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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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
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.
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
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.