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Tiniest Arrival Brings New Hope To Endangered Orcas

There's a bit of good news for a wild orca family that's been fighting for years to survive.

A new calf was born recently to the southern resident orcas, an endangered population of orcas that lives mainly off the coast of Washington and British Columbia, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) fisheries department announced on Tuesday.

It's unclear who mothered the little calf, who was named J55, but the NOAA said he appeared to be doing well. "The calf seems to be just a few days old and in good condition," the department wrote.

Unfortunately, news from the southern residents isn't all good. On the same trip that confirmed the birth of J55, researchers witnessed a 20-year-old female, J31, pushing around a deceased newborn calf. J31 has never successfully bred, according to the NOAA, Yet the successful arrival of J55 is excellent news for the southern residents, who are made up of three smaller groups: the J, K and L pods. The southern residents had their population decimated in the 1960s and 1970s after an entire generation of babies was stolen and shipped off to marine parks; witnesses reported hearing the mother orcas screaming as their babies were captured in nets.

Since then, the family has struggled to rebuild its population, and has been further hindered by a host of human threats including pollution, vessel noise and reduced food availability.

For several years, researchers feared that the southern residents were on their way out; there were no surviving calves from the 2013 or 2014 breeding seasons. But little J55 is the latest in a spurt of births over the past year, bringing the total population up to 85.

Hopefully the little calf is a sign of things to come for the endangered family.

For an up-close look at the southern residents - including some very happy whale jumps - click here and here.