Thirty years ago today, the Center for Whale Research was fortunate to see and document L83 on the day she was born. The encounter with Southern Residents on July 27, 1990, turned into a memorable day: L83’s birth, followed by a Superpod.
L83 breaching in 2018 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
This is the way Dave Ellifrit remembers the day of L83's birth.
July 27, 1990, started early. The skies were partly cloudy with fog in the south of Haro Strait. Somebody was up and paying attention, saw activity on the water, and shouted “Whales!” to staff sleeping in tents and campers in the yard. We crawled out of our sleeping bags and made it down to the Center for Whale Research’s oceanfront deck by 0700 to watch and record K pod and most of L pod heading north. The whales headed past CWR in a loose group with a larger tight group of L pod whales behind them. All of L pod except for L1, L35, L54, and L65 of the L35 matriline were present.
We noticed that L47 was trailing the large group of L pod whales by about 50 yards and was moving slowly as they went by. Shortly after the whales passed, a big fog bank rolled up the west side of San Juan Island. We were socked in for the next couple of hours. Later that morning, the fog finally burned off some and receded back down the west side. A few of us decided to go see if we could catch up to K and L pods.
L83 on the day she was born, July 27, 1990 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, Earthwatch staff person Rhonda Claridge, and I went out in 18-foot-long Namu, a boat on loan to Kelley and owned by Bob and Jean Van Leuven (previous owners of Western Prince). We saw our first whales on the northwest side of Stuart Island, right around the corner from Turn Point. We only saw two whales at first. They were hard to get close to and identify against the dark shoreline of Stuart Island.
The whales turned out to be L21 and L47. They were constantly changing directions. There seemed to be something strange about their behavior, and we eventually noticed something odd about the wake L47 was making. Finally, when the lighting was right, we saw a tiny, brand new calf with a flopped over fin next to L47! The calf—to be newly minted L83—had obviously been born since L47 passed CWR earlier that morning. There was a chance that it had been born right in front of us! L83 was L47’s first documented calf. The three whales straightened out and began traveling northeast up Boundary Pass. It became a very peaceful scene, and we soon left the new trio so they could have some alone time.
Sixteen-day-old L82 with L55 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
L62, L80 and L27, 1990 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
Just a little over two weeks earlier, our colleagues Robin Baird and Pam Stacey had witnessed L55 give birth to L82 near Victoria. Their observations were quite different from ours. They reported several whales being involved and lots of splashing. The newly born L82 got thrown around a bit before all the whales porpoised west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It sounded so much more frantic compared to the quiet scene we had just witnessed. CWR staff got to see and document L82 two days after she was born. She seemed fine after her rough welcome to the world.
After reflecting on what we had just witnessed near Turn Point, Kelley, Rhonda, and I scanned for the rest of K and L pods. We found them deep in Boundary Pass heading northeast past Sandy Point on Waldron Island. They were acting excited and traveling quickly northeast in the direction of Patos Island while in a loose group with lots of splashing going on. When we were over halfway between Skipjack and Patos Islands, we just happened to look north. We suddenly noticed that J pod had arrived from the Strait of Georgia and were now lined up abreast and logging at the surface on the south side of Patos Island. Waiting for the Ks and Ls to arrive. We wondered if K and L pods would form up in lines and face J pod in a classic “greeting ceremony.” But K and L pods just trickled into J pod, and then the party got started.
K5 taillob, 1990 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
L10, 1990 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
While we didn’t get to see a greeting ceremony, we did have a classic Superpod on our hands. Everywhere you looked, there were large balls of rolling, socializing whales. Individuals would move from group to group. It was not uncommon for a whale from a group we had just left to magically appear with the whales we were currently looking at. It was hard to keep track of everything going on. Once, while we were all looking in one direction, we heard a little trickle of water behind us. We all jumped in surprise as L10 blew loudly right beside the boat.
Superpod socializing, 1990 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
K17 following around L11 and L77 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
The Superpod went on for the next several hours. The whales were still socializing when we left in the early afternoon. Only when we were leaving did we see L21, L47, and L83 again. They were on the very periphery of the socializing whales and did not look like they wanted to partake in the partying.
Center for Whale Research staff would see L83 again about three weeks later. She would, obviously, grow up over the years to be a big, healthy-looking Southern Resident female. She had her first documented calf, L110, in 2007.
1990 was a good calf year for L pod and the SRKWs in general. When we saw L pod for the first time in mid-June, there were already two new calves. L27 had shown up with her third calf, L80, and L60 had her first documented calf, L81. Then L82 was born on July 11 and L83 on July 27. L pod had a third summer baby and its fifth of the year when L84 first appeared in late August, traveling with L5 (even though it was L51’s first calf). And a sixth calf, K24, was born to K14 in the late summer, although we only saw it once in late September.
L47 and 18-day-old L83 (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
1991 would bring more Southern Resident calves and some confusion. K14’s calf, K24, was gone, but K13 had a new one. We wondered if some calf switching had been going on before we looked at the eye patches and realized they were two different calves. It turned out that K14 had lost her calf while K13 had her second calf, K25. This was the first time we really began using eyepatches to confirm calves’ identities. During their first year, when they experience really patchy skin. We had a similar problem when L51 showed up in 1991 with a calf that we originally called L85, and then we called L28’s new calf of the year, L86. We eventually figured it out that L85 was L84, and it really was L51’s calf. L5 must have been helping out L51 with the care of the new calf. This is something that we have seen several times over the years in births involving new mothers. So L28’s calf became L85, and L4’s new calf was L86. This caused a whole lot of erasing on our ID sheets. Back then, we use to ID every frame of the black and white ID film. And this, we often reminded our Earthwatch volunteers, was one of the reasons we always did our IDs in pencil!
Fall of 1991 would bring two more Southern Resident calves when we first saw J26 and J27 on November 2—both under two weeks of age and J26 with part of his umbilical cord still attached.
Unfortunately, we just aren’t seeing this kind of calf production in Southern Residents anymore. Both L82 and L83 are well into their reproductive years and could easily have had three well-spaced calves each by now. And yet, L83 has a single 13-year-old male offspring, and L82 has one 10-year-old male offspring. This has become a worrisome trend in recent decades. Of the sixteen SRKW females born since 1990 who have been recorded with a calf or were thought to be pregnant at some point (J28, J31, J32, J35, J36, J37, J41, K27, K28, L82, L83, L86, L90, L91, L94, and L103), nine currently only have a single male offspring, two (J36 and L90) currently have no offspring at all, and three (J28, J32, and K28) are dead. Another five SRKW females born during the 1980s (J22, K16, K20, K22, and L72) also only had single male offspring. Another couple of SRKW matrilines only have male offspring, and three adult males are the sole survivors of their respective matrilines. We are looking at a lot of dead-end matrilines and a major population crash in the coming decades if more female calves are not born into the Southern Resident community.
L83 at 29 years, 363 days old (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)
Baby booms like the one we had in 2014-2015 won’t do any good if the calves don’t grow up and reproduce themselves. Of the eight calves born and named in those two years, six were males. One of the two female calves from that period has since died along with two of the males. Unless we can provide the whales with proper amounts of salmon and reduce the contaminants in their blubber messing with their immune and reproductive systems, the Southern Resident community will continue to decline.
We are doing our best to keep a positive attitude and will continue to document and monitor the population dynamics of the SRKWs in the coming years. We hope we will be celebrating L83’s and L82’s fiftieth birthdays twenty years from now and that they will be veteran grandmothers by then!