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Slick Baby Mama

The Dorsal Spin
Newborn female J50 with her mother Slick (J16), 1/10/15. NOAA/NWFSC photo.
Newborn female J50 with her mother Slick (J16), 1/10/15. NOAA/NWFSC photo.

Mother Slick (J16) is an exceptional J Pod matriarch. 1972 is her estimated year of birth – that is significant because she could be slightly younger or even older. A preponderance of photographic evidence shows that Slick is the Southern Resident Baby Mama of precious newborn female J50. In four decades of field studies, J16 is the only known Southern Resident female to give birth to a thriving calf at age 43-ish.

Many orca females are presumably post-reproductive around age 40. However, at least one Northern Resident female beyond age 40 had a surviving calf. On occasion, older females are observed with stillborns. Because both Resident orca communities spend months at sea, where we cannot easily monitor them, we are probably missing births and abrupt deaths of sickly newborns. 
 
During a December 28 encounter with J Pod in northern Puget Sound, Mark Sears and other researchers did not see or photograph a newborn traveling with the J16s -- Baby J50’s immediate family. On that afternoon, NOAA/NWFSC staff deployed a satellite tag on adult male Blackberry (J27), age 24.

Curiously, J27’s sat tag signals showed that, before dawn on December 30, J Pod was in sheltered Harney Channel between Shaw and Orcas Islands -- an unusual, seldom used pathway for these orcas. Did they go there for reasons associated with the birth? Later that day, Baby J50 was spotted near the Pender Islands, BC. The tiny, peachy bébé was beside Slick (J16), according to the Center for Whale Research, and appeared to be roughly 24 – 48 hours old.  

The law of parsimony was thrown by the wayside in much of the publicity -- at times ludicrous -- about the birth of J Pod’s new relative. Some folks of the, ahem, non-child-bearing persuasion floated a fanciful “midwife” scenario involving J16’s 15-year-old daughter Alki (J36). A number of media outlets regurgitated inaccurate information about J50 being born around Christmas Day.

Available data and photos indicate that J50 was born between the 28th and 30th of December. This week’s compelling photo is the clincher, I think, on Mom’s identity. NOAA/NWFSC researchers obtained this blissful picture of wee J50 snuggled up to Slick (J16) on January 10. Baby J50 looks robust; she is evidently nursing. At twelve or more days after her birth, such close proximity to a nanny whale or non-lactating relative is unlikely, except for brief periods.

Newborn J50 has three siblings: brother Mike (J26), born 1991; sister Alki (J36), born 1999; and sister Echo (J42), born 2007. Mother Slick (J16) had two additional offspring, now dead: son Keet (J33), 1996 –2010, and Baby J48, who lived just a few weeks in December 2011. Dear readers, here is the caveat: J16’s last calf did not survive.

In a January 19 encounter with J Pod off San Juan Island, Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research found J50 still traveling beside J16. J16’s daughter, J36, traveled some distance away from the baby. Sweet J50 continues to thrive – hallelujah! Our heartfelt desire is for Baby J50 to blossom into a successful matriarch one day, just like her exquisite mother Slick (J16).

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago by Mark Sears. Send photos to Orca Annie at Vashonorcas@aol.com and check for updates at Vashonorcas.org.