Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that
Paul Pudwell of Sooke
Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have
not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted
July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver
Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for
identification by Ken and company.
By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern
Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had
just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the
population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number
includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami
Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see
Water Ways, July 1 and
Water Ways, July 7.
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.
A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due
today, and it appears that the total population of the three
Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this
But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of
orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait,
according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which
conducts the annual census.
The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no
longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is
for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more
families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay
together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are
becoming less certain.
“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely
different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now,
we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”
The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July
1 each year and reports it to the federal government by
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
J-51 a male*
calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
L-121 a male*
calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
J-52 a female
male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March
*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale
Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update
These were the first births among Southern Residents to be
reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a
hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That
was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead
on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was
pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside
her body could have led to her death as well. For more details ,
see Water Ways from
Dec. 7 and from
While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have
occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until
the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are
truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we
could see one or more whales added to the death list.
In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer
since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of
whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all
the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported
yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any
“missing” whales were identified.
Since the census report is not due until October, there is time
to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any
more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a
judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July
1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be
Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct
because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily
chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the
rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain
Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as
wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if
the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.
“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we
named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were
coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the
same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less
pulses and the fish are more spread out.”
The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said,
so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.
The Center for Whale
Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in
Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering
memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional
This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal
of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An
individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special
member benefits, go to “Supporting the
Center for Whale Research.”
In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake
River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat
for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His
experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has
placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these
four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and
are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a
very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river
(now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and
rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”
“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild
salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are
dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer
whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding
animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon
upon which they depend…
“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon
and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone.
Call or write your representatives today!”
The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks
Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone
in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant
bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety
of their home.
Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch
the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that
far more people have been watching them from home via the
live webcams. I say that because of the number of
comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters
seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their
nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying
each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear
size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)
Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the
bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the
saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier
to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime
in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be
Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming
in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is
going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait
and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at
sunrise and sunset.
When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard
to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve
learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view,
you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has
happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.
Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used
by the bears in an interesting
Q&A section on the national park’s website.
Birds and marine mammal cams
Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other
wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on
their nests, raising their young.
Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple,
Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in
Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and
produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from
nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.
Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake
Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three
eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey
cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.
cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a
fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to
feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they
often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new
colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the
If you would like to see a colony
of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live
camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of
the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning,
large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The
comments are often entertaining.
I was eager to find out if a 32-foot fiberglass replica of a
killer whale could scare off a huge number of sea lions crowded
together on the docks in Astoria, Ore.
I kept telling my wife Sue, “It’s not going to work” — and I had
not the slightest idea that the motorized orca might capsize during
its attempt to frighten the persistent sea lions.
About 1,000 people were on hand last night when a human operator
drove the orca toward the sea lions, according to Associated Press
reporter Terrence Petty. A passing cargo ship created a wake that
rushed toward the shore and capsized the fake killer whale. And
that was that for now. You can read the story in the
I understand that the fake killer whale might be deployed again
against the sea lions in August, when their numbers are expected to
be high again. I still doubt that it will work — unless the
operators can find a way to aggressively approach the sea lions and
stay with the effort for an extended time. It might help to play
recordings of transient killer whales — the kind that eat marine
mammals. But my understanding is that transients don’t make many
sounds when they are in their hunting mode.
I readily admit that I’m not a killer whale expert, but let me
tell you why I believe that any sort of limited effort with fake
orcas will fail. It’s not that sea lions don’t fear transients. In
fact, if sea lions can be convinced that they are being approached
by a real killer whale, their fear level could be quite high.
I’ve heard from homeowners who live on Hood Canal, Dyes Inlet
and other shorelines that when transient killer whales are around,
seals and sea lions head for shore, climb up on docks and even
attempt to board boats to get away from them.
So I don’t know if the fiberglass orca will fool the sea lions
in Astoria, but does anyone think that these marine mammals are
crazy enough to jump into the water if they believe a killer is
there waiting for them?
This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern
Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a
25-year-old male named Nyssa.
It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern
Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The
transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar
deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached
to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after
about a month.
The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the
entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson,
project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
That tells the researchers something about the movement of the
whales later in the year than previous deployments have
A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended
the total tracking period to more than four months.
Looking back through the
tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his
entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near
the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have
ventured into Northern California.
On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters,
reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days
later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks
Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then
they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near
the Columbia River.
Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia
Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of
the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was
loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.
The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples
of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the
whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are
finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead
to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and
increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical
habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has
concluded that more information is needed before changing the
designated protection area.
Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods
should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands,
as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams
in the Salish Sea.
Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the
San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty
of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos
That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient
killer whales that have traveled as far south as the
Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have
been sighted in northern Puget Sound.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory
being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon
researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater
volcano called Axial Seamount.
Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these
researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique
geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the
ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet.
Water Ways, May 6.
Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity
has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can
society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a
wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment
operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the
unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?
For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations
of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was
worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs
of commercial recovery were too great.
The high profitability of mining sector companies;
A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper
and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
Technological advances in deep seabed mining and
The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either
excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules.
Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining
corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone
of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.
“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has
the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we
even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the
Center for Biological Diversity, adding:
“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that
scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory…
What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia,
deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean,
affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say
they don’t yet fully understand.”
Last week, the environmental group filed a
lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing
exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies.
Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:
“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to
compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it
leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife
and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for
other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two
exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a
subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original
permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004.
Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan
before renewing the permits in 2012.
“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable
harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government
has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full
environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our
Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up
sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom,
according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and
clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce
reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and
vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other
marine mammals, the suit claims.
Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe
and Asia by the International
Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental
standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those
rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because
the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law
of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed
Cameron Teller of Seattle, a former Kitsap County resident, is
the Grand Prize winner in the
“Share the Experience” photo contest — which means his touching
photo of a polar bear and her cub will receive prominent display on
next year’s annual pass for entrance into national parks and other
Cameron’s photo was among 22,000 images submitted last year in
the annual contest, which provides a $10,000 prize to the
Cameron snapped the shot from a boat a good distance away, just
as the cub reached its mother. The amateur photographer had gone
out on the boat as part of a six-person tour to Alaska’s remote
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the group was focused on
seeing polar bears and Northern Lights.
“I love going on trips to faraway places and taking
photographs,” Cameron told me.
The group had flown from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska, then
onto Kaktovik, the only village inside the wildlife refuge. A guide
took them out on a fishing boat, where they spent the day
photographing wildlife and scenery.
“The captain was a local resident,” Cameron said. “We went out
early in the morning. It was awfully foggy that morning, then it
started clearing up. The sun came out and it was a great day for
The trip occurred at the beginning of winter last year, just as
the sea ice was freezing up. In fact, he said, the ice had grown so
thick around the dock where the group departed that the captain had
to choose a different landing site to get the group back to
Cameron said there is nothing like seeing mothers and their
babies, and it was a special moment when the polar bear cub walked
over and reached up to its mother.
“I still can’t quite believe I won,” Cameron told me. “There
were some amazing photos that were entered. I think one of the
reasons this appealed to the judges is the whole topic of global
warming and protection of the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge.”
Of course, polar bears have become a symbol of the melting ice
caps in the polar regions, where the bears are threatened with
extinction because of declining habitat.
Cameron moved to Bremerton from Kansas City about 13 years ago
to work for Parametrix, an engineering firm with an office on
Kitsap Way. He lived in Manette a short time before moving to
Bainbridge Island, where he resided for 11 years. For the past two
years, he has lived in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
Cameron said the $10,000 prize will help fund his ongoing
adventures. He visited Kenya about two years ago and plans to
travel to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido next January.
It has been a good year for Cameron, who also won “Outdoor
“American Landscape Contest” with a photo of El Capitan, a
vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park.
The polar bear photo will be featured on next year’s America the
Beautiful pass, an annual pass that gets visitors into more than
2,000 public recreation sites on federal land. About 300,000 people
purchase the pass each year.
The annual “Share
the Experience” contest is sponsored by the National Park
Foundation, Active Network, and Celestron in partnership with the
National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of
Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S.
Photographs are now being accepted for next year’s contest,
which requires pictures to be taken during 2015 and submitted by
the end of the year. Winners will be announced by May 1, 2016.
Weekly winners are recognized.
Other winners announced last week in the “Share the Experience”
contest include Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., second place for his
photo of the Golden Gate Bridge taken at sunset from Marshall
Beach, and Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, for his photo of a
bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said she hopes the
contest helps inspire people to enjoy the country’s “unrivaled
public lands and waters” and share the feeling with others.
“Taking pictures is one of the many ways to enjoy the splendor
of our nation’s stunning landscapes and share those treasured
moments with friends and family, as well as inspire others who may
have never visited to get out and explore their public lands,” she
said in a
L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a
satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing
researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales
traveling with him.
Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay
around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two
offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L
pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well,
according to observers.
The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about
the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed
as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they
are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate
The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has
been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to
reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area,
Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally
traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various
times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research —
have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from
the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to
determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon
are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as
Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study
the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped
researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study
for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84
has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to
be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time,
and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.
“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a
Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last?
The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the
attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”
The research is not just about figuring out where the whales
travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are
important to them.
While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being
expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key
locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the
whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are
located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for
days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers
hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data
together, Brad said.
With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the
coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales
that get out into the deep ocean.
“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said.
“The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they
mitigate for marine mammal presence.”
Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely
relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the
animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of
detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to
move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the
continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go
out that far.
The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals
in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is
not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether
new information about the health condition of the whales can be
teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods
of study are needed to assess their health.
Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in,
challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions,
complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific
reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final
step even harder than it has been in the past.
A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for
the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate
about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.
The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new
year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod,
bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if
you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.
Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf,
which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island
in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy
Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a
3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling
with J-16, a female named Slick.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne
reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose.
“But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and
the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer
(Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”
The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than
a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its
skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart.
Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation
period of 15 to 18 months.
If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether
J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late
December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised
that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new
calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the
offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See
Water Ways, Jan. 22.
At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth,
since this age is normally associated with menopause.
After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really
involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote
this in his notes following one encounter:
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced.
While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was
the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most
likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the
newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed
help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.
Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to
return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth
may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby,
designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be
her likely offspring.
Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in
December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so
J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have
been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would
fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came
from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to
see how that works out.
Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a
baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly
before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed
uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have
survived if a nursemaid had been available.
I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and
he noted that some deceased females have been found with two
fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered
Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying
individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their
population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian
researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the
capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)
“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and
sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same
calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the
following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there
were really 71 whales.”
Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with
J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of
another female whale or its baby?
“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that
orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones.
Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could
indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms