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.”
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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’
“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
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
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
“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
I am pleased to repeat the message we’ve heard again and again
over the past year: The baby boom continues for the orcas that
frequent Puget Sound.
Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new calf
in L pod — the seventh to be born to the three Southern Resident
pods since December of last year.
The new baby, designated L-123, is the first documented calf for
L-103, a 12-year-old female named Lapis. I have a special fondness
for Lapis and her family, because her mother, L-55 or Nugget, was
one of the 19 orcas that stayed in Dyes Inlet for a month during
1997. Nugget was 20 years old at the time, and her first born, L-82
or Kasatka, was 7. Kasatka had a calf of her own in 2010. Now, with
the birth of this new calf, our old friend Nugget is the
grandmother of two.
The new calf was first photographed Nov. 10 by Alisa Lemire
Brooks and Sara Hysong-Shimazu from Alki Point in West Seattle,
according to a news release from the Center for Whale Research. See
Orca Network’s Facebook page. Because of poor visibility and
sea conditions, those photos and others taken later by Melisa
Pinnow and Jane Cogan were not clear enough to confirm the birth of
a new orca. High-resolution photos taken yesterday by Mark
Malleson, a research associate with the Center for Whale Research,
were used for the final confirmation.
Having seven orca calves born in a 12-month period is almost
unheard of. In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has
been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of
calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.
Researchers will be watching all the new calves as they grow.
Getting through the first year is often the toughest, as the young
whales learn to survive while their immune systems develop.
The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 83 — or
84 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami
Seaquarium. That total consists of 28 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
The news release announcing the new baby adds this note of
“While a new calf born to this struggling population is
certainly cause to celebrate, it is important to remember that
another SRKW also means another mouth to feed. With each new calf
that is born, we continue to emphasize the need to focus on wild
chinook salmon restoration efforts — especially the removal of
obsolete dams that block wild salmon from their natal spawning
habitat, such as those on the lower Snake River. We will continue
to monitor the new calf in the next several weeks and provide
updates whenever possible.”
The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their
annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month
later than normal.
As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is
heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.
The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are
late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands,
then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September.
Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their
preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if
that’s all they can find.
In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget
Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three
pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the
most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes
Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).
On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three
pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as
reported by Orca
“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports
of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when
typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca
Network’s sighting report from Sunday.
“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and
this was the first October to come and go without the Southern
Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people
will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs,
and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K
and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of
the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of
On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north
from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L
pods continued north, and J pod headed south.
Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales
did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my
head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”
The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this
year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook
to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon
in other areas besides Puget Sound.
Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon
islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J
pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as
they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and
Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.
This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island,
passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are
somewhere around Kingston.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey
Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told
me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along
above and below the surface.
We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as
December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer
whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something
Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:
The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf
since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the
west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a
38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two
sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a
brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a
6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a
5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.
While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to
mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since
August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four
of her offspring.
The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82:
28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by
the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca
taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.
Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its
overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important
advancement in orca research.
By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe
level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month,
researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a
healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further
observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.
I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could
track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that
the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible
reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic
chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic
chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser
amounts of the chemicals.
Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in
the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human
observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod
returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was
lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and
after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when
something goes wrong with a calf.
Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and
fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the
health of individual whales and the overall population.
Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to
those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to
assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop
wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher
elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be
general agreement that drones are the way to go.
John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115
flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that
their overall condition appeared better than in the past few
“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is
good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to
have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and
their predators,” Durban said in a
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat
different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and
neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is
the only way that they are able to control their population within
the carrying capacity of their food supply.
“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving
since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric
surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a
seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your
chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”
The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it
comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management
has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River
dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing
Canada’s Fraser River.
“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot
fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what
little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while
counting unborn whales.”
Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were
well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below.
The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press
can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and
links about the new tool. See
Water Ways Sept. 9.
The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new
calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British
The mother of the baby is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher.
The newborn has been designated L-122. This is the fifth orca calf
born to the Southern Resident pods since December of last year,
following a two-year period in which no calves were born and
The birth was confirmed by orca researcher Mark Malleson of
Victoria and by Dave Ellifrit and Melissa Pinnow of the Center for
Whale Research, according to a news release
issued this evening by CWR.
“The mother and baby and other L pod whales spent the afternoon
and evening in Haro Strait ‘fishing,’ and by day’s end were joined
by J and K pod members,” the news release states.
Orca observers throughout the Northwest are understandably
excited about the news of a new baby orca, particularly given that
the four other calves born since December are reportedly healthy
In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been
keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves
born in a single year was nine in 1977.
“We hope this year’s ‘baby-boom’ represents a turn-around in
what has been a negative population trend in recent years,” says
the statement from the Center for Whale Research.
Monika Weiland, executive director of the Orca Behavior
Institute, added a note of caution on her
“While the whale community is understandably excited about the
births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed,”
Monika wrote, noting that
NOAA Fisheries has listed the Southern Residents as among the
species at most risk of extinction.
“The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive
if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed,
and soon,” she continued. “Without an increase in abundance of
their primary prey, chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population
of whales is going to recover.”
Monika argues that one of the most important actions for the
recovery of chinook is to breach the four lower Snake River dams,
which have outlived their usefulness.
Meanwhile, researchers will be watching closely to see how
mother and baby do over the next days, weeks and months.
The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 82 — or
83 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami
Seaquarium. That total consists of 27 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
“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39
who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of
his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new
found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or
it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine
yesterday, and was behaving normally.”
Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a
12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get
along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not
appear to be injured.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely
that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line
and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher
— a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the
Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear,
though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from
“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said.
“They are pretty tough.”
Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it
would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to
come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come
forward to describe the setup on his line.
Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large
mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after
death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however,
Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today,
the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on
display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)
NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine
mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and
observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has
trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression
behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant
weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the
“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets
peanut head,” Ken told me.
Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any
recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer
whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay
(west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by
Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the
information to NOAA Fisheries.
Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA
Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release
issued this afternoon:
“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might
affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from
whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our
partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”
It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention
would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last
resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will
come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and
photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options
for helping the animal.
Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s
annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago,
when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn
The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the
world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one
survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to
her native waters.
Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn
Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John
Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of
“Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound
Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.
The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony
involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that
Paul Pudwell of Sooke
Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have
not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted
July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver
Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for
identification by Ken and company.
By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern
Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had
just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the
population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number
includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami
Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see
Water Ways, July 1 and
Water Ways, July 7.
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.