The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still
appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center
for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through
the San Juan Islands on Monday.
In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was
staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.”
Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained
some distance away.
Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the
mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it
will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give
birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not
with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence
points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally
“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary
There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of
the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its
teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old
female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the
grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would
not be needed for an older mom, he said.
I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew
who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any
nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening
up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to
But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even
if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother
could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.
There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until
genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming
the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal
sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers
following the whales, he said.
Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around
the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in
Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a
24-year-old named Blackberry.
A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through
the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each
time they quickly turned around and came back,
Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching
company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of
Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook
So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next
satellite data won’t be available until later.
The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod
since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the
images to enlarge.)
The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the
“cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in
national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect
whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.
“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for
different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One
group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a
leg up on the Cold War.”
As I described yesterday in
Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven
into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of
Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within
the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.
Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers,
who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint
“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these
guys are villains. This is a totally different story from
‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”
While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums
exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our
national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy
officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm
they were doing.
“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of
the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them
up that they have gotten a black eye.”
Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront
the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh
“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges
on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more
seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign
New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts
to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact
statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.
“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on
the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a
limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors
inside the Navy.”
One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the
Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative
law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The
U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its
ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential
harm to marine life.
Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit
down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training.
They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar
and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times
when whales are likely to be there.
More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy
personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in
terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be
encountered in real life.
“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is
room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he
“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with
simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it
would be a win for everybody,” he added.
Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine
ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of
energy and its overall carbon footprint.
One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the
Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private
business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by
the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is
relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do.
“I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help
quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine
life throughout the world, he said.
“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save
the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate
for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution
that will still be there for a very long time.”
At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would
develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead
attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old
daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us,
he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to
learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with
Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the
1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which
involves putting writers together with characters who have a great
story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the
whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife
encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.
Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including
some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New
York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a
project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of
the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and
craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version
is in the works.
During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time
with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he
devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To
pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money
raised through The Ocean Foundation.
By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally
expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he
said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the
ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project
and get the book into print.
Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C.,
with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.
In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals,
in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in
showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the
Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound,
has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to
better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety
of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the
Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book,
given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for
many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he
was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story
into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.
I consider this book to be several stories woven into one.
First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in
this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the
Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after
the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.
Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology,
developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy
officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved
with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz
The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving
marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales
and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed
Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to
environmental law versus the need for national security. As a
result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the
risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.
Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters,
especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He
sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and
uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s
single-minded approach to national security.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing
research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place,
practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of
killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to
secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their
injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the
Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and
he made the connection to the dead whales.
From there, other researchers and policy officials became
involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being
swept under the rug.
“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night
the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of
We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a
young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to
a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He
later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills
with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.
Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a
pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School
and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or
SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became
some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National
Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks
revealed something about their past and present positions in
Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a
compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising
tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete
“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken,
somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had
confused notes or what.”
Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and
accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story
could not be assailed.
Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious
decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by
Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.
Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials,
whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except
perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said
active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to
know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other
“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was
skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these
matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping
him understand anti-submarine warfare.
Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been
satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in
promotional materials for the book:
“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major
post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national
security and environmental protection. The author presents this
very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.
“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue
will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic
is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I
doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The
importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the
wide reading public in a compelling way.”
In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the
relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly
joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one
especially important to those of us living in an area where the
Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine
Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will
describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and
what he learned along the way.
Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale
in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale Research.
We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16,
known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as
Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her
three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.
“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me,
but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not
sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From
all indications, the little one is doing fine.
Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16,
because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as
likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told
Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an
overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been
swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year.
Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side.
According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their
babies near the surface of the water.
Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital
area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A
good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For
comparison, see Questions
& Answers at Center for Whale Research website.
I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was
acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail
slapping and porpoising.
“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16
a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they
would group up at times.
“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,”
After thinking it over, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Researchers says it is likely that J-16 is the grandmother of the
new calf, not the mother.
J-16, known as Slick, could have been babysitting the young
whale when the two were spotted by observers. If so, the mom is
probably J-36, a 15-year-old female named Alki, who was following a
few miles behind at the time.
