This story begins with the unexpected find of  Star's stranded newborn brother, and develops into a tale of survival and hope.


On January 7th, 2013 biologists collected the battered, scratched, and bruised body of a newborn killer whale from the windswept shore of Dungeness Spit in Washington State. The calf was transported for further examination to NOAA Fisheries in Seattle where a pathologist noted that the calf had suffered internal bleeding around his head, throat, tongue, right ear and brain.
Fluid had accumulated in his chest and abdomen, and tests revealed that even though he had taken a brief breath he had not lived long enough to nurse and receive any milk.


Inexplicably, there were a few stones in his stomach. His eyes and lips had been consumed by opportunistic predators before he was found.

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

The deep scratches that transect his body are rake marks made by the teeth of a whale, possibly from being supported to the surface by the mother.


Biologists theorize that these marks on newborns can also be from other family members assisting in difficult deliveries. 

Dungeness Spit is near Sequim, Washington
The remarkable story of an orphan whale
Photo credit:  The Center for Whale Research
Tests Reveal the Calf's Identity
Genetic tests revealed that the calf was an endangered Southern Resident orca.
Although the pathologist hasn't ruled out injuries associated with stranding, this unfortunate calf seems to have fallen into the pattern that is wreaking havoc on this population of whales. Researchers have found that as many as 69% of all known pregnancies in this endangered species are unsuccessful and a third of those fail towards the end of pregnancy or around the birth.
Biologists have been cataloging these orcas for over 40 years and
could pinpoint the identity of his family -   his mother was
Polaris (J 28), his father was Mega (L41),
and he had a sister, Star (J 46).
Newborn Star (J 46) with her mother Polaris (J 28) in 2009.
Newborn orcas have an orange or yellow cast to their skin.
Photo credit:  The Center for Whale Research
In contrast to the deceased calf, Polaris' first calf Star had arrived in robust health, and within days was swimming hundreds of miles. Even so, it would be the struggles that awaited her that show us the challenges that these whales face, and how they rise up to meet them. 
When Star was born in 2009, she was first seen nestled by her mother’s side as her family swam past the shores of San Juan Island near the US/Canadian border.
The whales proceeded up to the Victoria, BC harbor before turning around and journeying down to the Seattle waterfront. While every new calf in the Southern Resident orca population is a cause for celebration, this family’s parade through the Salish Sea was unusual.
The sight of the new little orca brought accolades and cheers wherever they went, the calf already a little star living up to the name she would receive from the Center for Whale Research.
While it’s unusual for the Center to assign names other than the occasional nickname to whales, in 2009 they named a few of the new calves. Star was chosen to represent a public awareness effort to restore the Chinook salmon that these whales depend upon.
In a 2010 blog post, the Center’s senior scientist, Ken Balcomb, wrote “I earlier designated the new female calf J46 and called her “Star” for the starring role I hoped she would play in inspiring the public interested in conserving the fish resources needed for the entire SRKW population (and for humans),”
Photo credit: NOAA
Star's welcome to the world
Next: Star lives up to her name when fish are scarce and her mother is too sick to hunt.