Orca calf missing, believed dead after pod encounter off San Juan Island: CWR

Orca calf missing, believed dead after pod encounter off San Juan Island: CWR
Photo: The Center for Whale Research/Facebook
J16 and J60 are photographed during encounter #3 on Jan. 3, 2024.

An orca calf is believed to be dead after it was missing from its pod during a recent encounter near San Juan Island, says The Center for Whale Research.

The center (CWR), based in Friday Harbour, Wash., says the youngest member of J pod, J60, was missing during the Saturday, Jan. 27, encounter and “is likely deceased.”

CWR researchers had conducted a photo I.D. survey of the pod in San Juan Channel, the center said in a Facebook post Monday afternoon.

During the encounter, photos were captured “of all other members of the pod, including all potential mothers for J60, but J60 himself was not seen,” the center wrote.

Protocols require at least three full censuses of the pod to confirm mortality, but given the calf’s young age, “it is extremely unlikely that J60 was off on his own for the entire duration of the encounter,” notes the center. “We now believe that J60 is, sadly, deceased.”

It says the calf was about a month old.

The CWR documents encounters and posts the findings here. At one point, they “had photographed every pod member other than J60, and it was becoming clear that the calf was no longer there.”

It says J42 was the calf’s most likely mother, given its association patterns and the pregnancy status of J pod females in late 2023.

“However, given the calf’s varied social partners in early life, this will enter our dataset as a ‘probable’ relationship,” said CWR, adding that J46 was also “heavily pregnant” late last year but not “consistently associated” with J60.

The center says this would have been the first observed calf for either female.

It says the mortality rate for Southern Resident calves, especially those born to first-time mothers, is “very high” because of “generally poor” nutritional status and the transfer of toxins from mother to calf during gestation and lactation.

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“The Southern Residents need abundant, large Chinook salmon if they are going to be able to raise their calves to maturity and keep the population going,” it said.

According to the CWR, J pod is the pod most likely to appear year-round in the waters of the San Juan Islands and Southern Gulf Islands, lower Puget Sound and B.C.’s Georgia Strait.

The latest Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) census data from July 1, 2023, found 25 orcas in J pod, nine less than in L pod but nine more than in K pod.

In late December 2023, the CWR reported an endangered Southern Resident killer whale calf had been born around Christmas Day.

More information about the latest encounter is here.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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