What will life hold for the new Southern Resident orca baby?

It’s been non-stop excitement since news broke of a brand new baby in the endangered Southern Resident orca community, who live off the west coast of the U.S. and Canada. We’ve loved looking at the first pictures and videos, including this incredibly sweet image of the baby (given the ID number L124) swimming with Ocean Sun (L25), the oldest Southern Resident orca (and likely mother of Tokitae/Lolita). The last couple of weeks have been thrilling, encouraging, and adorable all at the same time. I am elated and relieved by the news, but as we move past the initial surge of joy, I’ll confess that I’m apprehensive and worried for his or her survival.

Southern Resident orca L124
Southern Resident orcas, Ocean Sun (L25) and L124

Let’s face it, the Southern Residents have had a rough few years.  The hope raised by all the new births in 2015 was tempered by the news that most of those new calves were male, which, while still exciting and amazing news, ultimately doesn’t help with adding more orcas to the Southern Resident population – the females are really more important for that. 

In autumn of 2016, news broke that Granny (J2), then the oldest Southern Resident, a movie star, and the most famous wild orca, had disappeared and was presumed dead.  And this past summer, there were devastating and high-profile deaths of a newborn orca and the loss of a young orca called Scarlet. As the first of the 'baby boom’ orcas, Scarlet was a symbol of hope, surviving a presumably difficult birth and growing into a healthy, rambunctious young orca before becoming sick and emaciated last summer.

Southern Resident orca J50
Scarlet (J50) displaying her trademark bellyflop breach

Then came the more recent news of two more orcas in poor condition.  It has been a very stressful few years for those who love and follow the Southern Resident population, as of course it must have been for the orcas themselves.

Even before you factor in the extra concerns of human impacts, calves only have about a 50% chance of surviving their first year of life.  The good news is that L124 seems to be off to a good start already!  As Matia (L77)’s third calf, L124 will receive lower levels of toxins through nursing – mother orcas metabolize their blubber, where contaminants such as DDT, PCBs, and flame retardants are stored, passing contaminants on to their calves. Newborn orcas, especially first-borns, receive a concentrated dose of pollutants from their mothers.  Coming later in the birth order as at least the third-born means L124 will receive lower amounts of these chemicals.

Southern Resident orca L124
Newest Southern Resident orca L124

The Center for Whale Research reports that L124 seems healthy and energetic, and is already several weeks old, a good sign when nearly 70% of Southern Resident pregnancies in recent years have failed due to nutritional stress.  That startling statistic underscores the need to address the threats to this fragile population, particularly the lack of their primary food – Chinook salmon.  The orcas rely on salmon from rivers large and small in the Pacific Northwest and California and need more salmon throughout their range to support them at all times of the year.

Coming up soon, we’ll be working with partners in the Pacific Northwest to strengthen and enact recommendations from the Washington State Task Force, including actions to restore habitat, recover salmon, reduce pollution and noise, and protect the area from oil spills.

With new life comes new hope and inspiration, and L124 has reinvigorated my dedication to this struggling population.  Despite all the ups and downs of the past few years and the knowledge that he or she has a tough road ahead, we must keep up the hard work to ensure this little calf grows up healthy, strong, and surrounded by their family – wild and free.