Tag Archives: killer whale

Orca celebrations and environmental learning are filling our calendar

From killer whales to native plants, it’s a potpourri of activities and events I would like to share with you. June is Orca Month. But first, on Saturday, we can celebrate the 15th anniversary of the remarkable rescue of a young killer whale named Springer.

Also coming in June are gatherings small and large, including a water-based festival in Silverdale later in the month.

Celebrate Springer!

This Saturday, May 20, folks will come together to celebrate Springer — the lost baby orca who was rescued and returned to her home in British Columbia. The 15th anniversary of the rescue will be commemorated on Vashon Island, at the Vashon Theatre, 17723 Vashon Highway SW.

Springer and her calf, named Spirit, who was born in 2013. // Photo: Christie MacMillan

The celebration will include stories recounting the event, starting when Springer was found alone near the Seattle-Vashon Island ferry lanes and continuing through her return to the north end of Vancouver Island after being restored to good health. The celebration will include dancing by the Le-La-La Dance Group. These are the First Nations dancers who welcomed Springer back to her home waters 15 years ago.

For details, check out the web site of The Whale Trail, which is sponsoring the celebration, which I wrote about in Water Ways on the 10th anniversary of the rescue.

Orca Month

The kickoff of Orca Month will include a tribute to Granny, the elderly matriarch who led J pod for decades until her death this past year. The opening event, sponsored by Orca Salmon Alliance, will be Sunday, June 4, at Golden Gardens Bathhouse in Seattle. RSVP on the Orca Month Facebook page.

If you would like to immerse yourself in information about the Southern Resident killer whales, you may enjoy the annual “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop on Whidbey Island on Saturday, June 10. Speakers will include Howard Garrett of Orca Network discussing the status of the Southern Residents, Mike Ford of NOAA talking about killer whale genetics, and Jacques White of Long Live the Kings addressing the critical Salish Sea Salmon. For details and reservations, visit the Orca Network website.

Other events during Orca Month include a screening of the film “The Unknown Sea” in Burien on June 1, naturalists in the parks on June 3, “Day of the Orca” in Port Townsend on June 3, beach cleanups on June 13, Orca Sing on San Juan Island on June 24, and Orca Awareness Weekend at Seattle Aquarium on June 24 and 25. All events, including those in Oregon and British Columbia are featured on the Orca Awareness Month webpage.

Native Plants in Your Garden

This Sunday, Sami Gray, a botanist and landscaper, and Sally Manifold, a retired specialist in native plant restoration, will hold a workshop on how to bring color, beauty and habitat to your own property with the appropriate use of native plants. An illustrated talk will begin indoors, followed by a tour of Sally’s landscape.

The workshop will be from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Poulsbo-Suquamish area. For details and reservations, email Sami at bi.horticulture@gmail.com. A $10 donation is suggested.

Beach walks

Kitsap Beach Naturalists, a group of trained volunteers, have scheduled a series of low-tide explorations at Kitsap Memorial State Park in North Kitsap. These are special opportunities for children and adults to learn about local sea life, the dynamic shoreline and food web connections.

The events will be Saturday, May 27, from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 24, from noon to 1:30 p.m.; Monday, July 10, from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 23, from noon to 1:30 p.m.; and Monday, Aug. 21 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Kitsap Beach Naturalists is a program of the Washington State University Extension in Kitsap County.

Kitsap Peninsula Water Trail Festival

A two-day festival, including food, music, games, sports and environmental activities, is scheduled for June 24 and 25 at Silverdale Waterfront Park. The festival, which includes numerous paddle events, celebrates the Kitsap Peninsula’s diverse ecosystem and water trails that have been officially designated by the National Water Trails System.

For a list of events, including explanatory videos, check out the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails Festival website.

ABC Environmental Conference

A few tickets remain for Sunday’s Environmental Conference, sponsored by the Association of Bainbridge Communities. The conference, titled “Changing the Nature of Puget Sound,” is focused on various aspects of industrial aquaculture. The event is at IslandWood Environmental Learning Center. Because of limited space, reservations are required. Visit the conference website for details.

Folk and Traditional Arts in the Parks

A Salish Sea Native American Cultural Celebration on June 3 at Bowman Bay State Park will feature free canoe rides sponsored by the Samish and Swinomish tribes at Deception Pass State Park. The event is part of an ongoing program by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

The celebration also will include native singers, drummers and storytellers. Artists from the two tribes will demonstrate traditional cedar weaving and woodcarving. A salmon and fry bread lunch will be available for a fee.

For information about this and similar programs through September, visit the Folk and Traditional Arts in the Park website.

Dosewallips State Park programs

A variety of environmental topics for children and adults are discussed during evening events at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Most begin at 8 p.m.

The lineup: Saturday, May 20, “Identifying the Trees of Dosewallips”; Sunday, May 28, “Hidden in Hood Canal”; Saturday, June 3, “Things that Sting”; Saturday, June 10, “Berries and Edible Plants”; Saturday, June 17, “Recycle in the Park”; Saturday, June 24, “Wildlife Visit from West Sound Wildlife Shelter” with Ranger, a Peregrine falcon; Sunday, July 2, “July 4 Special” about Independence Day, including historical reenactments; Saturday, July 8, “Roosevelt Elk”; Saturday, July 15, “How to Make Rescue Bracelets,” Saturday, July 22, “Wildlife Visit from West Sound Wildlife Shelter” with Cedar, a red-tailed hawk; and Saturday July 29, “The Story of Smokey Bear.”

Check out the news release about Dosewallips State Park or go to the interactive Calendar of Events and Meetings through September.

National Parks Guides

The National Parks Foundation offers free travel guides, tips and reviews in a series of impressive publications available on the Explore Parks webpage. They include “National Parks Owner’s Guide,” including maps, travel tips and inside information, “I Heart Parks” about ways to create romantic and lasting memories in the parks, “Recharge in the Parks” with ways of gaining health benefits from being outdoors, “National Parks by Rail” containing passenger train routes in and among the parks, “Urban Playgrounds” with a list of parks close to 24 major cities, “Happy Trails” with 25 “unforgettable national park hikes,” and “The Places Nobody Knows” with tips and descriptions of “hidden gems” in the parks that few people know about.

Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

In terms of family structure, both residents and transients live in matriarchal societies, with individual groups led by elder females. For the most part, resident orcas will stay with their moms for life. Young whales will often be found with their extended families, including aunts, uncles and cousins and quite often their grandmothers and even great-grandmothers if they are still living.

Traditionally, multiple matriarchal groups — known as matrilines — come together to form larger pods. Together, the residents hunt for schools of salmon by working together in these extended groups.

Transients often travel in much smaller groups, perhaps because they hunt individual seals and sea lions, making the smaller groups more efficient. Younger females generally stay with their mothers until they have calves of their own. The confusion comes in because an adult female with multiple calves may be seen swimming with her mother at times, but leading her own little group at other times. With various families doing different things and going different ways, transient groups are hard to define.

During the month of April, about 20 different transient groups were positively identified in the Salish Sea, according to Orca Network. That does not count any groups seen by ordinary observers unable to identify the individual whales.

For the month, 442 killer whale sightings were recorded — mostly of transients, although J pod was around for part of the month, according to data from Orca Network. And, going into May, the rate of sightings does not seem to be slowing down. In comparison, sightings totaled 275 during April of last year.

The number of transient orcas spending time in Puget Sound is definitely growing, said Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research, while acknowledging that some of this year’s increase may be the result of more people out watching for whales from shore. Sighting locations are provided by both Orca Network and a separate group, The Whale Trail.

Another unusual observation, Giles said, is the congregation of small groups of transients into 20 or more whales, something seen last year for the first time in Puget Sound and experienced again this year.

