Tag Archives: killer whale

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

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

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

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

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

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.

SeaWorld hopes to change its image by ending orca breeding

UPDATE, March 25, 2016

Statement from Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and David Phillips, International Marine Mammal Project: “Five reasons not to believe the Seaworld hype.”
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UPDATE, March 19, 2016

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist who worked for the Humane Society of the U.S. for more than 20 years, posted a blog saying that it is alright for animals rights activists to celebrate a victory, even though SeaWorld remains in operation. Naomi now serves as an advocate for the Animal Welfare Institute. Her blog and Facebook page is called From a Dolphin’s Point of View:

“To anyone in an activist community with a clear adversary — a corporation, a commercial industry, a societal norm… — sometimes the battles become more important than the reason for them. It becomes less about changing how things are and more about winning. But I have to wonder sometimes: What does winning look like to these activists? Is it only a victory when the adversary is utterly crushed, with no survivors left on the battlefield? Do they win only when the war is utterly over, with no more battles, even a small skirmish, left to fight?

“For myself, as a marine mammal protection advocate who has been actively working to end the captive display of cetaceans for over 20 years, I have never been interested in vanquishing my opponent (the captive cetacean industry, of which SeaWorld is one of the major corporations)….”
Read more…

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I was still half asleep this morning when a news report about SeaWorld broke through my slumber. The voice on the radio beside my bed was saying that SeaWorld would no longer breed killer whales and that the company would follow through on its commitment to end the arena shows that have attracted audiences for decades.

It was hard to believe this news after covering many years of battle between SeaWorld and marine mammal advocates.

As I soon learned, SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the U.S. had suddenly become unlikely partners in a planned campaign to:

  • End commercial whaling and the killing of seals, sharks and other marine animals;
  • Protect coral reefs and end commercial collection of ornamental fish; and
  • Promote sustainable seafood and naturally grown foods.

SeaWorld also plans to redouble its efforts to rescue and rehabilitate marine creatures in distress, spending $50 million over the next five years.

“Times have changed,” says a statement on SeaWorld’s website, “and we are changing with them. The killer whales currently in our care will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.”

It was such a major move by SeaWorld that nobody could ignore it, although many animal-rights advocates could not forget that SeaWorld is still holding captive animals and has made no promises about dolphins and other marine mammals.

The SeaWorld statement includes this quote from Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s new chief executive officer:

“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals. We’ve helped make orcas among the most beloved marine mammals on the planet. As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”

Officials with the Humane Society of the U.S. were in a mood to celebrate. In his blog, CEO Wayne Pacelle had this to say:

“The world is waking up to the needs of all animals, and the smartest CEOs don’t resist the change. They hitch a ride on it and harness the momentum.

“Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s CEO, is banking on the premise that the American public will come to SeaWorld’s parks in larger numbers if he joins our cause instead of resisting it, and if SeaWorld is a change agent for the good of animals. He’s exactly right, and I give him tremendous credit for his foresight….

“SeaWorld and The HSUS still have some disagreements. But we’ve found an important set of issues to agree upon. The sunsetting of orcas in captivity is a game changer for our movement, one that’s been a long time coming, and one that is only possible because of your advocacy and participation. I am immensely excited about this announcement and I hope you are too.”

It may be a good step, but many advocacy groups say it is not enough.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:

“This win is big … really big. SeaWorld has announced that it will no longer breed orcas. This means that this generation of orcas will be the last to suffer in SeaWorld’s tanks.

“PETA and caring people around the world have campaigned hard to see this day. PETA’s celebrity supporters—including Kate del Castillo, Jason Biggs, Jessica Biel, Bob Barker, Marisa Miller, and Joanna Krupa—have all worked to expose the unnatural conditions and untimely deaths of animals at SeaWorld. And actor Edie Falco voiced our cutting-edge “I, Orca” project. People everywhere were outraged after watching Blackfish, which exposed the miserable living conditions for orcas at the theme park.

“Today comes the payoff. For decades, orcas, beluga whales, seals, and many other animals have suffered in confinement at SeaWorld. And while this decision is a step in the right direction, to do right by the orcas now, SeaWorld must move these long-suffering animals to ocean sanctuaries so that they may have some semblance of a natural life outside their prison tanks. And we must remember the other animals who will remain in captivity until SeaWorld does right by all of them.”

