing skinny and dying.
The Center said it will try to ascertain which whales are missing after the entire Southern Resident population is surveyed later this summer.