I’d like to offer something quite different for this week’s
“Amusing Monday.” It’s a 19-minute video featuring Ingrid Visser,
one of the world’s leading experts on killer whales.
One of the highlights of the video is the rescue of an orca
imperiled with a rope and buoy caught around her tail. Without the
rescue, which begins at 10:25 into the video, the whale probably
would have died. If you continue watching, you’ll see shots taken
from a camera on the whale’s dorsal fin, giving you a glimpse into
the life of a killer whale.
Ingrid’s base of operations is New Zealand, but she has been to
Puget Sound numerous times, as well as many other places where
orcas reside. I’ve always admired her for her personal approach to
understanding orcas throughout the world.
The video provides an insight into Ingrid’s life, research and
interests. It’s appropriate that it begins with her discussing
orcas with a group of young students. For more information, check
out the Facebook
page for Orca Research Trust or the related webpage for
The video was produced by a team of photographers to introduce
the new high-speed, high-definition GoPro
camera called HERO4.The video was the sixth in a series called
“The Adventure of Life in 4K.”
Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of
J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope
for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget
We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is
called, was pregnant at the time of her death.
“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken
Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination
of the body near Courtenay, B.C.
The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely
that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic
condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues,
according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There
were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he
Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the
necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr.
Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero
tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be
unable to provide any information until he receives approval from
his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts
will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to
gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of
death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry
some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals
in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress
because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.
The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found
floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably
small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally
grow to between 16 and 23 feet.
Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when
she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt,
J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins.
Orca Network’s news release about the death.)
At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life,
with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population
of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24
orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.
Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal
whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales
typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age
15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.
When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar
tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue
is notably larger, Ken explained.
An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That
rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident
population each year.
“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19
babies by now,” Ken said.
Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves
born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of
this year was reporting missing a little more than a month
Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and
presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and
L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.
Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of
Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment:
“We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling,
precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish
Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an
increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson,
a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has
been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.
Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been
on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly
over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which
has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to
come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the
whales than when operating from a research boat.
“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We
have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a
UAS (unmanned aircraft system).
Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to
study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their
populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on
the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote
In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to
test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed
Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a
high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and
still pictures, including those on this page. See also
One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale,
including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the
water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy,
underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to
Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John
Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance
Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females
who seemed to be pregnant.
They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those
animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that
they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however,
is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales
suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them
to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?
Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale
and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its
Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for
the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal
Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be
worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to
collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.
A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad
told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress
hormones, potential pathogens and other things.
“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build
individual health profiles and begin to understand when something
is going wrong,” Hanson said.
Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside
the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end.
Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces
from the water.
If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can
be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near
In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep
the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included
some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No
obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.
One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in
Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a
certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations
of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.
The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries
and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22
marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.
Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate
unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around
wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And
anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of
other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act
or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.
I’m on vacation this week, but I wanted to revisit a video I
first presented in June of last year. We see fishermen playing a
fish while a killer whale plays the fishermen. I interviewed the
excited man in this video soon after the fishing trip to explain
some of his comments. The video has now been viewed more than 1.2
Frank Sanders is an experienced hunting and fishing guide, yet
he screamed with excitement when he reeled in his fishing line to
find a killer whale at the other end.
The video, posted two weeks ago by Frank’s deckhand Charlie
Barberini, has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. That
doesn’t count the number of times people watched the original
post and videos copied from the original.
The video has raised numerous questions, such as why Frank is
showing his ring to the camera and looking for someone named Jason.
I was able to reach Frank in Hawaii, where he was on a fishing
trip, and he filled in some of the blanks.
Frank, Charlie and others were fishing for halibut near
Ninilchik in Cook Inlet in Southern Alaska. They had seen a couple
killer whales go by a few times but not close to the boat. I think
Frank told me the orcas were eating sockeye salmon that were in the
area. Suddenly, out of the depths, a killer whale appeared
following the fish on his line.
You need only to see and hear the video to know how much
excitement that generated.
