Tag Archives: killer whales

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast, presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those travels in a moment.

Report

NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest risk of extinction.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts through enforcement, education and evaluation: This includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise and other problems to be identified.
  • Target recovery of critical prey: Because chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
  • Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places that are important to them.
  • Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.

And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be assessed on the water.

Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20. NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport, Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales, assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.

Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can, as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled for next year.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”

The researchers are trying to account for differences among the pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers would like to see whether the whales are going to different places or acting differently.

Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings are collected at the end of the season.

In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales and provide information about hormone levels and other indications of general health.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino, Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time, they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan. 22.

Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were over Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong currents rising up from the underwater chasm.

The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on Jan. 29.

From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days, mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching the edge of the continental shelf.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport (not yet depicted on the map).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Orca Network plans to ‘Livestream’ Ways of Whales Workshop

Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts, careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by nature.

Ways

Tickets will be available at the door. Go to “Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.

For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream the event live on the Internet. Connect with the Livestream network to join the event via computer.

In addition to speakers providing the latest information about orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita, or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the Salish Sea.

For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened that to “Toki.”

“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with indications that a combination of changing public attitudes, questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,” Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.

"Toki's retirement home," as Howard Garret calls it. Photo: Orca Network
“Toki’s retirement home” in the San Juan Islands, as Howard Garrett calls it.
Photo: Orca Network

A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government — but so far that determination has been of little consequence.

The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so the plan goes.

It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans — would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course, attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.

Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium (Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki to Puget Sound. (See Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of death has not yet been determined. For additional information, review the news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
—–

For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.

On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer whale.

Deceased orca calf

If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated people.

The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island says everything points to the whale being one of the seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles, research director for CWR.

Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing more than a dead marine mammal.

“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients. Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are expected within two or three weeks.

Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate, transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents. Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in 2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.

For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and struggling to survive along with the orcas.

Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011, when the population reached about 300, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote areas where they may not be seen by anyone.

Several older transients among this population have died in recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.

Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For details, check out the 2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).

More on tagging study

Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad Hanson.

This year’s data could provide additional information about how the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.

The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center for Whale Research.

Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the U.S. Navy.

Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

Orca baby boom keeps on booming with another new calf in L pod

A new calf, L-123, has been confirmed by the Center for Whale Research. Photo: Mark Malleson, CWR
A new calf, L-123, is shown with its mother, L-103 or Lapis. The new baby was confirmed by the Center for Whale Research.
Photo: Mark Malleson, CWR

I am pleased to repeat the message we’ve heard again and again over the past year: The baby boom continues for the orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new calf in L pod — the seventh to be born to the three Southern Resident pods since December of last year.

The new baby, designated L-123, is the first documented calf for L-103, a 12-year-old female named Lapis. I have a special fondness for Lapis and her family, because her mother, L-55 or Nugget, was one of the 19 orcas that stayed in Dyes Inlet for a month during 1997. Nugget was 20 years old at the time, and her first born, L-82 or Kasatka, was 7. Kasatka had a calf of her own in 2010. Now, with the birth of this new calf, our old friend Nugget is the grandmother of two.

The new calf was first photographed Nov. 10 by Alisa Lemire Brooks and Sara Hysong-Shimazu from Alki Point in West Seattle, according to a news release from the Center for Whale Research. See entry on Orca Network’s Facebook page. Because of poor visibility and sea conditions, those photos and others taken later by Melisa Pinnow and Jane Cogan were not clear enough to confirm the birth of a new orca. High-resolution photos taken yesterday by Mark Malleson, a research associate with the Center for Whale Research, were used for the final confirmation.

Having seven orca calves born in a 12-month period is almost unheard of. In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.

Researchers will be watching all the new calves as they grow. Getting through the first year is often the toughest, as the young whales learn to survive while their immune systems develop.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 83 — or 84 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 28 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

The news release announcing the new baby adds this note of caution:

“While a new calf born to this struggling population is certainly cause to celebrate, it is important to remember that another SRKW also means another mouth to feed. With each new calf that is born, we continue to emphasize the need to focus on wild chinook salmon restoration efforts — especially the removal of obsolete dams that block wild salmon from their natal spawning habitat, such as those on the lower Snake River. We will continue to monitor the new calf in the next several weeks and provide updates whenever possible.”

It’s time to visit local streams to view chum salmon on the move

Killer whales were back in Puget Sound today, spotted early this morning near Vashon Island, in the afternoon near Seattle and after dark near Point No Point in North Kitsap. Reports can be seen on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Chum salmon swimming up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun
Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek at