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When whale pods gather, there’s a good chance they’re making babies

Jul 27 2012

The three pods of endangered southern resident killer whales got together in Juan de Fuca Strait Thursday — and researchers are hoping they were making babies.

“When all the pods are in, that’s when babies happen,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a non-profit whale group.

A baby boom is certainly needed to get numbers up, said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Only one calf has been born to the pods this year, and two females from L Pod — a 79-year-old and a 48-year-old — are missing.

“It’s a worry that we are having a fair number of mortalities,” Balcomb said. “Neither of these whales were in their prime reproductive years, but they were good for the experience and wisdom of the pod.”

The July number of southern residents officially stands at 85. In the mid 1990s, the population edged up to 98. The low, which came in 1976 after decades of hunting and aquarium captures, was 70.

The number of calves born annually fluctuates from zero to about eight, but many do not survive the first year. Calves are sometimes born in October and November, so there is still hope numbers could creep up again, Balcomb said.

One member of L Pod who will not be with her family is Lolita, who was captured 42 years ago in a roundup in Penn Cove, off Whidbey Island.

At least five whales were killed and another seven were loaded onto flatbed trucks and taken to aquariums.

Lolita has spent most the time since then at Miami Seaquarium, where she is kept in the smallest killer whale tank in the U.S. — only four times her size at its widest point.

The capture will be marked by Orca Network with a ceremony in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, from on Aug. 8 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. A small demonstration will be held in Victoria by activist Diane McNally.

“I am trying to raise awareness about current research on the intelligence of orcas and how extremely unsuitable they are for captivity,” said McNally, who will be on Government Street outside the Irish Times Pub from noon to 2 p.m. on Aug. 8.

Several groups have pushed for the Seaquarium to allow Lolita to retire to a sea pen, where she would still be fed, but could hear the voices of her family.

However, Seaquarium spokesman Jorge Martinez said there was no scientific evidence that Lolita could survive in the open ocean.

“It would be irresponsible to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety to follow the whims of a small group of individuals who have no first-hand experience working with a killer whale,” he said, noting that she is as active and healthy as ever.

A small thread of hope for those arguing for Lolita’s release is a court appeal by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who are arguing against a decision to exclude Lolita from the Endangered Species Act.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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