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A baby orca whale known as J47 swims alongside its mother, J35, near Vashon Island, Wash., in Puget Sound. The killer whales have recently experienced a baby boomlet. (Jeff Hogan/Jeff Hogan/AP)
A baby orca whale known as J47 swims alongside its mother, J35, near Vashon Island, Wash., in Puget Sound. The killer whales have recently experienced a baby boomlet. (Jeff Hogan/Jeff Hogan/AP)

Surprise baby 'boomlet' lifts B.C.'s orca pods Add to ...

Maybe there was something in the salmon. Maybe there was a whale of a pod party. Whatever the reason, and experts can only speculate, southwestern B.C.'s endangered orca population is enjoying a rare, baby boom.

Six young killer whales have been born to the region's three resident orca pods in the past year, including a New Year's baby, surprising and delighting dedicated whale-watchers.

"It's great. No one predicted this," said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network in northern Washington State, off whose coast the orcas also reside. "It's a great way to start the New Year."

Why so many births, and why now, when the chinook salmon runs that orcas feast on are struggling? The whales aren't talking. However, given the average gestation period of 17 months, something must have been going on in the spring and summer of 2008.

"It would only be speculation, but the only thing I can see is that there are a lot of new young, reproductive males, and apparently, they're getting it on," said Mr. Garrett.

Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on the San Juan Islands, noted that orcas tend to breed outside their immediate pods, and, like humans, they are sometimes drawn together by specific events.

"It could have been their equivalent of a party or gathering that would have resulted in some gene pool activity," said Mr. Balcomb. "Or maybe there was just a whole bunch of fish around at the time. The thing is, we've got some normal reproductive adults and, at some point, they're going to be pumping themselves around." While experts caution that the long-term survival of the orca offspring is far from assured, the baby boomlet, as one researcher termed it, is a welcome development after six whale deaths during a grim 2008 had forecasters predicting a dire future for the resident killer whales.

Now, with no deaths in 2009 and the six newborns still alive, the population has risen from 82 to 88, where it stood in 2007.

"It's not necessarily a trend, but having that many calves in such a small population is always a good thing," said John Ford, marine mammal scientist at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

The pods, known as J, K and L, are perhaps the most observed and most-revered whales in the world, given their small numbers and proximity to the heavily travelled coastal waters of B.C. and Washington State.

The local orcas have endangered status in both Canada and the United States. By the 1970s, when authorities finally put a stop to their capture by aquarium-financed bounty hunters and fishermen were forbidden to shoot them, their once-healthy population had plummeted to just 71 whales. They have struggled ever since.

The oldest of the resident killer whales, a matriarch known as J2, is believed to have been born in 1911, making her nearly 100 years old.

Mr. Balcomb said the key to the species' survival is stabilizing the supply of the orcas' chief food source, chinook salmon and, to a lesser extent, chum.

Runs have fluctuated over the past two decades, and the overall trend is down. In particularly lean years, some killer whales will go hungry and die.

"We've caught too many fish," said Mr. Balcomb. "If we get some of these baby whales to survive, we'll be okay, but if we don't, we can kiss these whales goodbye. We simply have to get our management of the fisheries straightened out."

He said it's too early to pop the champagne corks, despite the recent birthing boom. "Yes, it's a sign of hope, but at this point, I'll just have a beer, instead."

Meanwhile, more northern orcas, who ply the waters from the tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska, are flourishing.

Mr. Ford of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo said there are now 250 killer whales up north.

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