Wild orcas face numerous threats around the world. But "southern resident killer whales," a collection of three orca pods in the eastern North Pacific Ocean, are officially classified as endangered by the U.S. government. One of those orca populations is a pod known as J-pod, which is frequently spotted near Washington State's Puget Sound.
J-pod is widely known as being the pod of "Granny," the female orca famous for being what scientists estimate to be 103 years old (and thereby the oldest known living orca in the world). However, the pod is one of many whose population has steadily declined over the past several years, with several unexpected deaths and no new births since 2012.
In early December 2014, a pregnant female in the pod was found dead, adding to the tragedy of the group. According to Live Science, the death was cited by scientists as a great loss of "a lot of reproductive potential."
But on December 30, a scientist at the Center for Whale Research spotted something encouraging in the J-pod: a newborn.
Scientists aren't sure who the mother of the new baby orca is. But the calf, called "J-50," is a small sign of hope for the dwindling population.
There is still much work to be done to protect the orcas, who've been ravished by historic captivity and shrinking supply of their food sources in the wild. But if J-50 survives, the baby will the first success among southern resident killer whales in over two years. And successes that like will be crucial to the whales avoiding extinction.
Photo via Brian Gratwicke