Six killer whales hunt for seals on an extended stay in Hood Canal in 2005. // Photo: Josh London

Many of the whales we see range widely from Northern California to Southeast Alaska. In 2005, I was thrilled to talk to Dena Matkin, a whale researcher in Glacier Bay, Alaska, who was familiar with six orcas that had been hanging around in Hood Canal. Puget Sound experts had identified the two older females as T-71 and T-124A, as I reported in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 5, 2005.

“These are my friends, and I am so happy to hear that they are doing well down there,” Dena told me by phone.”T-71 I call Bonkers, because the first time I got to know it, it was bonking a harbor seal on the head with its tail. T-71A I call Hopkins, because I saw the new calf in John Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay, where harbor seals breed.”

It is interesting to note that the T-71 group was seen in January of this year at the southern tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. The T-124A group was seen within the Salish Sea in January, March and four times in April. T-124A was among a group of 28 transients gathered in the Strait of Georgia on April 14.

In the 1970s, during the early days of killer whale research, Michael Bigg of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans figured out that individual whales could be identified by the shape and size of their dorsal fin along with pigmentation at the base of the fin, called the saddle patch. Eventually, the researchers in Puget Sound and British Columbia realized that two large groups of orcas were seen again and again. They eventually became known as Northern Residents and Southern Residents.

In those days, researchers documented other whales coming into the inland waterways, but few would be seen a second or third time. Bigg called these whales transients — although some people now refer to them as Bigg’s killer whales in his honor. For a nice account of this history and other information about transients, check out a piece by Jared Towers in Orcazine, an online magazine about killer whales.

It is now understood why transient killer whales were rarely seen in the Salish Sea before passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the U.S. and similar laws in Canada. Seals and sea lions had been hunted to extremely low levels before 1972 in an effort to increase the commercial harvest of salmon. What isn’t clear is why it took the transients so long to figure out that marine mammals were back on their exclusive Puget Sound menu.

A study by Juliana Houghton of the University of Washington and other researchers describes an increase in transients in the Salish Sea from 1987 to 2010, but it appears that the whales’ presence has grown much more since that time.

Total populations of West Coast transients are hard to calculate, but the rate of growth has slowed since an initial surge from 1975 to 1990. The best estimate for today’s population is more than 500 animals. Gary Wiles of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife produced a Periodic Status Review (PDF 3.1 mb) last summer.

Transient killer whales are quite different from residents, and the two ecotypes are not known to interact except for rare accidental encounters. When they meet, the transients normally skedaddle, apparently out of respect for the residents. Dave Bain, a University of Washington instructor, once told me of an encounter in which J pod seemed to give chase to a group of transients. I related Dave’s account in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun, a piece that addressed critical interactions among Puget Sound’s marine mammals. Check out “Scientists weighing what mammals’ health says about Puget Sound.”

I should mention that through the years many observers have secretly or even openly hoped for a resurgence of transients in the Salish Sea to benefit the Southern Residents. Seals and sea lions are often direct competitors for the salmon needed to keep the endangered Southern Residents alive. Seals and sea lions eat lots of other fish as well, complicating the relationship. Check out a story I wrote in January for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because the resident and transient populations remain isolated, they have developed their own hunting styles, with the transients being generally quieter to sneak up on seals and sea lions. Meanwhile, the residents not only make more noise as they go after chinook salmon, their repertoire of calls is more complex and extensive.

Physically, transients are larger, presumably because their prey — marine mammals as opposed to fish — are larger and stronger. This is likely evolution at work. The dorsal fin of a female transient is sharper and looks a little like a shark fin, whereas a female resident’s dorsal fin is generally more curvy. The saddle patch of the two types is also different, with residents having more variation in shape and shading.

If you would like to identify individual transient killer whales, Orca Network has posted a catalog of photos (PDF 116.3 mb) produced in 2012 by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A newer catalog, in color, was compiled for members of the Center for Whale Research.

Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

Continue reading

Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

Continue reading

Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

Continue reading

Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

Continue reading

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

Continue reading

Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

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.