Calf born in L pod; two L pod whales may be missing

A calf has been born in L pod, possibly bringing the population of the pod to 44 and the overall population of the beleaguered Southern residents to 89.

However, the Center for Whale Research warns that at least two other L pod whales may be missing.

The sighting of the calf Aug. 12 by staff members of the Center for Whale Research was welcome news. It followed by a week the news that the oldest of the Southern residents, K7, was missing and presumed dead. At the same time, the carcass of a killer whale calf believed to have been aborted was found on a Henry Island beach.

The new L pod calf has been designated L111, the center reported. It is the sixth calf born to L47.

“L47, at age 34, is not only a new mother but also a grandmother,” the center reported. L47’s last calf, L107, was born in summer 2005 but did not survive more than a few months.

Based on L111's size and the apparent fetal folds, Center for Whale Research staff believe the calf was only a few hours old when it was first seen. Also, L47 was observed by center staff without a calf the evening of Aug. 11.

As of December 2007, there were 43 whales in L pod. If L111 returns to the San Juan Islands next summer, it will be officially counted in the population by the center, which maintains an official survey of the local orca population.

Oldest whale was an icon
K-7, believed born in 1910, was an important symbol. When she was born — to parents undoubtedly born in the 1800s — the local orca population was possibly over 120. In her lifetime, she survived bullets from fishermen that saw orcas as competition for salmon. She survived the marine park era, in which 50 whales were captured or died during capture. She survived despite depleted salmon stocks and increased marine pollution.

The population rebounded from 71 in 1973 to 99 in 1995, then plummeted to 79 six years later. The population rebounded to 80 in 2002, 83 in 2003, 85 in 2004 and 89 in 2005, but has seesawed around 88 since then. The local pods were declared endangered by the U.S. and Canada by 2005 and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has been patrolling the area to enforce rules requiring boats to maintain a distance of 100 yards from the whales.

The Center for Whale Research says the whales' biggest threats are pollution in Puget Sound and declines in salmon. The center says the Navy may also share the blame.

"The whale population decline is coincident with the deployment of (Destroyer Squadron) 9 to Everett in 1995,” the center's Web site states. "The destroyer squadron's exercise area is nominally off the Olympic Peninsula but has included Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait.”

The whales are called Southern residents because they spend a lot of the year in this region. J is here much of the year, while K and L travel as far as California but return in the summer.

When the pods return to the San Juan Islands in early summer, the Center for Whale Research gets its first good look at who is present, including any new calves, as well as who may not have made it through the winter.

“These orcas are icons and indicators of the quality of Puget Sound and coastal waters," center director Ken Balcomb said in an earlier interview. "How they fare in coming years will tell us a lot about our own fate.”

With K-7's death, the oldest Southern resident orca is J-2, also known as Granny, believed born in 1911. The matriarch of L pod is L-25, also known as Ocean Sun, born in 1928.

K-7 descendants include a daughter, K-11, believed born in 1933; a granddaughter, K-13; four great-grandchildren, K-20, K-25, K-27 and K-34; and a great-great-grandchild, K-38.

K-38 is the offspring of K-20.

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