Puget Sound's endangered killer whales have been spotted with a new calf, bringing the number of orcas to 86 as the whales feed on salmon along the California coast, scientists said.
Researchers do not yet know if the baby is a male or female, but have identified it as belonging to one of three whale family groups, or pods, that make their permanent home around Puget Sound.
The whales were seen over the weekend in Monterey Bay, Calif. Scientists with the Center for Whale Research, based on San Juan Island, said photos of the whales' unique markings show the baby belongs to the "L" pod of Puget Sound orcas.
The orcas typically spend about six months near the San Juan Islands and in Puget Sound. They are expected to return in May or June.
The center said killer whales from Washington have increasingly been seen off the coast of California in recent winters, likely searching for salmon to eat.
Researchers said the latest sightings suggest the orcas from the "L" and "K" pods have been near California for most of the winter.
"I'm delighted that they'll go where food is available," Ken Balcomb, the center's senior scientist, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "They're not going to sit here and starve and wash up on our shores."
The third Puget Sound group, known as the "J" pod, recently was seen in Haro Strait, closer to its home range.
Researchers said the baby was born between late October and early 2007 to one of two female orcas. If its mother is the younger of those two, the baby could have a harder time surviving because it likely would be the female's first calf.
Industrial chemicals that accumulate in the orcas' bodies can be concentrated in fatty tissue and milk; new mothers can pass those pollutants on to their first and second calves, Balcomb said.
If the baby survives to return to the Northwest this summer, "that's a very good start," said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, a whale center research associate.
"Then it will have the summer to relax in the nice San Juan Islands and feed on fish," Balcomb-Bartok said.
The Puget Sound-based orca population had dropped to 85 last fall, following the death of three adults and two calves.