Frank told me the orca did not appear to want the fish. It was
playing with the fishermen in the boat, grabbing the fish, pulling
the line out about 200 yards, then bringing it back. The whale
circled the boat a few times, he said, tangling fishing lines
played out from other poles. This went on for at least 10 minutes
before the whale went on his way.
The whale, of course, had the strength to bite the fish through
and take it away or snap the line any time he chose, Frank said.
But it didn’t.
About his ring, Frank explained that he travels a lot for his
business, Alaska Trophy Hunters. In fact, he is away from his wife
about as much as he is with her, so he sends her hunting and
fishing pictures from all over Alaska and displays his ring for
As for Jason, I didn’t get the full story, but I heard enough to
understand that this, too, was an inside message. Jason is Frank’s
best friend and the best man at his wedding. Jason was in a
four-wheeler accident and suffered a severe brain injury. He was in
a coma for a month but then was getting better. Jason set up a
personal website on “Caring Bridge” to share information back and
forth with his friends and family. Frank wanted Jason to understand
that he was thinking about him during this adventure and was
showing him a special bracelet they shared. Unfortunately, Jason
suffered a stroke and may not pull through. (Update, June 24,
11 a.m.: I just received word from Frank this morning that Jason
passed away yesterday.)
After the video was posted, Frank reportedly told reporter Lydia
Warren of London’s
“Fishing gets kind of repetitive after 18 years, but this is one
of the most exciting things that has happened to me.”
This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales
contained little new information, but the intent was not to
surprise people with important new findings.
The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and
ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern
NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report
with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.
On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to
link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line
were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA
Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting
assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story
by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See
Kitsap Sun, June 25.
Let me make a few quick observations:
Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries,
to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing
problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return
in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to
show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to
the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of
everyone who cared about these animals.
Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or
sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when
one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the
case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some
Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals,
Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and
breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.
For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’
seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental
relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in
life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this
essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn
that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out
that the killer whales are already there.
Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away
from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of
Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in
the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River
chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.
In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love
to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and
why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the
opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time
when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de
Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back,
while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there
were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on
alone, saying, “See ya later.”
Mike Ford wants to know why the population has
not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the
ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as
seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable
bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern
Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with
the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents
have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that
originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them
first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or
so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has
tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the
Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon
reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to
commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that
the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington.
Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound
for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to
fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers
as well as some destined to travel south.
One of the new things that did come up in
Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer
whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in
Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon
fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding
that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations
and targeted research efforts.
During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the
potential effects of military activities and the possible injury
from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question
was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.,
where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental
take permits. That was the end of that discussion.
I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce
harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense,
however, that more could be done immediately if connections were
made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region
and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.
A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet,
north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted
a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will
be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy
turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce
600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred
“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound
understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager
Steve Klein said in a news
release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the
vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability
of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time
ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”
The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and
wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and
environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary
measures built in, according to the commission’s
order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:
“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are
not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can
be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the
protection of the public and the environment.
“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers
to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites
for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and
other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a
project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…
“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3)
located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of
the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice;
(5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license
term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a
draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental
Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised
concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating
tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for
killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could
become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor
“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we
disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their
treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license
contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to
protect the fish.
Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials
have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but
will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with
legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for
consideration by the tribal council.
Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch
Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was
disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that
can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a
primary route for killer whales and many other species.
The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful
underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed
at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can
disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.
The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any
curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines
become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically
stop the blades from turning, something that could take four
“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him
this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see
these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception
Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to
the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared
to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.
The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains
that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other
“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires
detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer
whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring
required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan
will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come
near the turbines.
“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal
Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to
project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected
or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….
“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will
ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer
whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this
license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation
exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the
turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until
modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to
reduce the sound level.”
According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone
might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is
considered close to the human threshold for pain.
In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are
listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species
One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales,
endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries
Service have concluded that none of the species would be in
jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.
Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer
whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral
shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in
violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental
take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo
consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and
possibly change its plans before moving forward.
