Tag Archives: Killer whale research

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

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

Ken,

Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.

Balcomb

The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.

Researchers locate orcas off the coast; new satellite tag attached

As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him. That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s Eve, when it was first attached.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

It might have been easier to locate the whales if the transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at least a general pattern.

After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region between the Columbia River and Westport.

To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry. By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.

This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to spot them.

“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning, with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with members of L pod.”

Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective and Bio-Waves — were able to get on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.

The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions, they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy weather.

As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.

On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days. Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.

For maps showing the tracking of L-33 and now L-95, visit the NOAA’s website “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

L-pod and K-pod whales continue their travels along the West Coast

L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as Eureka, California.

Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first tagged:

K-pod and L-pod whales cross California border before turning back this week. NOAA map
K-pod and L-pod whales cross the California border before turning back this week. // NOAA map

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning back north on Feb. 21.

On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.

On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March 20.

At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka, Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on Tuesday.

The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and early spring.

K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. NOAA photo
The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.

Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to notes from the cruise:

“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. The data used for this petition was derived from only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013 satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale from L pod a high priority.”

Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone array.

The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa. The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again, from the cruise notes:

“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their environment this time of the year.

“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start — four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today (Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to near Willipa Bay.”

Those are the last notes available, either on NOAA’s tagging webpage or on NOAA’s Facebook page. I’ve been in touch by email with Brad, but his latest message had nothing new since Wednesday.

By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website, I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon, they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and were continuing on south.

Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in the San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two weeks ago.

For previous reports on the whales, see Water Ways for Feb. 12 as well as a previous post on Jan. 22. A report on the research cruise can be found in Water Ways on Feb. 10.

Research cruise will observe J pod orcas
for the next 21 days

A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada research vessel.

The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks. // NOAA photo

The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate J pod without searching far and wide.

“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the coast.

Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are choosing to spend their time.

Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there remains some lingering doubt. (Review Water Ways from Jan. 22.)

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map at the bottom of this page for their path.

This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite, the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf but stayed only a day.

The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although their locations are currently unknown.

What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad said. The weather often determines the success of observations and operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a “toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and currents.

“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and other top predators, such as seabirds.”

As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I will try to report interesting developments as well.

J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8.
Tracked by satellite, J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8. // NOAA map

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.