The pattern of older whales taking care of young relatives has
been seen many times before, occasionally even with newborns, Ken
told me. The mother may have needed some time for rest and recovery
after giving birth, especially if it was a tough delivery, he
The baby had evident scratches, known as “rake marks,” on its
back and dorsal fin caused by the teeth of another killer whale,
Ken said. He believes it could be an indication that the
grandmother assisted with the birth.
Whoever the mother is, the baby’s condition indicates that it
has been nursing, and that’s a good sign.
If J-16 is the mother, she would be the oldest known orca to
give birth among the three Southern Resident pods. If it is J-36,
then the young mom could need help from her own mother.
If J-36 is the mom, then she should be spending most of her time
with her new baby. That could come within a few days or up to a
couple weeks, Ken told me. Observers are making a special effort to
see who is spending time with whom over the next few days.
“This is an interesting little mystery,” Ken said. “If the
whales do their part, we should be able to figure it out.”
Tracking them could be made easier because of a satellite tag
attached to another member of J pod — J-27, a 24-year-old male
named Blackberry. The barbed tag was attached to the whale’s dorsal
fin in open waters about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey Island,
Victoria and the south end of San Juan Island. Since then, the
whales have moved north into Canada. I’ll soon have a separate blog
post on the tracking study.
A newborn killer whale, reported Tuesday by the Center for Whale
Research, was identified as the offspring of 42-year-old J-16 — the
oldest known orca to ever give birth among the three Puget Sound
“No other female has given birth at over 42 years of age in the
four decades of demographic field studies of the Southern Resident
orcas,” according to a statement from
Orca Network. “J-16 was not expected to be carrying a calf due
to her advanced age.”
It’s odd how the circumstances have worked out. The birth of
this new calf, designated J-50, becomes the first major news story
about the Southern Residents since we heard about the death of
J-32, named Rhapsody. See Water Ways for
Dec. 7 and a later report on
Rhapsody was only 18 years old when she died carrying an unborn
calf. Before her death, experts had high hopes that Rhapsody would
live long and produce many babies. If she had ever given birth
before, her offspring died before they were noticed by
So it is that we have the death of a young killer whale with an
unborn calf and now a new birth to an older whale thought to be
beyond reproductive age. Let’s hope this new baby orca survives,
lives long and contributes to the endangered killer whale
J-16, named Slick, has six known offspring, including the new
baby. Three others are still alive: J-26, a male named Mike, born
in 1991; J-36, a female named Alki, born in 1999; and J-42, a
female named Echo, born in 2007. The deceased offspring are a male
that died at 14 years of age in 2010 and a baby orca that died in
2011 after living about a month.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an
excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern
Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring
Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the
necropsy, which I reported in
Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations
as he watched the young whale grow up:
“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the
J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in
1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who
took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when
J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age
of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of
50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.
“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby
(J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of
a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including
perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her
teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”
Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high
levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern
Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with
the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain
deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:
“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream
when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh
food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and
freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is
nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the
bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body
Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face
of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population —
including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and
her unborn offspring.
“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern
Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore
abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have
any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their
recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass
if we do not take immediate action.”
Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of
J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope
for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget
We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is
called, was pregnant at the time of her death.
“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken
Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination
of the body near Courtenay, B.C.
The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely
that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic
condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues,
according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There
were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he
Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the
necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr.
Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero
tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be
unable to provide any information until he receives approval from
his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts
will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to
gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of
death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry
some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals
in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress
because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.
The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found
floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably
small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally
grow to between 16 and 23 feet.
Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when
she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt,
J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins.
Orca Network’s news release about the death.)
At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life,
with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population
of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24
orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.
Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal
whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales
typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age
15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.
When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar
tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue
is notably larger, Ken explained.
An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That
rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident
population each year.
“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19
babies by now,” Ken said.
Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves
born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of
this year was reporting missing a little more than a month
Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and
presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and
L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.
Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of
Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment:
“We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling,
precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish
A seven-week-old baby orca born to our Southern Resident pods
was reported missing and presumed dead today. This was the newborn
orca who brought so much hope and excitement to our area, being the
first reported birth in more than two years.
When I called Ken Balcomb this morning, he was in a “subjective”
state of mind, as he put it. Ken, of the Center for Whale Research,
has been keeping track of the three Southern Resident pods since
1976, and he’s clearly worried that these whales may be headed for
As we talked on the phone, Ken was peering through the large
windows of his home on San Juan Island and watching a large purse
seine vessel scooping up chum salmon and possibly other species as
“I look at this every day, and I’ve seen this for almost 40
years,” Ken said. “There is no letup on the human part. Virtually
no fish are getting past the outlet. We know the Fraser River runs
are in poor shape, and our management doesn’t seem to take any kind
of ecosystem approach.”