The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy
access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A
cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be
located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines
will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from
The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland.
Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton
According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in
ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One
location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and
productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish,
dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.
The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in
grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power
Administration along with federal appropriations.
Partners in various aspects of the project include the
University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,
Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy
Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound,
is asking federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the
death of L-112, a young female orca who died two years ago of
Ken maintains that an underwater “blast” remains the mostly
likely cause of death for the whale, who was known as Sooke — or
Victoria, as Ken originally named her.
draft final report (PDF 2.3 mb) by the National Marine
Fisheries Service, dated Feb. 24, states that “blunt trauma to the
head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of
mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of
the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”
The official investigation could find no military operations in
the area off the Washington/Oregon coast, where the young whale was
found dead on Feb. 11, 2012. In looking for a cause of the trauma,
the report essentially rules out several underwater explosions set
off by the Canadian Navy a week before, on Feb. 4, 5 and 6 off
Vancouver Island. These activities occurred too far north — and
prevailing winds and currents were in the opposite direction,
according to the report.
But Ken Balcomb argues that the report fails to fully consider
how L-112 could have ended up south of these military exercises.
Currents are not certain, he said. They can change, and eddies can
even flow in the opposite direction from prevailing currents. Ken
also raises the prospect that a dead or dying orca calf could be
carried a great distance by other members of the pod.
“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be
selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario,
rather than one that may be more realistic,” he wrote to NMFS, the
federal agency in charge of protecting marine mammals.
Report:“The absence of right cerebral
hemisphere and right cerebellum of the brain was secondary to loss
of tissue during disarticulation of the head. Significance is
uncertain based on imaging alone, but unilateral loss of brain
tissue is unusual.”
Ken’s comment:“UNUSUAL! The right cerebral
hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed and there was
evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings
of brain damage from a blast impact. The observation is consistent
with blast trauma.”
On the ear bones:
Report:“The CT results showed no evidence
of bone fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones. These
results do not conflict with gross observations and the proposed
cause of acute or peracute death by blunt force trauma; however,
blast- or seismic-related injuries cannot be
Ken’s comment:”Upon gross dissection both
tympanic bullae were found to be dislocated from their fragile bony
pedestals anchoring them to the cranium. While it may be accurate
to say that no evidence of fractures or damage to the middle or
inner ear bones on the CT scans, it is misleading to infer that no
damage was evident to the ears (see page 11 of Necropsy
On possible attack by another marine
Report:“The primary signs of injury reported
from aggressive attacks are rake marks, musculoskeletal and/or
intra tissue trauma (bruising, tearing) attributed to ramming and
sometimes death. Contrary to the cases reported in the literature,
L-112 was a juvenile animal (older and larger than a calf or
neonate), and the examiners did not document tooth rake marks
associated with the signs of hemorrhage they observed during the
gross examination. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility
that L-112 suffered injuries from an aggressive attack, such as
ramming, by a larger animal.”
Ken’s comment:“The presumed hypothesis
suggested by the last sentence is absolutely preposterous, given
the evidence of a massive single traumatic event causing the mortal
injury. To not rule out the attack hypothesis while ruling out
blast trauma is ludicrous.”
Report:“Because of prevailing currents and
eddies it is unlikely that L-112 died in Canadian waters or the
Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted south, but instead likely died
in the Columbia River plume or farther to the south along the coast
of Oregon. Given the state of decomposition at the time of
stranding the body was either carried by eddies for several days or
may have drifted a substantial distance from the south before being
trapped by the eddies and cast ashore on the Long Beach
Ken’s comment:“The drift patterns can be quite
different from year to year, as well as from season to season, or
even week to week. It is regrettable that drifters were not
deployed near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in
February 2012. There was a NOAA cruise in these waters at that
time, and I asked the chief scientist to deploy drifters or some
identifiable devices to ascertain the real time drift pattern at
that time. One can surmise from the temperature regimes that were
documented real-time that there was an anomalous cold water regime
moving in a southerly direction in February 2012, but there were no
On the possibility of transport by another
Ken’s comment:“I further request that the
investigation team thoughtfully consider the relevant cetacean
epimeletic behavior … (He mentions two studies.) Hoyt (1981) in
‘Orca, the Whale Called killer” on page 92 states: ‘Among
cetaceans, and especially the dolphin family (including orca),
care-giving behavior to sick or wounded family members seems
exemplary. Moby Doll was supported by members of his family after
he was harpooned in 1964. On another occasion off the B.C. coast, a
young killer whale was hit by a government ferry boat, the
propeller accidentally slashing its back. The ferry captain stopped
the boat and watched a male and a female supporting the bleeding
calf. Fifteen days later, two whales supporting a third –
presumably the same group — were observed at the same
Ken concludes his remarks with this: “These comments are
dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate
mother/offspring pair of whales I have ever seen. Rest in peace,
L112. We miss you.”
It appears we’ll never know what killed L-112, known as Victoria
or Sooke, found dead at 3 years old, after she washed up on an
ocean beach in Southwest Washington.
If you recall from two years ago, much speculation swirled
around the notion that the female orca was killed by military
operations, such as sonar or an explosion. The Royal Canadian Navy
confirmed the use of sonar and small underwater detonations west of
Vancouver Island. But that was far from Long Beach, where the orca
washed up, and ocean currents suggest she was killed even farther
south. For a quick history, see
Water Ways from Feb. 18, 2012, followed by an
entry on May 16, 2012.
The latest report concludes, as early ones did, that L-112 died
from “blunt force trauma.” But the cause of the trauma could not be
determined. No sonar activity or explosions were identified in the
area where her death probably occurred, although a physical
examination was not able to totally rule out those causes.
A new bit of information emerges from the long-term acoustic
recorders that listen for sounds off the coast. Calls identified as
coming from L pod were reported near Point Reyes in California on
Jan. 30, off Westport in Washington on Feb. 5, and near Newport in
Oregon on Feb. 20. L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11 after floating
for several days. It appears likely that the young whale was with
her pod at the time of her death.
As the report states:
“This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the
source of the blunt trauma despite gathering and evaluating all
available information on the whales, the environment, and human
activities. We evaluated the sighting history of the whales to
provide insight into the circumstances of the stranding.
“Autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the coasts of
Washington, Oregon, and California indicated that the main group of
L Pod, possibly including L-112, was off California in late
January, heading north, and possibly off Westport, Washington in
the first week of February and detected near Newport, Oregon after
“A major source of trauma from sonar, explosives, or a seismic
event would likely have affected multiple individuals traveling
together as killer whales are known to do. All other members of
L-112’s family group were sighted following L-112’s stranding. No
other members of the L4 sub-group were reported missing, injured,
or stranded between the time of the L-112 stranding and the summer
“This observation leads us to believe that the trauma suffered
by L-112 was likely borne individually and was not an event that
covered a large area or that directly impacted the young whale’s
most likely traveling companions in the L4 sub-group. For these
reasons, we do not believe that L-112 succumbed to blast injuries
or exposure to other high intensity sound.”
So was L-112 struck by a ship? Did she encounter another
aggressive whale or large shark? Or was she hit by another unknown
force or object? We’ll probably never know, as the mystery goes on
and on and people continue to ask, “Who killed L-112?”
John Buchanan of Squamish, British Columbia, was in the right
place at the right time when a group of transient killer whales
mixed it up with hundreds of fleeing white-sided dolphins.
John said it appeared that the orcas had formed a line to herd
the dolphins into shallow water in Departure Bay near Nanaimo.
“The only way they could escape was going through the orcas,” he
told me. “I was wondering if they would swim right into the ferry.
The ferry may have made the escape a little narrower for them.”
John happened to be on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West
Vancouver to Departure Bay on Vancouver Island when the wild
encounter occurred on Monday.
“I was just traveling on the ferry to meet someone at Nanaimo,”
said Buchanan, who is active in the environmental groups, including
Squamish Stream Keepers. “I always have my camera close by.
