The excitement of spotting a newborn orca calf in J-pod became shrouded in mystery after further study revealed uncertainty surrounding its birth.
The Center for Whale Research confirmed seeing and photographing 42-year-old J-16 with, presumably, her newborn baby, off the south shores of North Pender Island in Canadian waters on Dec. 30. The baby, known as J-50, is the second calf to be born in 2014, after a two-year lull of no births among the Southern Resident killer whales.
Although researchers initially recognized the peculiarity of 42-year-old J-16 giving birth (no other female has given birth at that age in four decades of demographic field studies of the Southern Resident orcas), the calf appeared to be healthy and energetic, swimming alongside its presumed mother.
“It was momentary excitement and hope,” said Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research. “It was only in the further analysis that we realized it might have been a false hope, or at least a tentative hope.”
The birth of J-50 comes in the wake of a rocky year for the residents, which were declared endangered in 2005.
The first calf to be born in 2014 was L-120, which was pronounced missing and presumed dead less than two months after it was born in September. Then there was the case of Rhapsody, or J-32, who’s body was found off the shore of mid-Vancouver Island in early December. She was carrying a near full-term baby and may have died from pregnancy complications. Lulu, or L-53, a 37-year-old female, and Indigo, L-100, a 13-year-old male, were both documented missing and presumed dead over the summer.
With the birth of J-50 the population’s numbers are back up to 78, however this is still a 30-year low.
While studying the photos of the calf it appeared to Balcomb and his team that newborn J-50 had teeth marks on its dorsal fin, which could indicate a difficult birth, where another whale had to use its mouth to help pull the baby out of its mother’s uterus.
(Left, L-50’s dorsal fin, with “bite sized teeth marks,” as described by Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research. These marks could indicate a troubled birth where another whale had to use its mouth to help pull the baby out of its mother’s uterus).
Balcomb said the baby, which could be between 4-10 days old as of Dec. 31, also exhibited some unusual behavior. For the first week or so of life orca calves and their mothers usually maintain eye contact while swimming along. For the first month of life, the two are relatively inseparable.
Neither of these normal behaviors seemed to be displayed by J-50. He said the calf was seen swimming away from its presumed mother and had to be corralled back by other members of J-pod.
Perhaps the most important missing link to the story is J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16, who wasn’t seen when the baby was discovered amidst the clan. Under normal circumstances, J-36 would be traveling with or near her family.
Having strung all the pieces together, Balcomb speculates that J-36, who is of prime breeding age, is the mother of J-50, and could have died during a complicated birth–meaning that J-16 is the calf’s grandmother and will not be able to provide milk.
“Worst case scenario is we have another example where a female died giving birth,” Balcomb said. “Best case is that grandma (J-16) is mom, and J-36 missing is coincidence.”
Balcomb said it’s possible that if J-36 is the mother she just needed a “break,” or was weak and needed rest and to restrengthen before returning to the baby and the rest of the clan.
And so questions remain.
Is J-16 mother or grandmother? Did J-36 leave her baby in good hands with its grandmother, or did she perish in a complicated birth?
The answers won’t be known until the clan is spotted again, even then the fate of the baby orca is uncertain.
If the calf is already with its birth mother, or reunites with her, its chance for survival depends on the mother having a sufficient food supply. Orca calves need to nurse for about one year.
“I’m emotionally tied to trying to get our politicians and the public to attend to the food supply,” Balcomb said. “The whales simply will not be here if they don’t have food.”