SOOKE, B.C. — Scientists say a fifth baby has joined an endangered population of killer whales off British Columbia's coast.
The newest calf in the L pod was spotted frolicking with its mother Sunday near Sooke.
The Washington state-based Center for Whale Research said the baby dubbed L122 is the newest member of the pod since last December.
It said the calf was photographed from a research vessel and measured using a drone that was already doing work in the area on southern resident killer whales.
"It's good news all around,'' said Ken Balcolm, a senior scientist at the center. "We're happy to see that they still can produce babies. One of the real concerns was toxins in their bodies causing them reproductive failure.''
He said that although many toxins, such as PCBs, were banned in the 1970s, they still accumulated in the ecosystem and the whales' food supply.
The southern residents, which ply the waters off B.C. and Washington state, are made up of three pods — J, K and L — and now number 81, Balcomb said Monday.
The newest calf's mother, named L91, was seen swimming alone last Thursday, he said, adding the baby's appearance is providing clues about when it was born.
"You can still see the folds on the baby, where it was folded up in the uterus. Usually within a week that clears up and the fin gets folded over, and usually within a day it straightens out. Well, this one's already straightened out so it's probably at least a day old, but probably not more than two days old.''
Only 35 of the 122 orcas born in L pod in the last 40 years are still alive, Balcomb said.
However, he said 81 southern resident whales is still considered a healthy population compared to the mid-1970s, when the animals were captured for marine parks such as Sea World.
"The captures were stopped in 1976, and immediately after that we had a baby boom of nine babies, and they survived. So the population can recover from the low numbers.''
Lack of food, particularly salmon, is a concern as recovery efforts continue, Balcolm said.
"We just have to get more salmon for fishermen and for whales. And these whales will recover if we provide food for them. If we don't, they won't.''
Two calves in the southern population died in 2013, and four did not survive past a week or so last year, Balcolm said.
Last December, an orca that was pregnant with a late-term fetus washed up near Comox. A necropsy showed J32 died of an infection.
— By Camille Bains in Vancouver
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