By Victoria Cavaliere
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A healthy, days-old orca calf has been spotted with a pod of killer whales in the open waters of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the third baby born to the endangered population this winter, scientists said on Friday.
A research crew had been following the orcas to study their winter movements and feeding habits when scientists made the surprise discovery on Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division said.
"The whales were very grouped up and within a few minutes we observed the new calf - with its unique orangish color on the white areas. The calf looked very energetic," Brad Hanson, a NOAA biologist, said in an email from the research vessel.
Scientists said it was the first time they have seen a baby born in the outer coast, or Pacific Ocean waters, and not the more protected area of Puget Sound between Washington and British Columbia where the orcas spend much of their time.
"It's important to see if it survives but also to see if there's any differences or advantages being born on the outer coast versus the inner sound," said NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein.
The baby was the third born in three months, bringing to 80 the number of orcas living in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Though the calf's birth was a hopeful sign, the orca population of the Pacific Northwest remains perilously low, experts said. Threats include environmental pollution and over-fishing that has depleted their primary food source, Chinook salmon.
Last year, the population lost four killer whales, including a pregnant female and a weeks-old calf.
The federal research team has been following the highly intelligent and social marine mammals, the largest member of the dolphin family, to figure out "where Southern Resident killer whales go in the winter, and what they eat when they leave Puget Sound," NOAA said on a website about the project.
The baby was first spotted off the coast of Westport, Washington, but over the past two weeks the whales have been busy traversing a wide strip of ocean, from southern Oregon to central Washington, scientists said.
The Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered under both U.S. and Canadian law. The population has reached an almost record low this year, down from 98 in 1995 and well over 200 in the 19th century, according to the Center for Whale Research.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)