Salmon biologists set the sport and commercial fishing seasons
based on an estimate of the number of fish returning. They update
that estimate during the season based on harvest numbers caught in
“Whatever they are doing, it obviously has not worked, since
we’ve seen run after run not doing well,” Ken said. “I get
subjective about it and wonder when our society is going to do
something to get more prey (for the whales).”
Ken said there was much hope for the seven-week-old orca,
designated L-120, the third known offspring of the 23-year-old
mother designated L-86.
“I was optimistic,” he told me. “When we first saw the baby, it
had a squished-looking head, but even human babies can be born with
a flattened head.
“Within a week, it was filling out well and was energetic,” he
continued, and there was no reason to believe the calf would
The Southern Residents are known to bear a heavy burden of toxic
chemicals, but transient killer whales are even more contaminated.
The difference may be that transients, which eat marine mammals,
may be getting enough food. Was the orca mom unable to nurse her
baby? Did the toxic chemicals cause an immune deficiency? Or was
there another problem? We’ll probably never know.
All three orca pods were probably out in the ocean when the
youngster disappeared. The mom was seen with other whales on
Friday, Saturday and Sunday without the calf — something that would
not happen if the baby were alive.
L-120 was the third calf born to L-86. Her second calf, L-112,
washed up dead at Long Beach in February 2010. After much
investigation, researchers concluded that L-112 had died of blunt
force trauma, but what caused the injury was never determined. Ken
suspects some kind of explosive detonation, although that cause was
discounted by investigators.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network said the orcas have faced a
shortage of food, toxic chemicals, routine shooting with guns and a
series of captures that depleted the population.
“We haven’t treated these magnificent orcas well at all,” Howie
said in a news release. “As a society we are not successfully
restoring this orca community, despite the many warnings and legal
“Our challenge is clear: Bountiful salmon runs must be restored
and protected or we won’t see resident orcas in the Salish Sea in
coming years,” he added.
The latest population count places the total number at 78, the
lowest number since 1986, according to records by the Center of
In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke
Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not
appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was
born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is
likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for
As far as I can tell, the other information below is
“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told
me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”
The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was
swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s
“The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”).
And the name “Joan” stuck.
The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally
about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four
or five months.
Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new
individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which
may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.
Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most
mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The
coolest whales are the minke whales.”
A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale,
accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan
Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to
say about it:
“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and
I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other
researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer,
and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot,
especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling
with their mothers, but never a newborn.”
Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael
Harris of Pacific Whale Watch
Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of
Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be
“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve
never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely
interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is
Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley
captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island
Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in
our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near
Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.
Michael added his own perspective:
“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our
resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in
the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also
makes its home out here, the minke.
“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just
been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave
these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special
occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a
lot of clues to researchers.
“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped
we are to protect every creature out there.”
Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:
“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales
with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very
little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the
ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows
are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making
it difficult to spot – and to study.
“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults
reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a
good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most
beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark
on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter
gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their
back and a white band on each flipper.
“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish
Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like
Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the
ongoing series “Taking
the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a
half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more
than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are
grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between
500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or
Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review,
that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as
A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries
Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting
petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I
outlined in a
Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that
there was new scientific information about the extent to which the
Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information
could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents
are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the
After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the
new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents —
those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other
ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in
yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):
“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the
legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct
population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency
scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own
language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a
significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other
requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel
and not interacting with other groups of the same species.
“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of
other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external
breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new
information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity
demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents
are unique and irreplaceable.”
I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way
for agency officials to put the new information into official
context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle
By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of
Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency
sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the
“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it
also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had
substantial information that delisting may be warranted.
“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as
consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really
engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”
Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her
organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s
findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle
that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first
I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further
protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical
habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was
a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has
presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and
down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California.
Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists
confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to
give them a better chance of survival, he said. See
Water Ways, April 5, 2013.
So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget
Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much
greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been
mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a
serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser
River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence
from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years
— and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.
I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita,
also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the
Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports
the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or
future. Having her included in the federally protected population
may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her
body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues
could contain information to help future generations of killer
Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the
Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from