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caption: New orca calf L125 swims beside 30-year-old mom L86 off San Juan Island on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo taken under federal research permit. 
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New orca calf L125 swims beside 30-year-old mom L86 off San Juan Island on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo taken under federal research permit.
Credit: Dave Ellifrit / Center for Whale Research

Look! It's a bouncing baby orca in Puget Sound

At eight and a half feet long, it’s not your average baby.

This newborn was spotted swimming with its 20-foot mother and members of all three pods of the endangered southern resident orcas off San Juan Island on Wednesday.

“It appears very healthy, thank goodness,” Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research said in an email.

“Both mom and calf looked healthy!” biologist Holly Fearnbach with SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research said in an email of the orcas known as L86 and L125.

She said young calves travel and surface very closely with their mothers, making it easy to identify a newborn’s mom.

Fearnbach and husband John Durban were able to get aerial photographs of the whales, identify individuals, assess whether they were undernourished, and calculate their size.

They had a federal permit, Fearnbach said, to fly a research drone non-invasively more than 100 feet above the orcas to document the whales’ identities and body conditions.

Researchers with the Center for Whale Research documented the southern residents' J, K, and L pods on both sides of the international border. A boat based on San Juan Island documented the northbound orcas until they crossed to the Canadian side of Boundary Pass, when the center’s Victoria-based crew took over.

“[We] must have vessels in both countries due to prohibition against border crossing,” Balcomb said.

Dave Ellifrit with the Center for Whale Research captured images of L125 with “fetal folds,” suggesting a relatively recent birth.

"It is nicely filled out and appears to be a perfectly normal little calf," Ellifrit said in a press release.

The orca calf, believed to be about a month old, brings the endangered whales’ population up to 75 (or 76 if you count the orca that’s lived in the Miami Seaquarium for 50 years since it was captured off Whidbey Island).

Researchers and whale lovers alike celebrate every birth to the struggling population, though it will take many such births for southern resident orcas to bounce back from the brink of extinction.

“We should have six or eight females giving birth every year,” University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology researcher Deborah Giles told KUOW in 2020.

Most pregnancies among the endangered southern residents end in miscarriage, and close to half of newborns die before their first birthday.

L86's last calf was born and died in 2014. Her previous calf, born in 2009, died of blunt force trauma in 2012, possibly connected to Canadian Navy exercises in the area.

L125 has one living sibling, a 16-year-old brother.

Biologists blame a dearth of Chinook salmon, clean water, and quiet for the southern residents’ decline.

L125 is the first orca born to K pod or L pod since January 2019.

Researchers on Wednesday spotted both of the J pod orcas born in 2020.

Ellifrit said both appeared to be doing well.