Category Archives: Marine mammals

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast, presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those travels in a moment.

Report

NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest risk of extinction.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts through enforcement, education and evaluation: This includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise and other problems to be identified.
  • Target recovery of critical prey: Because chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
  • Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places that are important to them.
  • Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.

And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be assessed on the water.

Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20. NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport, Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales, assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.

Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can, as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled for next year.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”

The researchers are trying to account for differences among the pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers would like to see whether the whales are going to different places or acting differently.

Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings are collected at the end of the season.

In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales and provide information about hormone levels and other indications of general health.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino, Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time, they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan. 22.

Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were over Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong currents rising up from the underwater chasm.

The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on Jan. 29.

From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days, mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching the edge of the continental shelf.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport (not yet depicted on the map).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.

Amusing Monday: Fighting climate change with a silly school play

A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,” have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school students across the country.

The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring climate-saving ideas home with them.

The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows an NBC News story from 2011.

The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be shared with kids and their parents.

The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools across the country, though most are in California. See the list at “Participating Schools and Troops.”

An article on the Green Schools Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:

“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”

Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no- or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly trading cards.

Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.

Amusing Monday: Music in tune with salmon and orcas of the Salish Sea

Dana Lyons, known for his songs of humor and environmental inspiration, performed his tune “The Great Salish Sea” during Saturday’s Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island.

The lyrics are told from the perspective of “Granny,” an orca estimated to be 104 years old and the oldest whale among the Southern Residents. The song tells about how underwater sounds, as heard by the whales, have changed over time — from the Native American canoes and the sailing ships of yesteryear to the noisy tankers of today.

Dana performed the song solo, with only his guitar, on Saturday at the Ways of Whales Workshop, sponsored by Orca Network. The sound was wonderful, and Dana’s voice rang out clear, but the recorded version sounds richer with additional instrumentation, as you can hear in the first video on this page.

“The Great Salish Sea” is the title song is from Dana’s latest album, which includes the popular “Salmon Come Home.” I’ve posted the music video of the salmon song in the second video player on this page. Other songs on the album include “I Need the Water,” which speaks of the competition for this limited resource. To hear the songs on the album, go to “The Great Salish Sea” on Dana’s website., which also includes his full list of albums.

Dana has toured throughout North America and in many countries during his 30-year career. His current schedule includes upcoming appearances in Langley, Vancouver, B.C., and Port Townsend.

Dana was born in Kingston, New York, and graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He now lives in Bellingham.

Humor has long been a key part of Dana’s music, so I think we should revisit one of his most popular songs, “Cows with Guns,” viewed in the third video player (below).

Orca Network plans to ‘Livestream’ Ways of Whales Workshop

Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts, careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by nature.

Ways

Tickets will be available at the door. Go to “Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.

For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream the event live on the Internet. Connect with the Livestream network to join the event via computer.

In addition to speakers providing the latest information about orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita, or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the Salish Sea.

For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened that to “Toki.”

“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with indications that a combination of changing public attitudes, questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,” Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.

"Toki's retirement home," as Howard Garret calls it. Photo: Orca Network
“Toki’s retirement home” in the San Juan Islands, as Howard Garrett calls it.
Photo: Orca Network

A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government — but so far that determination has been of little consequence.

The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so the plan goes.

It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans — would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course, attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.

Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium (Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki to Puget Sound. (See Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?

Amusing Monday: What a man says while riding a rather large whale

Old Spice has gone crazy again, this time with a new character called “Legendary Man.”

This off-the-wall rival to the “most interesting man in the world” plays tennis while riding on the back of a whale. If that weren’t enough, he never gives a thought to his own safety (or abilities) while attempting to break the land speed record.

The campaign is designed to bring attention to the new Hardest Working Collection product line, including antiperspirant/deodorant and body wash. Scents include Lasting Legend, Pure Sport Plus and Stronger Swagger.

Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy of Portland, Ore., has created a “self-deprecating twist on the absurd bravado” that characterized previous Old Spice commercials, according to an analysis by Patrick Kulp in AdWeek magazine.

So what does “Legendary Man” think about life? Listen to what he says in the whale commercial, and see if you can make any sense of it:

Where does regular end and the extreme begin?
Mmm. Good question.
A wise man once said, “Sweat and body odor is your body’s way of saying, ‘Hey. Slow down. You need a break.’”
But thanks to new Dirt Destroyer, the most powerful Old Spice body wash ever made, my body will finally shut up and let me live.
Is there a limit to how much living I can live with my life?
How will I know if I’ve gone too far?
And why did I spend my life saving some sunglasses for a whale?
I shall find the answers to these questions.

If you are impressed, listen closely to what “Legendary Man” says in the second commercial on this page, called “Rocket Car.” Don’t forget to make these fullscreen by clicking on the box in the lower right had corner of the video player.

These newest Old Spice commercials, launched just this month, are included in a set of four commercials called “Smellegendary.”

Old Spice turns out new ad concepts more quickly than the change of the seasons.

In November, a series called ESPN Takeover includes a piece called “Bathroom Break.” See the third video on this page.

In August, the commercials were called “Make a Smellmitment,” including the commercial called “And so it begins,” which is the final video on this page.

K pod, tracked by satellite, heads quickly down the Oregon Coast

Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the Washington Coast into Oregon.

The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in Canada. See Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.

Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map

On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands, reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.

After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon. Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape Blanco in Southern Oregon.

Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map

“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See his 2013 blog and notes from this year’s tagging program.

On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient (seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales. As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch the video on the website of the Center for Whale Research.

K pod turns back and heads up into Canada

A quick update on K pod and the current satellite-tracking project for the Southern Residents of the Salish Sea.

K-33's travels from Monday until today. NOAA map
K-33’s travels from Monday until today. // NOAA map

In the last report on Monday (Water Ways, Jan. 4), the tagged killer whale K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika, was milling around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean with three other whales in his family group. Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center predicted that all of K pod (possibly with J pod) would come together there or in the Strait.

By Monday evening, the whales entered the Strait and headed east. By Tuesday afternoon, they had passed through Haro Strait between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, where they were accompanied by J pod, based on hydrophone calls near San Juan Island.

Yesterday, the whales were in the southern portion of the Strait of Georgia, then they quickly headed north. This morning, they were in the northern portion of the Strait, an area where J pod has been known to hang out, according to Brad’s notes on the tracking project. This must be an area with relatively abundant salmon, given the time of year.

The project is designed to identify areas of importance to the killer whales and potentially expand the “critical habitat” that needs protection for the orca population to recover.

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of death has not yet been determined. For additional information, review the news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
—–

For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.

On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer whale.

Deceased orca calf

If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated people.

The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island says everything points to the whale being one of the seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles, research director for CWR.

Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing more than a dead marine mammal.

“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients. Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are expected within two or three weeks.

Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate, transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents. Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in 2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.

For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and struggling to survive along with the orcas.

Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011, when the population reached about 300, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote areas where they may not be seen by anyone.

Several older transients among this population have died in recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.

Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For details, check out the 2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).

More on tagging study

Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad Hanson.

This year’s data could provide additional information about how the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.

The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center for Whale Research.

Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the U.S. Navy.

Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”