Tag Archives: killer whale

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.

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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.

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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.

SeaWorld hopes to change its image by ending orca breeding

UPDATE, March 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:

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

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

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

David Phillips, Earth Island Institute:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Wells, Animal Legal Defense Fund:

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

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

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

Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project

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

Lifeforce:

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

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researchers locate orcas off the coast; new satellite tag attached

As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him. That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s Eve, when it was first attached.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

It might have been easier to locate the whales if the transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at least a general pattern.

After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region between the Columbia River and Westport.

To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry. By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.

This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to spot them.

“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning, with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with members of L pod.”

Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective and Bio-Waves — were able to get on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.

The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions, they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy weather.

As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.

On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days. Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.

For maps showing the tracking of L-33 and now L-95, visit the NOAA’s website “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K pod turns back and heads up into Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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