The good news is the most recent orca whale born in our primary kayaking in the San Juan Islands looks robust healthy. The bad news is this baby orca is the first-born of a very inexperienced mother, only 12 years old, who will need help from her aunt and grandmother.
More alarming is that in recent decades most first born orca babies die within a year. The prime suspect is a heavy dose of toxic chemicals that the mother passes to the calf via milk. Orca whales in Washington’s Puget Sound accumulate man-made poisons such as PCBs throughout their lives and the only way to eliminate it is through milk production. First-born orcas get the biggest dose while later siblings get progressively smaller doses of toxins and have better survival rates.
The newest orca baby in the San Juan Islands is a member of J-pod, now up to 28 whales. For over a decade J-pod orcas did not reproduce and their recent boomlet of babies has given hope to kayakers that the poison levels they carry may be dropping. Especially in the youngest generation as they might be enjoying the benefits of laws that eliminated the use of PCBs in the US and Canada. We are still very concerned about widespread use of PCBs in Asian nations as detection stations routinely find it and toxic mercury in winds coming off the Pacific Ocean.
The endangered population of three resident orca pods in the San Juan Islands has recovered to 88 whales with the birth of six calves within the past 12 months. Historically, our three pods had about 120 members. The lowest population recorded was 71 in 1973 and 1976, following decades of shootings and captures. The recent high was 1996 when there were 97 “southern residents” killer whales that we enjoyed regularly on our orca whale watching kayak tours. The orcas’ survival is tied to our ability to keep our shared environment free of our poisonous chemicals.