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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Baby Orcas And Gloomy Future: Can Whale Watching Help?

Is it ethical to go whale watching? Boats sometimes interfere with whales’ ability to hunt and eat. But whale watching can also connect people with conservation.

And that could help the group of orcas that are resident in Puget Sound. The recent arrival of another baby orca in that so-called southern resident group (see photos in the slideshow above) has tickled whale watchers in the San Juan Islands.

Five calves have been born to that group this year. But the southern resident orcas are listed as endangered.

  • 50 percent of orca calves don’t live beyond their first year.
  • Pollution, the decline of king salmon and boat noise combine to threaten the group's survival. 
  • Live-capture programs for aquariums cut the population to 67 by 1971 from an estimated 200 in the 1800s, according to NOAA Fisheries.  
  • The three pods in the group now total 81 orcas.

“Seeing the orcas is an inspiring sight,” said David Neiwert, author of the book “Of Orcas and Men.”
“They’re also the indicator species for the health of our Puget Sound,” he said. “It behooves all of us in the long run to try to save them because not only do we save salmon runs and things like that in the process, but I also think in some ways we help save ourselves.”

Although the southern resident orcas seem to be in trouble, transient orca populations have increased -- they prey on seals, dolphins and small whales and don’t depend on salmon. Humpback whales also are doing better, and they’re often seen now in the San Juans, said Dan Wilk, captain of the 56-foot Orcas Express.

Pavani Piduru was aboard his boat recently and got to see orcas splashing.

“This is my first time, and I’m really, really excited,” she said.

Produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Dan Wilk's last name.

Year started with KUOW: 2004