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Endangered Orcas See 'Mini Baby Boom' in Puget Sound, New Hope for Species

Apr 02, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

(Photo : Naturalist/Researcher Jeanne Hyde, Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching)

This year has been an excellent start for conservationists and killer whales alike, as one famous pod off the coast of Washington State has so-far welcomed four newborns into the family after more than two years. Now some experts think the endangered animals are seeing a mini baby boom - offering new hope for the struggling species.

Killer whales, as a rule of thumb, are difficult animals to track. As things stand, their population numbers still remain unclear, even if conservationists have found plenty of evidence that their populations along North American coastlines are depleting. The species is even protected under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the hopes that the once prevalent sea hunters will return to overcome habitat loss, pollution, and food shortages.

And that's exactly what looks to be happening in Puget Sound, the home of one well-known and followed orca group known as J-Pod.

The J-Pod first made headlines not too long ago after it rang in the new year by adding a new member to its family, orca J50. This birth was a surprise for whale watchers and experts alike, especially after the pod's greatest hope for new additions, a 19-year-old expecting mother known as Rhapsody (J32), suffered from pregnancy complications and was tragically found dead along the Georgia Strait.

"The loss of J32 was a disturbing setback," Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the NOAA, had told various media outlets at the time.

Then, one of the pod's other members - perhaps an older whale beyond birthing age (J16), or a far younger member (J36) - stepped up to the plate in a big way. Since then, a total of four new additions to the pod have been sighted and confirmed.

"J-Pod is certainly doing all it can to rebuild the ranks," Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), which represents 29 whale watch operators in Washington and British Columbia, explained in a statement. "The Southern Residents are a long way from being out of the woods, these calves too, but this is great news."

He added that as things stand, there are 27 members of J-Pod, which bolsters the Southern Resident killer whale population to 81 in all - a population that conservationists would still call dangerously low. However, four calves in three months is something of a 'baby boom' for the small group, and a big step in the right direction.

"We're going to keep a careful watch on these babies and our fingers crossed - and of course continue to do everything we can to rebuild salmon runs and feed these whales," Harris added, mentioning ongoing efforts to restore food supplies in the sound. "Let's hope this baby boom means these endangered population has finally turned the corner."

But while this particular population of wild orcas seems to be doing well, the same cannot be said of orcas in captivity, such as those held at SeaWorld. To understand the true treatment of orcas in captivity, read this exclusive interview here.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).


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