Tag Archives: Center for Whale Research

Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

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.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

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 species.

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 bloodstream.

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.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

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 it.”

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 population.

“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.

One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research,
taken under federal permits NMFS 15569/ DFO SARA 388

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 death.”

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 grandmother.

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 said.

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.

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

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.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

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 pods.

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 year. See 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 ocean.

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 information:

“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 the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

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 September.

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

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.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

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 whales.

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 them.

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 behavior.

A 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 Sound.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

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.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

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. 23.

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 statement.

“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 darts.

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 ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“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 whales.

“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.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“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 DFO statement.

A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:


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 years.

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 blog.

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 Port Townsend:

“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.

The following 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 near Sequim.

“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.

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

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. 25.

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 passing.

“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 issued yesterday.

New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
After it was born, the new calf J-55 was seen with presumed relatives J-14 and J-37. Now missing, the young orca is declared dead. // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

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 “high-shka”).

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.

J-37 seen this week with her son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-37 seen this week with her 4-year-old son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

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.

J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

“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 thrive.”

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 Seaquarium.

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.

On Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other members of K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. NOAA map
From Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other whales in K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. // NOAA map

The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the coast. (See 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.

Ocean conditions were nearly perfect for whale research on Thursday. NOAA photo
Conditions were nearly ideal for whale research on Thursday, as the vessel Bell M. Shimada follows K and L pods down the coast.
NOAA photo

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.

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.”