Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of
the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple
of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of
Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years
old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern
Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last
fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center
for Whale Research. See
Water Ways, Dec. 30.
Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her
death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in
Water Ways on Jan. 4.
If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems
fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of
a killer whale known as Granny.
Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the
three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of
age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the
other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.
Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal
society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life.
Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost
always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the
For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the
amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I
tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every
cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the
movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before
heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch
the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.
UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as
“Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three
Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern
Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in
1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old
and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100.
Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research
website. More to come.
When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a
year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this
time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca
calves over the previous 12 months. See
Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.
Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total
of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be
a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar
The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an
18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near
Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the
tribute and wonderful photos
on Orca Network’s webpage.
It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old
female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead
— even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now
appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will
not survive either.
I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in
Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks,
including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still
alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but
at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she
might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the
Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of
Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of
Puget Sound orcas.
Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for
the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to
provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.
Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting
that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was
easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the
distinctive mark when she was nine years old.
At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning
problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their
primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn
fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic
chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can
affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is
supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year,
but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.
For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically
wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things
have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have
remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible
for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low
this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to
get a complete count until September, he told me.
Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the
whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be
made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be
counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups
during multiple encounters.
“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the
end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there
is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”
As with this year, the census could not be completed at this
time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of
whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last
Water Ways, July 1, 2015.
As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has
requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an
early indication of their condition, but his requests have been
denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase
a membership in
the Center for Whale Research.
On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that
are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the
second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters
during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of
orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open
Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an
aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point
near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this
“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49
were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a
zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up
vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera.
The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls,
surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to
take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get
some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had
not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”
The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces
much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed
fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see
from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower
than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of
Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is
predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year
average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than
last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high
numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See
2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).
Considering the apparent difference between the number of
chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no
wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.
Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the
annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of
whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months.
Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with
the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can
tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still
living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that
when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in
I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center
for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research
Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the
killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all
living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand
the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can
decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to
find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for
efforts to protect them.
On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain
your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated.
The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the
I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which
showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with
killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described
these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on
the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have
learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of
step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read
these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the
Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many
more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center
for Whale Research.
With highest regards, Chris.
The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract
with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month
survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound.
Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by
Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas,
researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives
and even their unique behaviors — which I would call
“personalities” for want of a better term.
Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the
lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness
for the animals in the
first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in
“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a
few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the
word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most
folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we
were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy —
mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from
Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo
technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a
few skeptics, I’m sure.”
I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a
number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning
now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far
we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting
how much more we have to learn.
log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct
encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study
on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit
“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM
and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½
mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were
initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several
minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port
Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and,
at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove
again for several minutes.
“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour
of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for
photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits.
Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach
the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a
little farther offshore.
“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By
maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated
by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet.
The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a
leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds
down, still proceeding westerly.”
Remember that this was only months after the final capture of
killer whales in Puget Sound. (See
account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the
intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales
came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.
If only they could know how much human attitudes around the
world have changed over the past 40+ years.