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Orca calves join journey south
By Peggy Andersen (The Associated Press)

The Register-Guard

20th October 2004

Washington state's resident killer whales - with two newborns in tow - are heading south for the fall “chum festival,” says a whale researcher in the San Juan Islands.

If the orcas had departed a week earlier, they could have run into dangerous pollution from the 1,000-gallon oil spill near Tacoma, noted Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research.

“Hopefully they'll skirt the spill,” Balcomb said, referring to thin deposits that cleanup technology cannot recover. “As long as the whales don't swim through it and inhale it,” they should be OK.

Researchers attributed the deaths of several Alaska killer whales to the 1989 11 million-gallon oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound. Orcas are at risk from such spills because they have no sense of smell, Balcomb said, and newborns would be especially vulnerable.

“It could have been plus two and minus two in one day,” he said. “It isn't good for adults either but little babies - you can imagine putting your baby in a fume-filled room. It wouldn't be good for them.”

The calves - their white patterns still the orangy shade of newborns - were born over the past 10 days to two members of L-pod, which with J- and K-pods makes up the so-called southern resident population.

The births to females L-27 and L-43 bring the state orca population to 85 - not counting L-98 or Luna, living alone in Canada's Nootka Sound. That's well below the 99 counted in 1995.

The orcas, designated a depleted population under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and endangered under state law, are believed vulnerable to pollution, declining salmon runs, vessel traffic - possibly including whale-watching boats - and other human encroachment.

L-27 has had four other calves, none of whom are still alive, Balcomb said. One lived 10 years, the others three to five. L-43 has two living calves.

The births are good news, but not a sure bet.

“The calves don't really count till they become sexually mature,” Balcomb said. Killer whale development roughly parallels that of humans, with sexual maturity coming in the early teens.

“They're just mouths to feed now, but if they grow to the point that they're reproducing - that counts.”

It appears all three pods are bound for salmon in the south Sound, though only J-pod has been confirmed in the area. There'd been no sightings yet of K- and L-pod, Balcomb said, “but they were all here yesterday and none of them seem to be here now.”

The fall run of chum, or dog salmon, is just starting as they leave the ocean to head for their nascent streams.

How do the whales know the chum are running?

“Oh, they're just wise,” he said. “They've been doing this for thousands of years. They know they're there. They echo-locate and find them.”

Recent runs of chum have been at “historical highs,” he said.

Killer whales, actually a kind of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans.

Their habits vary. U.S. coastal and transient populations tend to live in small groups and feed mostly on marine mammals - seals, sea lions and whales. The region's inland populations - the northern residents live in Canada - live in larger groups and eat fish.