It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old
female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead
— even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now
appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will
not survive either.
I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in
Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks,
including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still
alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but
at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she
might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the
Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of
Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of
Puget Sound orcas.
Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for
the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to
provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.
Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting
that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was
easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the
distinctive mark when she was nine years old.
At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning
problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their
primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn
fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic
chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can
affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is
supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year,
but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.
For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically
wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things
have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have
remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible
for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low
this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to
get a complete count until September, he told me.
Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the
whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be
made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be
counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups
during multiple encounters.
“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the
end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there
is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”
As with this year, the census could not be completed at this
time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of
whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last
Water Ways, July 1, 2015.
As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has
requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an
early indication of their condition, but his requests have been
denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase
a membership in
the Center for Whale Research.
On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that
are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the
second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters
during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of
orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open
Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an
aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point
near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this
“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49
were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a
zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up
vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera.
The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls,
surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to
take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get
some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had
not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”
The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces
much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed
fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see
from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower
than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of
Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is
predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year
average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than
last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high
numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See
2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).
Considering the apparent difference between the number of
chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no
wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.
Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the
annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of
whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months.
Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with
the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can
tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still
living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that
when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in
I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center
for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research
Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the
killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all
living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand
the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can
decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to
find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for
efforts to protect them.
On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain
your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated.
The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the
I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which
showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with
killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described
these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on
the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have
learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of
step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read
these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the
Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many
more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center
for Whale Research.
With highest regards, Chris.
The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract
with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month
survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound.
Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by
Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas,
researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives
and even their unique behaviors — which I would call
“personalities” for want of a better term.
Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the
lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness
for the animals in the
first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in
“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a
few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the
word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most
folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we
were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy —
mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from
Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo
technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a
few skeptics, I’m sure.”
I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a
number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning
now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far
we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting
how much more we have to learn.
log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct
encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study
on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit
“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM
and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½
mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were
initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several
minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port
Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and,
at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove
again for several minutes.
“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour
of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for
photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits.
Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach
the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a
little farther offshore.
“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By
maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated
by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet.
The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a
leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds
down, still proceeding westerly.”
Remember that this was only months after the final capture of
killer whales in Puget Sound. (See
account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the
intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales
came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.
If only they could know how much human attitudes around the
world have changed over the past 40+ years.
Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of
their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod
were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb.
The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when
J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s
“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb.
25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the
newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken
stated in a news release
The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA
researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn
swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her
daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced
Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn,
apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing
around her deceased calf. See
Water Ways, Jan. 19.
The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been
Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was
12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish
who is just entering the reproductive age.
J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after
the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some
members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he
photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see
J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.
The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay
the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents
until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted
Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was
carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.
“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern
Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population,
it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves
did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news
release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive
their first year.
“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores
the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon
– if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and
The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a
year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have
infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is
listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents
to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami
Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel
Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the
Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team,
said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but
they include various family groups in both pods.
The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed
them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the
Water Ways, Wednesday.)
On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark
Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of
Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.
“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark
wrote in a report to the Center
for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were
doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30
p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were
still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of
the Olympic Peninsula).”
After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the
south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day
Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.
“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact
with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no
vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook
post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to
stay with them all night.
“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the
Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned
north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the
Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon
were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations
with the whales.”
In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed
“surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they
have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were
eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad
but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce
winds and waves tomorrow.
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
Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s
Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.
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.
“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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”