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New Baby Orca Faces Threats From People and Nature

October 9, 2014

Local scientists are celebrating after the birth of a new baby orca in the San Juan Islands. But the new L-pod calf faces an uphill battle already. Killer whales face threats from pollution, boat traffic, scarcity of food, and even Navy sonar tests. We talk with the local researchers who first discovered the new baby, and find out its chances of survival, plus other threats facing Southern Resident killer whales.

L120 closely follows L86, her mom.  Courtesy Melisa Pinnow, San Juan Excursions.

Her name is L120 and she’s the first orca calf in two years for the distinct Puget Sound pods. And she was just a few days old when Dave Ellifrit got the first photos. He was in the Center for Whale Research boat, routinely photographing the L pod when he saw a new little fin slicing through the water next to L86.  He got on the radio to his boss, veteran whale researcher Ken Balcomb at the San Juan Island center. 

“I heard Dave say 'there’s a new calf, L86 has a new calf!'" Balcomb said. It was welcome news for Balcomb. “The birthing of a whale in this population is something to be celebrated.”

In fact, Dave had almost missed seeing that little fin, because L86 and aunt L27 were protectively running screen, keeping L120 in between them.  New orcas recognize the white eye patch of their mothers, and aunties help out.   

Dave Ellifrit, a scientist at the Center for Whale Research, tracks orcas on his computer.

San Juan Island whale watchers also spotted L120 right away. San Juan Excursions naturalist Melisa Pinnow, on board Odyssey, got some great photographs. Brian Goodremont was piloting his San Juan Island Outfitters vessel and noticed behavior that he later realized may have signaled the L120’s first gasps of air.

“I did see a small cetacean that looked like a baby whale, being pushed on the rostrum of a female,” he said.

In truth, no one knows if L120 is a he or a she, but everyone’s hoping for a girl.

“We want to have more reproductive females in this population in the next decade or two,” says Balcomb. 

This baby orca joins the troubled population of Southern Resident killer whales. Though listed as endangered since 2005, orca numbers are declining faster than ever. J-Pod is 25 individuals,

Scientists at the Center for Whale Research keep track of the L-pod family tree.

K-pod is at 19 and L-pod, 35. These Puget Sound whales have decreased by 15 individuals in the last twenty years and 9 in just the last three. Once producing the most calves, L-pod represents a disturbing trend. It’s an aging group with a high overall mortality rate. Females are not producing enough calves and losing more than they should.  L120, if indeed a girl, won’t be able to contribute for at least 15 years.  

Every whale has its own distinctive dorsal and saddle marking, making it easier for experts to identify and track them.  On the left is L41, a male born in 1977. On the right is L25, an 86 year-old female. Courtesy Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

According to Balcomb, the biggest problem is food supply. “We need to start this trend of increasing population rather than a decreasing population. The only way it will happen is if we feed these whales.”

To thrive, resident orcas need a steady diet of wild chinook salmon–fish stocks that are themselves endangered.  Another challenge is that they are contaminated with high levels of toxins locked in their protective blubber--PCBs, flame retardants and other chemicals which are linked to reproductive failure and early death. 

Balcomb says decades-old pollutants are a danger even right now to baby l-120.

“If Mama is going through a stress period now where there is no fish available, she’s burning her fat to provide that milk, that fat is highly toxic.

The third threat is from increased ship and boat traffic, and naval exercises. New research shows suggests that noise and powerful military sonar disrupts the complex abilities of killer whales to navigate, communicate and find prey. 

So, it’s a critical time for the J, K and L pods, and their numbers are already small. Balcomb believes only a radical paradigm shift–especially in fisheries management in both Canada and the U.S–will save them.

L120 faces daunting odds of surviving her first year. In winter, the whales will leave the Salish Sea and disappear into the ocean. For those who know killer whales best, there will be months of waiting.

There is a measure of pessimism from Brian Goodremont, but also hope “that this whale makes it through the winter. “

Balcomb adds,The good news will be next spring when we see that calf come back, and just as energetic as, you know, a seven or eight month old baby.”  


Oct. 21, 2014: Baby Orca is Missing, Presumed Dead



Made possible in part by


Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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Breath taking and inspiring. Where they absolutely be seen....wild and free.

Your article doesn't mention the capture for profit aspect of their decline. Just wondering why?