J59 southern resident calf

Female calf a beacon of hope for endangered southern resident killer whales

The birth of calf J59 offers promise for the future of the J pod, but experts say more protection for the orca’s habitat and food sources is needed to curb their decline

The young orca swims just below the surface, cresting briefly before rolling under water and darting left, propelled by her powerful tail. It’s only for a moment, and then she’s back at her mother’s side.

J59, as she’s known, was likely born sometime in late February, the first southern resident killer whale calf born into J pod since September 2020, according to the Center for Whale Research. She’s a beacon of hope for the critically endangered orcas.

It was her playful rolls, captured on video by drone in late May, that allowed researchers at the center to ascertain her sex — news that’s rippled through West Coast communities like the waves set in motion by the calf’s movements.

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While one calf alone won’t save the southern resident population, its birth is still cause for celebration. That she’s a girl stirred hope that J59 will one day have calves of her own. 

But in the years that separate that day from this one, J59 will have to overcome numerous challenges, from too little food to noisy, contaminated waters.

As of December, the Center for Whale Research’s most recent census, the population of southern residents stood at 73, split across three pods: J, K and L. 

“We should be seeing about six or seven new calves every year, but we’re just not,” said Deborah Giles, the science and research director of the non-profit Wild Orca.

Almost 70 per cent of the southern residents that do become pregnant miscarry or lose their calves soon after they’re born — losses that take both a physical and emotional toll, she said.

It was only a few years ago that the world watched as a mother orca from J59’s pod — known as Tahlequah or J35 — carried the body of her dead calf for 17 days in a heartbreaking display of grief.

“That whale was telling us that things are terribly wrong with the environment,” Sisi-ya-ama (Leah George-Wilson), former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, said in an interview.

“Now with a calf being born, I think it’s a sign of hope, hope and healing,” she said.

But with the southern residents still under threat, Tahlequah’s message can’t be forgotten.

Increased ship traffic from Trans Mountain pipeline a risk to southern resident killer whales

In Tsleil-Waututh territory, Sisi-ya-ama pointed to the Burrard Inlet, where urbanization, ship traffic and pollution have dramatically altered the ecosystem.

“It impacts not only the whales, but impacts Tsleil-Waututh and the way that we are able to interact with the inlet,” she said.

“In our culture, whales are significant. They’re messengers, as well as reminders of our ancestors,” she said. “[They] have shown up in the inlet when someone significant in our community passes away and our old people have said it’s them coming to let us know, but also to help our loved one make the transition to the next world.”

The risks to the southern residents is one of the key reasons why Tsleil-Waututh Nation is opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which would see a significant increase in the number of tankers travelling through the inlet to the expanded Westridge Marine Terminal.

Underwater noise is a major concern for the southern residents because it interferes with their ability to communicate and find food through echolocation.

Think of it this way: “If you came to my home, I’d make you a meal. If it was too noisy, I’d send my children out to play. If you wanted to rest, I’d let you rest,” Shulqwilum (Ray Harris), a fisherman and former chief of Stz’uminus First Nation, said in an interview.

But these days, the southern residents struggle to find the comfort of quiet waters and a decent meal in their home territory. And, while the federal government has created interim sanctuaries for the orcas, Shulqwilum said they need more than the little space that’s been set aside.

Shulqwilum was “overjoyed” when he saw the images of J59 on television. Any new calf, regardless of sex, is “precious,” he said. “She was jumping and playing around like a baby would.” 

But he warned, “we’re on a losing track with the whales in terms of the way things are going.”

For the last several years, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has run a voluntary vessel slowdown program that has helped reduce the intensity of underwater noise in key foraging areas, according to a federal government background document on measures to protect the southern residents.

New seasonal slowdown measures are also being implemented this year near Swiftsure Bank, off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

While new voluntary slowdown areas may offer some degree of relief, noise is just one of myriad threats J59 and the southern residents are facing.

‘We’ve got an ecosystem that’s out of balance’

One of the more pressing challenges is the decline in the southern residents’ primary source of food: Chinook salmon.

From the Central Valley and, farther north, the Klamath River in California, to the Skagit River in Washington State and the Fraser River in B.C., many wild Chinook populations are struggling, said Sm’hayetsk (Teresa Ryan), a long-time member of the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Joint Chinook Technical Committee and First Nations Caucus.

To help protect the killer whales’ access to Chinook, the federal government has said it will close more areas in key foraging habitat to recreational and commercial salmon fisheries, including at the mouth of the Fraser River.

But it’s not just fishing pressure that’s causing the decline in Chinook. Massive wildfires, pine beetle infestations, logging practices and climate change impacts are being felt throughout entire watersheds, Sm’hayetsk, who is also an Indigenous knowledge and natural science lecturer at the University of British Columbia, said.

“Those are catastrophic impacts to these forests that change the way that water moves through the watersheds and so that affects the rivers that, of course, impact Chinook survival as well,” she said.

“I think we need to spend some more time understanding that what we do in the forest up in the interior has an impact on the southern resident killer whales’ ability to survive.”

The juvenile Chinook that do make it to the Salish Sea are being eaten in large numbers by seals and sea lions. “We’ve got an ecosystem that’s out of balance,” Sm’hayetsk, of the Tsm’syen Nation, said.

If J59 one day has calves of her own, she will have to “train her babies how to hunt for Chinook,” Sm’hayetsk said. But, “it’s difficult for her to be taught if her mother doesn’t have a food source, right, so how is she going to learn that if there isn’t any Chinook?”

“If the killer whales can’t survive here, then there’s a good chance that other things can’t survive as well.”

Alongside the decline in Chinook numbers, there’s been a marked decline in the size of fish all along the coast, Sm’hayetsk said.

“One of the things that Indigenous fisheries used to do is allow the largest fish to go up to spawning grounds,” she said. These larger fish were known to spawn larger offspring.

Other stewardship practices involved caring for the estuaries where juvenile salmon rear, or grow, and taking care of other fish species, such as herring and oolichan, that become food for adult Chinook in the ocean, she said.

photo of southern resident killer whales off San Juan Island
Southern resident killer whales off the west side of San Juan Island on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo: Katy Foster / NOAA Fisheries via Flickr

For the orcas, the lack of food only worsens the impact of other threats.

Toxic chemicals that build up through the food chain, for instance, may stay locked in a their fat until they’re hungry enough to burn it off, Giles, of Orca Wild, said.

When starvation sets in, the orca will start to metabolize its fat stores, releasing those synthetic toxins and putting them at greater risk for disease, she said.

A pooping killer whale is a happy killer whale

Giles, who is also a killer whale researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, was on the water trailing J pod at the end of May, collecting fecal samples to analyze the whales’ nutrition levels and toxicant loads.

“If you have a pooping whale, you have a whale that’s been eating, and so that’s been really fantastic to see,” she said.

Giles also caught a glimpse of J59.

“That new calf is very rambunctious, it breaches quite a lot, like repeatedly breaching, which is really, of course, fun to see and shows that she has enough energy to do that,” she said.

The hope now is that J59 will be able to maintain that energy, that playful spirit. 

Further protection for southern residents, their habitat and food sources, could have a big impact on J59 and her pod’s future, Giles said. But that doesn’t rest solely on the initiative of politicians.

“People, I think, discount the power of their own voice when talking to their elected officials, but it really shouldn’t be devalued,” she said.

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