In previous posts we have touched a bit on the challenges that face our resident orca whales, specially the calves. About a third to a half of them don’t survive their first year, and those who do carry a toxic burden and face dire salmon shortages. So, in light of that, what could possibly be good news for this newest member of J-pod? He has some really good things going for him, but before discussing that I would like to digress a little.
As noted in an earlier post, the whales are named according to their ‘pod’, or group identity, followed by when they were first seen. So the baby Orca J-45 belongs to J-pod, and is the 45th member identified since records have been kept. The researchers find this a straightforward and logical way to keep track of the families and for the scientists these numbers are the most practical way to refer to the animals. Once the babies are a year old, The Whale Museum also gives them a name.
All of that can get a little bewildering because you will hear the same whales referred to by a variety of names in different media sources- so help you to keep the relationships sorted out and keep track of this special baby, I’ll refer to the family members as they relate to the calf, but will follow the scientific method. J-45 will be noted as “Baby J45”, etc.
So what makes little Baby J45 a lucky calf?
The first factor is his birth order. The lion’s share of a mother whale’s toxic load is transferred to her first calf, and fortunately Baby J45 is the sixth calf born to his mother J14. Also, there is evidence that older mothers are slightly more successful in raising a calf through it’s first year, although the researchers have not determined why this is so. It may be linked to experience, the reduced toxic load to the calf, the presence of siblings, or a combination of factors. His mother J14 is 35 years old, has four surviving offspring and only lost one calf.
This brings us to the next thing that makes Baby J45 lucky: he was born into a great extended family, known as the successful and long-lived “J-2 Matriline”. (A matriline is like a family tree where only the mother’s lineage is considered). Research shows that among our resident Orcas, young whales are known to stay with their moms throughout their lives.
Baby J45 and his mother J14 are surrounded, supported, and protected by a network of family members, and when he was born into the wintery cold Pacific water this year, Baby J45 most likely would have been helped to the surface by one or more of his three siblings; five year old sister J40, eight year old sister J37, and fourteen year old brother J30. Also present might have been his 98 year old Great-grandmother J2 and his Great-uncle J1, two of our more well known and beloved whales. There is no evidence as yet to support the idea that calf survivorship is related to the presence of older family members, but there is a link to the survivorship of the older siblings.
The final bit of luck? Baby J45 along with the other new calves had the good fortune to have been born in a time and place where people treasure and seek to protect, rather than capture or harm, the resident Orcas.
Next we’ll report on how BabyJ45 is doing, and where you might be able to see him, last I heard he is healthy, robust, and trying to catch fish!