K pod still wandering up and down the coast

UPDATE, Feb. 11, 2013

It appears K pod made it back to California, reaching as far south as Cape Mendocino before turning around yesterday. The map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page by Robin Baird is from yesterday. Recall that the transmitter is now sending data every other day.
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K pod has been moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts — and once ventured into California waters — since K-25 was tagged with a satellite transmitter on Dec. 29. The transmitter is still sending out data, though the transmissions have been reduced to every other day to extend the battery life.

The latest movement of K pod was a quick trip from the Ozette area on the North Olympic Coast on Monday to an area near Coos Bay, Ore., this morning.

“They kind of bolted,” Brad Hanson, a researcher with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told me, as he considered how quickly the whales have been moving on occasion.

K pod has moved quickly down the Washington coast into Oregon. (Click to enlarge.) NOAA map
K pod has moved quickly down the Washington coast into Oregon over the past few days. (Click to enlarge.) / NOAA map

Brad said he and other researchers are learning a great deal from the tagging study, and more will be known when the data can be studied and compared with acoustic recordings of whale calls picked up on hydrophones up and down the coast.

“We are really excited about it,” Brad said of the tracking study. “It cracks the door open on what these guys are up to.”

While traveling from Washington to Oregon and sometimes into California, K pod has been slowing and even pausing at times.

It may be too early to call out any patterns, he said, but it is interesting to compare the travels of K pod — a resident, fish-eating group — with the travels of transient orcas, which hunt marine mammals.

“When the whales (K pod) came up the Oregon Coast, they went to the south side of the Astoria canyon and stayed along the canyon contour,” Hanson said. “That’s much like what we have observed with transients.”

For the tracks of K pod, as shown by satellite data, go to a special webpage set up by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

So far, K pod has not left the continental shelf for the deeper ocean since the study started at the end of December. That’s consistent with what researchers have suspected for the resident pods. While recent data on the movement of adult chinook salmon are sparse, it is believed that many, if not most, of the stocks stay on the continental shelf, he said.

It’s often said that the only thing predictable about killer whales is that they will surprise you with their unpredictability. The K pod orcas have been living up to that reputation during their recent travels.

Brad says facetiously that if he could talk to the whales for just 10 minutes he would ask them two simple questions: 1) Who decides when you turn around, and 2) What factors go into that decision.

Here’s a recap of their movements since the tracking experiment began with the tagging of K-25 on Dec. 29:

In the first 10 days, the whales traveled from South Kitsap down to Eureka, Calif., where they stayed a short time before moving on south to an area just north of Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco on Jan. 11.

The pod turned around at Point Reyes and continued rapidly north to a coastal area near Port Orford, Ore., where they lingered a bit, making several passes north and south.

The whales moved on north to the Columbia River and veered offshore, following the edge of the continental shelf until they were offshore of Queets, where they moved back toward shore. On Jan. 22, as the whales approached the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they headed offshore before turning around and heading into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They made it to the end of the Juan de Fuca canyon, short of Port Angeles, on Jan. 23 and then turned around again.

Three days later, the whales were back down around the Columbia River, where they slowed their travels, moving north and south, and then headed farther south. They may have reached Newport, Ore., last Thursday, Jan. 31, when they turned and headed north again.

On Monday, the whales traveled along the edge of the continental shelf before heading closer to shore in the Ozette area of the Washington Coast. Since then, they have traveled back down the coast, where they were last reported about 15 miles southwest of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning and near Coos Bay this morning.

One thought on “K pod still wandering up and down the coast

  1. Thanks for the synopsis, Chris. These maps are fascinating food for thought as we remember the stranding of the young L-pod whale (L-112) just north of the Columbia a year ago yesterday.

    I’m most intrigued with the pauses that K pod has made near the mouth of the Columbia. Does anyone know how many hours or days separate the little white dots on the whale tracks?

    And a final thought: during the orca-salmon workshops sponsored by NOAA, many fisheries biologists presented information about adult salmon migratory pathways, but oddly (to me) there seemed to be a consensus that adult Chinook bound for the Columbia come straight in over the continental shelf, not along it…

    Search these notes — http://www.beamreach.org/2012/09/18/liveblog-salmonorca-workshop-iii — for Chinook to find more dots worth connecting. For example, initial genetic results suggest L-112 had Chinook and halibut in her digestive tract.

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