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SEATTLE (Reuters) - An infant killer whale was spotted over the weekend in Washington state's Puget Sound, the first orca born to the region's endangered population of marine mammals in two years, experts said on Monday.
It was not yet known whether the baby whale is a male or female, but the calf appeared to be about a week old when it was first seen by researchers on Sunday, said Ken Balcomb, the executive director of the Center for Whale Research.
"The baby's dorsal fin was upright, not folded over, indicating it was probably more than one day old, so we are estimating its birthday was in early September, 2014," he said.
The calf was swimming between two adult females, one presumed to be the mother, the other its aunt, Balcomb said.
The appearance of the baby orca, spotted near the San Juan Islands, about 70 miles (113 km) northwest of Seattle, delighted researchers but also prompted concern about the calf's future.
The baby has a 50 percent chance of survival, down from an estimated survival rate of 60 percent about two decades ago, Balcomb said.
"If we took the historical average of having a calf every 5.2 years, we should have three to four babies every year. We haven't seen that in a while," he said.
Strain on the resident population in the Pacific Northwest has been linked to commercial over fishing for salmon, a diet staple for orcas, as well as sewage disposal and pollution of their habitat, experts said.
The whales have also been hurt by military exercises using sonar, artillery and bombs in coastal waters, Balcomb said.
Killer whales, distinguished by their striking black and white bodies, are highly intelligent, social creatures that rely on underwater sound for orientation, feeding, and communication.
The largest members of the dolphin family, they communicate using whistles and pulsed calls and maintain group cohesion or "pods" through their lifetime, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
There are currently 79 "southern resident" killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, the only known resident population to exist in the United States, according to Balcomb and NOAA. That's down from about 98 whales in 1994 and around 200 in the late 1880s, data indicates.
The new baby is the first known to be born in the region since 2012. That same year, a 3-year-old female died under still murky circumstances during military exercises in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Balcomb said.
The population became designated as endangered in 2005.
Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler