Valentine's 'Baby Shamu' captures hearts at SeaWorld San Diego

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Mom and baby killer whale swim together at SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Stadium. By Catherine Holland Mom and baby killer whale swim together at SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Stadium. By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

SAN DIEGO -- The staff at SeaWorld San Diego fell in love on Valentine's Day -- with the park's new baby killer whale.

Mom Kasatka gave birth to a beautiful calf just after 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

Weighing in between 300 and 350 pounds, the baby is between 6 and 7 feet long. Next to mom, however, he -- or she, the gender is not known yet -- looks positively tiny.

"We've been given the best Valentine's Day present ever," animal training supervisor Kristi Burtis said a few hours after the calf's arrival.

Sea World's zoological team was on hand for the birth in Shamu Stadium, and will be keeping a very close eye Kasatka, who was in labor for a little more than an hour, and her little one for the next several days.

“As with any newborn, the first few days are critical. We’re looking forward to the continued bonding of mom and calf and the baby beginning to nurse,” said Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations.

Scarpuzzi said their initial assessment is that Kasatka's calf is strong and healthy.

Born in the wild, Katsatka was captured in 1978 off the coast of Iceland. She was a year old. Now about 37, this is not her first baby. The calf has one brother and two sisters, as well as two nieces and a nephew.

Kasatka gave birth to Takara in 1991, Nakai in 2001 and Kalia in 2004. Takara, who now calls SeaWorld San Antonio home, has gone on to have calves of her own.

We've been given the best Valentine's Day present ever.

- Kristi Burtis, Animal training supervisor

The Valentine's Day calf is SeaWorld San Diego's first "Baby Shamu" since Kalia, who was actually in the tank to welcome her baby sibling, and the sixth in the park's nearly 50-year history.

Killer whales, also called orcas, are social mammals known for sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors. They often live in matrilineal family groups and develop behaviors specific to those groups that are passed down from generation to generation.

A mother killer whale will nurse her calf for about 12 months. Weaning is usually complete by the time the baby is 2.

Female killer whales mature at about 15 years old and breed until they are about 40. Gestation generally runs about 15 to 18 months. Mothers give birth about every five years, which means this could be Kasatka's last baby.

The lifespan of a wild female orca is about 50, but they can live to be between 80 and 90 years old. Captive killer whales generally die much younger. Kasatka is one of a few to live into her 30s.

Wild orcas can be found in every ocean and most seas and while they can be aggressive -- there have been several well-publicized incidents over the years -- they generally are not considered a threat to humans. Most incidents of aggression have occurred with animals in captivity.

Katsaka, herself, reportedly has been involved in two such events and no longer performs with trainers in the water.

SeaWorld has not said when its staff will be able to determine the calf's gender or when they might name it.