Orca Mommas

It’s a Girl!

Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

The birth of a baby Orca in northwest waters has been a widely reported good-news story in Seattle lately. The news is especially hopeful because it follows the death of a pregnant female In December from the same pod. The cause of death is likely a combination of not enough food over a period of time and pollutants in the blubber that cause many hormonal and immune system problems.

Are You My Mother?

The researchers have determined the sex of the new baby, currently called J50, but there is still some confusion about who the mother is. This is because Orca pods include females who stay together throughout their lives and often share in child-rearing. J50 was initially seen with Slick who is 43 and a bit old for having babies; now there’s speculation that J50 may be the offspring of Alki, Slick’s daughter who is 16, making slick the grandmother.

Big Mommas

Grandmothers are a big deal in Orca pods. Granny (J2) is still in J pod at an estimated 103 years old; she undoubtedly helps with babysitting as well as sharing a lifetime of experience in these waters.

This matrilineal culture, or matriarchy, is certainly rare on our planet. It has also been seen in the social organization of sperm whales and elephants. (A lovely novel that includes much elephant lore is Jodi Picoult’s recent Leaving Time.)

We wouldn’t know that Orcas live this way if they had not been so well studied by dedicated researchers. Ken Balcomb has led volunteers for decades at the Center for Whale Research in the painstaking work of identifying resident Orcas in the northwestern waters of Washington state. It is only through their carefully collected genealogical data of J, K, and L pods that we even know there’s a new baby.

Ways of Whales Workshop

Since 2001, the work has also been supported by its sister organization, Orcanework, which is actually headed by Balcomb’s brother Howard Garrett with his partner Susan Berta. Check out their website for a day-long “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Whidbey Island to learn more about the latest research.