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Southern Resident Orcas: Are We Loving Them to Death?

October 6, 2014

The birth of a new orca in L-pod is cause for celebration, but the baby still faces an uphill battle against threats such as starvation, pollution, and not least, boat traffic. Deborah Wang and the IN Close team discuss the birth of L-120, and whether whale watching tours are a danger to Southern Resident orcas, or the best way to build support to protect them.

Seattle, Washington - 

DEBORAH WANG: So this week on In Close we’re looking at major threats to marine life in the region. And one of those stories that we’re looking at is the new baby orca that was born into the L-Pod. It was just spotted in the San Juan Islands and it’s the first baby orca here in two years. Now Stephen, you reported that we don’t know what the gender of this orca is. How are we going to find this out?

STEPHEN HEGG: Well basically, sometime in the next- it could happen tomorrow, it could happen in the next year--L120 is going to jump out of the water and flash us. We’re going to see very distinctive markings on the ventral side, on the underside, that show whether it’s a female or a male.

WANG: And that’s how we know?

HEGG: That’s how we know.

WANG: Some person needs to be nearby with a camera taking a picture of this?

HEGG: Oh and there will be. She’s being studied extensively, but we need to see distinctive markings.

STACEY JENKINS: So what does it matter if it’s a boy or a girl?

HEGG: Well I think it matters, as I understand it, because we’re losing the reproductive part of the pods. The reproductive females are going into post-reproductive  population. The population is aging, so we need to replenish that breeding population. Now L120, if she indeed is a girl, is not going to be able to reproduce for I think, fifteen years, or something like that. And so, so we’re deferring this very needed benefit. But the more girls there are, the better our chances of replenishing the population. So it’s, you know, it’s kind of a race against time. Orcas are dying at too high of a level, and we’re not replacing those critical elements in the population as fast as they need to be replaced.

KATIE CAMPBELL: I imagine there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to want to see this baby orca. But I’ve always felt unsure of whether I should be supporting the whale watching industry because of that issue of too much traffic. Is that something that- how do we navigate this?

HEGG: It’s very controversial, there are some people who really believe that we have just crowded those whales to watch them, even though the whale watchers have very definite restrictions, and there are definite rules. They’ve actually been expanded recently, and I would say that the whale watchers are very concerned about whales and they follow the rules.

JENKINS: You know there are, I think six public beaches on the San Juan Islands, that if you go online, you can find them and you can see the pods. It’s free; a pair of binoculars and that could be one way that you could still view them without disrupting their habitat.

HEGG: Well some people argue even that the scientists say that the best way we can help this population is for people to be engaged. And one people- one way people can get engaged and passionate about orcas, is they see this in front of them, they go watch whales, and they see this happening and you become very attached. So there’s an educational purpose with whale watching.

WANG: Well we will be talking a lot more about orcas and other marine animals this week on In Close, Thursday at seven. 

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In Feb. of this year I took a photo from the beach at Orlebar Point on Gabriola Island, B.C. of 2 adult orcas with a calf. Having just watched your excellent program and noting the infrequency of baby orcas I thought you might like to see the photo and perhaps determine if this was the same group featured on your program. The date of the photo is shown, as with all my photos, in the lower right corner. If I can figure out how to forward the photo, it's on the way. Thanks for the great program.

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