PHOTOS: Orca ‘preschool’ in the Salish Sea is good news for endangered whales

J50 breach in Haro Strait.  Photos: Naturalist Clint “Showtime” Rivers, Eagle Wing Tours, Victoria, BC.
J50 breach in Haro Strait. Photos: Naturalist Clint “Showtime” Rivers, Eagle Wing Tours, Victoria, BC. Naturalist Clint “Showtime” Rivers, Eagle Wing Tours, Victoria, B.C.

An orca ‘preschool’ in the Salish Sea continues to be encouraging news for members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA). The Southern Resident orca calves, has buoyed hopes that the population, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and in Canada under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), have finally turned the corner.

After almost three years without a successful birth, the local pods had a ‘baby boom’, with four calves born since December. Their numbers are now back up to 81.

The orca calves, named J50, J51, J52 and L121 – all born since December 30, 2014 – have been seen almost everyday and experts say appear to be healthy and happy and, in some cases, putting on quite a show.

“I’ve never seen a baby whale breach like J50’s been doing,” said Michael Harris, executive director of PWWA, which represents 33 operators in Washington and British Columbia. ”Her energy is astounding – I guess not unlike my small kids.  She’s constantly leaping into the air, and often curling up and doing belly flops. Of course we never know exactly why orcas breach, but when you see a young one do what J50’s been doing, over and over again, and being so playful and affectionate as she is with her family members, you sorta lose that cold scientific analysis and just conclude she’s leaping for joy. It’s definitely a joy to watch.”

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On July 4, whale watchers on an Eagle Wings Tour in Victoria got a show from J50.

“J50 stole the show, and hearts, with more than 60 breaches as she and her family moved south in Haro Strait,” said Clint Rivers, a naturalist and photographer. “It’s like she just figured out how this breaching thing works and couldn’t stop. She was still breaching well into the evening.”

J50 was born about two weeks after J-Pod lost a female member while she was giving birth. That dropped the population to 77 whales. However, researchers believe that two members of the pod actually mid-wifed the birth of J50, pulling the baby out of its mother.  The teeth marks can still be seen on J50’s back.

“Maybe all this exuberance somehow has something to do with that, this miracle birth,” said Harris. “Who knows?  Maybe the other members of her family realize how precious she is, and how close she came to never making it into this world.  Perhaps with all of this love surrounding her, this baby orca is just bursting with happiness. There’s no doubt that J50 feels safe and well-cared for, like all of these babies are.  We have some amazing families out there.”


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