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.
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
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
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
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.”
“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
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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
“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
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
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.
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.
“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
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
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.
The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed
them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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.
Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most
of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the
Washington Coast into Oregon.
The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite
transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K
pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in
Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s
Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the
next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands,
reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most
of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on
the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.
After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays
Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on
Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon.
Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the
Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape
Blanco in Southern Oregon.
“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we
observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who
is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science
Center. See his
2013 blog and
notes from this year’s tagging program.
On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the
Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more
this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient
(seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description
of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on
Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the
water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales.
As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the
northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch
the video on the website of the Center for Whale
A quick update on K pod and the current satellite-tracking
project for the Southern Residents of the Salish Sea.
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
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, who has spent most of his life studying whales,
returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and
I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
“Whale of a Purpose.”
“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39
who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of
his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new
found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or
it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine
yesterday, and was behaving normally.”
Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a
12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get
along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not
appear to be injured.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely
that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line
and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher
— a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the
Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear,
though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from
“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said.
“They are pretty tough.”
Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it
would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to
come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come
forward to describe the setup on his line.
Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large
mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after
death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however,
Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today,
the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on
display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)
NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine
mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and
observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has
trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression
behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant
weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the
“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets
peanut head,” Ken told me.
Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any
recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer
whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay
(west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by
Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the
information to NOAA Fisheries.
Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA
Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release
issued this afternoon:
“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might
affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from
whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our
partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”
It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention
would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last
resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will
come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and
photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options
for helping the animal.
Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s
annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago,
when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn
The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the
world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one
survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to
her native waters.
Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn
Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John
Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of
“Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound
Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.
The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony
involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit
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.
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
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,
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
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.