David Phillips, Earth Island Institute:

“There has been a dramatic change in public attitudes about capturing and holding whales and dolphins for captive entertainment. Movies like Free Willy, The Cove, and Blackfish have all had a tremendous impact. They have helped educate a generation of people about how scientifically and ethically wrong it is for whales and dolphin to be confined in captivity doing circus tricks. People around the world are rightfully demanding change.

“SeaWorld’s attendance has dropped precipitously and shareholders have pounded the stock price. Legislation and lawsuits call for SeaWorld to reform. CEO Manby failed to mention two lawsuits Earth Island has been supporting against SeaWorld’s captive program. These lawsuits include our intervention to support the California Coastal Commission ban on trade and breeding of captive orcas, and a lawsuit contending that SeaWorld uses false and deceptive advertising and unfair business practices by making untrue claims about orcas in captivity.

“The company’s decision to stop orca breeding isn’t enough. More change is needed. Their announcement does not end the threat that SeaWorld and other captive facilities pose to dolphins and whales. Dolphins, belugas, and orcas continue to be captured around the world and are suffering in captivity.”

Phil Kline, Greenpeace U.S.A., in story by Michael Walsh, Yahoo News:

“It’s a long time coming but a fabulous announcement. It’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s a responsible step into the 21st century; hopefully, it’s just the beginning of the pendulum swinging that way.

“Survive and adapt to what the public wants and demands in the 21st century, or this business model no longer works and you are out of business. They did not do this because it was the altruistic thing to do. This was forced upon them by dedicated activists raising the issue to where it became a global concern [that] affected their bottom line, and they have to react.”

Howard Garrett, Orca Network, in a story by Evan Bush, the Seattle Times:

“It’s very gratifying. It’s been 20 years we’ve been asking them to do this, to phase out their captive killer-whale circus-entertainment-business model. Finally they are. It makes me feel like we’re on the right track, even when it looked hopeless.

“We would like to see them actively investigate how to return their captives on a case-by-case basis to a sea-pen rehabilitation center where they can feel the ocean and regenerate their strength.”

Stephen Wells, Animal Legal Defense Fund:

“Though it is long overdue in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm to orcas in captivity and evolving public opinion, the Animal Legal Defense Fund applauds SeaWorld for its historic decision to phase out its inhumane captive orca program.

“Thanks to our hundreds of thousands of supporters, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has been able to maintain immense legal pressure on SeaWorld and other ‘entertainment’ providers, including circuses and roadside zoos, who inhumanely confine animals and deprive them of everything that is natural and important to them.

“SeaWorld’s historic announcement comes mere weeks before Ringling’s final use of elephants in its traveling circus, and mere weeks after Animal Legal Defense Fund intervened to ensure the California Coastal Commission’s permit conditions are upheld, that allow SeaWorld San Diego to expand only if it ends its captive breeding program.”

Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project

“In my opinion, SeaWorld is not ending their breeding program; the impending death of Tilikum is forcing them ending it. Tilikum was their main supplier of sperm stock. We’re not taking SeaWorld at face value, as historically they have proven they cannot be trusted. Dolphin Project will continue to monitor and report on the captive dolphins at their parks as we have been doing ever since the day they opened.”

Lifeforce:

“This is a step forward but the present captive orcas will continue to suffer for decades and they will continue to exploit belugas and other dolphin species. They may well obtain other cetaceans from the wild under the guise of ‘rescue’ and then claim that they are unreleasable. That is how the aquarium and zoo industry have gotten captives over the decades.
Further, there is a lot more to this cruel breeding issue. Sea World must stop breeding belugas and other dolphin species.”

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb. 25.
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The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s passing.

“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb. 25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken stated in a news release issued yesterday.

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

The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced “high-shka”).

Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn, apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing around her deceased calf. See Water Ways, Jan. 19.

The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was 12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish who is just entering the reproductive age.

J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.

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

The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.

“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population, it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive their first year.

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

“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon – if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and thrive.”

The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami Seaquarium.

Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team, said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but they include various family groups in both pods.

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

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

On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.

“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark wrote in a report to the Center for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30 p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of the Olympic Peninsula).”

After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.

“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to stay with them all night.

“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations with the whales.”

In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed “surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce winds and waves tomorrow.

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

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.”

K pod, tracked by satellite, heads quickly down the Oregon Coast

Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the Washington Coast into Oregon.

The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in Canada. See Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.

Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map

On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands, reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.

After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon. Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape Blanco in Southern Oregon.

Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map

“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See his 2013 blog and notes from this year’s tagging program.

On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient (seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales. As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch the video on the website of the Center for Whale Research.

K pod turns back and heads up into Canada

A quick update on K pod and the current satellite-tracking project for the Southern Residents of the Salish Sea.

K-33's travels from Monday until today. NOAA map
K-33’s travels from Monday until today. // NOAA map

In the last report on Monday (Water Ways, Jan. 4), the tagged killer whale K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika, was milling around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean with three other whales in his family group. Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center predicted that all of K pod (possibly with J pod) would come together there or in the Strait.

By Monday evening, the whales entered the Strait and headed east. By Tuesday afternoon, they had passed through Haro Strait between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, where they were accompanied by J pod, based on hydrophone calls near San Juan Island.

Yesterday, the whales were in the southern portion of the Strait of Georgia, then they quickly headed north. This morning, they were in the northern portion of the Strait, an area where J pod has been known to hang out, according to Brad’s notes on the tracking project. This must be an area with relatively abundant salmon, given the time of year.

The project is designed to identify areas of importance to the killer whales and potentially expand the “critical habitat” that needs protection for the orca population to recover.

Erich Hoyt returns to Puget Sound; whale sign goes up near Hansville

Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales, returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle.

A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park. Photo: The Whale Trail
A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville.
Photo: The Whale Trail

I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this region. (See Water Ways, May 3, 2014.) We talked about the ongoing capture of killer whales in Russia, where government officials refuse to learn a lesson from the Northwest about breaking up killer whale families and disrupting their social order.

“Much of the rest of the world has moved on to think about a world beyond keeping whales and dolphins captive,” Erich wrote in a recent blog entry. “Not Russia. Not now. It’s all guns blazing to make all the same mistakes made years before in other countries.

“Of course, it’s not just Russian aquarium owners and captors,” he continued. “China, too, is about to open its first performing killer whale show, and Japan aquariums continue to go their own way. There are people opposed to captivity in Russia, China and Japan, but they are not in the majority.”

Erich’s talk in Olympia on Oct. 10 is titled, “Adventures with orcas in the North Pacific.” He will speak again on the topic the next day in Tacoma. On Oct. 13, he goes to West Seattle to speak on “Ants, orcas and creatures of the deep.” For details and tickets, go to Brown Paper Tickets.

The three talks are produced by The Whale Trail, an environmental group, in partnership with local sponsoring organizations. Donna Sandstrom, founder and director of The Whale Trail, said Erich comes to Puget Sound after the births of five new orcas in J, K and L pods. This provides five more reasons to restore the Puget Sound killer whale population, she said.

“The collaborative nature of the Orca Tour demonstrates our shared commitment to restore salmon, reduce toxins and create quieter seas,” Sandstrom said.

Among other things, The Whale Trail is known for promoting shoreside viewing of whales to reduce interference with their activities. The group maintains a map of the best places to watch whales from shore.

With the approval of Kitsap County, the organization has erected a new sign at Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville, a good spot to watch all kinds of wildlife. The sign offers specific information about Point No Point as a viewing site and provides tips for identifying marine mammals.

Aerial images of baby orca and new studies with unmanned aircraft

The Center for Whale Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than 100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research project.

Aerial photos of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby. Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.
Aerial photo of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby taken from unmanned hexacopter.
Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.

Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S. and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.

I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways” nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of the project on “Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.

The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as hard as I thought it might be. Check out NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.

Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West Coast.

“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project on the NOAA Fisheries’ website.

In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her blog, “Whale of a Purpose.”

Killer whale experts will watch over young orca troubled by fishing lure

UPDATE 8-7-15
Good news from the Center for Whale Research:

“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39 who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine yesterday, and was behaving normally.”

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Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a 12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not appear to be injured.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher — a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the whale’s mouth.

A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday west of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured. Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP
A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday along the west side of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured.
Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP

Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear, though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from its mouth.

“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said. “They are pretty tough.”

Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come forward to describe the setup on his line.

Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however, Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today, the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)

NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the depression appears.

“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets peanut head,” Ken told me.

Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay (west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the information to NOAA Fisheries.

Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release issued this afternoon:

“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”

It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options for helping the animal.

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Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago, when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to her native waters.

Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of “Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.

The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit Orca Network’s webpage.