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‘Baby boom’: Banner year for orcas, whales in B.C.’s Salish Sea

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Life above water may have been a challenge for many in 2021, but, under the Salish Sea, conditions were ripe for a baby boom.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) issued a press release on Tuesday, noting that their members and local researchers saw Bigg’s killer whales humpback whales, gray whales, and minke whales make a lot of appearances last year with a baby in tow.

“It has been incredible to witness the continued rise of Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea,” Monika Wieland Shields, director of Orca Behavior Institute on San Juan Island, said in a press release.

Read more: Marine Animal Response Society details 15 years of cetacean injuries, deaths

Professional whale watchers, regional sightings groups and shore-based observers reported Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea in 1,067 unique sightings over 329 days.

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The previous record, set in 2019, was 747 unique sightings.

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The population of these sea mammals has grown more than four per cent a year, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

There were 11 new Bigg’s calves born in 2021, including the most recent, which was spotted by PWWA member companies near Victoria on New Year’s Eve.

The number seven at the end of the calf’s ID number indicates it is the seventh baby born to 37-year-old mother, “Kittiwake.”

“It’s crazy to think that whales like Kittiwake have given birth to so many babies, given that the gestation period for orcas is 16-18 months — almost twice that of a human”, said PWWA executive director Erin Gless.

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“The calf looked great and at one point adorably seemed to take a turn leading the family.”

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Bigg’s killer whales are not the only whales experiencing a baby boom.

A record 21 humpback whale calves accompanied their mothers to the Salish Sea last year, nearly doubling 2020’s count. They’ve been experiencing a comeback in recent years.

Over 20 years ago, a single humpback whale was spotted in the region. In July 2021, more than 500 individual whales were documented.

Read more: How a whale named Big Mama spurred a ‘humpback comeback’ in B.C. waters

“Big picture, 2021 was an exciting and encouraging year for whales in the Salish Sea. We look forward to what 2022 may bring,” Gless said.

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Not all the news was positive, however.

Endangered Southern Resident killer whales were encountered least often, with their presence documented on just 103 days, or 28 per cent of the year — a change correlated to a decrease in Fraser River Chinook, according to the association’s naturalists.

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In September, the Seattle-based research organization SR3 reported three pregnancies within the Southern Resident killer whale population.

No new calves have been observed yet, but the youngest Southern Resident calf, “Element,” estimated to be a year old, was seen in late December by the Center for Whale Research and appeared to be doing well.

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