“We were just coming into Departure Bay. Someone spotted the
orcas, then the water just exploded with all these dolphins in the
bay. The orcas had them pinned in.
“I bet there was all kinds of action going on under the water,”
he said. “It was spectacular, especially when one orca was breaking
in one direction and another was breaking in the other
John recorded that exciting shot of a double breach on his
camera, which you can see toward the end of the video.
Later, he was informed by a biologist at Vancouver Aquarium that
breaching is often how the whales celebrate a kill. Although he
noticed a lot of chasing at the time, he never spotted any dead or
dying dolphins nor was any blood in the water.
John posted the video on YouTube on Monday, the same day he
recorded the dramatic encounter. As of this morning, the number of
views was approaching 100,000.
CBC News posted the video on its
webpage, and John has been approached by people who would like
to purchase the footage, but he plans to keep it available for
“I’ll never see anything like that again,” he said.
At my suggestion, John sent photos to Ken Balcomb and Dave
Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. Ken reported that the
orcas included T-100s. According to the book “Transients” by John
Ford and Graeme Ellis, they are a group of killer whales seen
mainly in Southeast Alaska.
The legal stage was already set for Lolita, the last killer
whale from Puget Sound to survive in captivity.
Putting Lolita on the Endangered Species List, along with her
wild relatives who were already listed, follows a pattern
established over the past decade, going back to a 2001 court ruling
about salmon. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service intends to
include Lolita among the listed Southern Resident killer whales.
“Petition to list the killer whale known as Lolita….”
But what the endangered designation will mean for Lolita herself
is yet to be seen and is likely to be the subject of further legal
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed
the petition along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, hailed the
latest decision by NMFS. The group said in a news
release that the decision “opened the door to the eventual
release of Lolita.”
Jarred Goodman, who handled the case for PETA, told me that it
is PETA’s belief that holding Lolita in a small tank at Miami
Seaquarium constitutes “harm and harassment,” which are violations
of the Endangered Species Act.
After NMFS completes changes to the listing, PETA has several
options, he said, although he is not authorized to discuss specific
strategies. Calling on NMFS to take action on behalf of Lolita or
filing a citizen lawsuit are among them.
Nothing in the NMFS findings would change anything for Lolita,
however. The bottom line is that NMFS could find no legal
justification in the Endangered
Species Act (PDF 147 kb) or related court decisions for
separating the captive orca from wild Southern Residents when it
comes to identifying which ones are at risk of extinction.
“While the ESA authorizes the listing, delisting, or
reclassification of a species, subspecies, or DPS (distinct
population segment) of a vertebrate species, it does not authorize
the exclusion of the members of a subset or portion of a listed
species, subspecies, or DPS from a listing decision….
“The ESA does not support the exclusion of captive members from
a listing based solely on their status as captive. On its face, the
ESA does not treat captives differently. Rather, specific language
in Section 9 and Section 10 of the ESA presumes their inclusion in
the listed entity, and captives are subject to certain exemptions
to Section 9.”
In other words, the original decision not to include captive
killer whales in the population at risk of extinction was a
In finding that Lolita is part of the endangered population,
NMFS noted that agency officials agreed with a 2001 court ruling in
which a judge determined that hatchery salmon should be considered
part of the salmon population at risk of extinction.
Following that logic, the NMFS included captive fish in the
listing of endangered smalltooth sawfish and endangered Atlantic
sturgeon. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided
last year that captive chimpanzees should be included among the
wild population listed as endangered.
The ESA does allow captive animals to be treated differently,
provided they were in captivity at the time of the listing and
“that such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the fish or
wildlife was not in the course of a commercial activity.”
For Lolita, NMFS has stated that continued possession of captive
animals does not require a permit under ESA and that Lolita can
continue to be managed under the Animal Welfare Act. (See
“Questions and answers …”)
Advocates for Lolita say NMFS may not have taken a position on
Lolita, given the latest findings. The notice only says that
holding an endangered animal in captivity is not a violation of the
ESA per se.
I’ll continue to follow the case as it moves forward. Meanwhile,
here are some past of my past observations about Lolita in Water