The annual July tally of endangered Puget Sound resident orcas is complete, and researchers have counted 81 whales, including four calves born since winter.
Researchers tracking the southern resident killer whales have photo confirmation of each whale, and none are missing, said Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research who maintains the census of Puget Sound killer whales for the federal government. “They're all here,” he said.
It’s good news that the four orca calves — one female and three males — have survived so far, he said. “We’re excited. They passed the dangerous part,” he said. The survival rate for calves is about 50 percent. “We're not in the clear yet. They'll be weaning in a year. They have to make it there and have to learn how to eat and have to have food to eat. But we’re upbeat.”
The population of 81 orcas is higher than last July's count of 78 whales. But it’s still low. Listed as endangered in 2005, the whales are struggling because of pollution and lack of food, among other reasons, even though they are protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The orcas that frequent the Washington waters are identified by unique black and white markings and variations in their fin shapes. The whales have been sticking to the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles, Balcomb said.
Crews from the Pacific Whale Watch Association have photographed the calves swimming and jumping out of the water and report that they appear to be healthy.
Balcomb sent his census report to NOAA earlier this week. Crews will count the whales again later this year.
Al Jazeera with The Associated Press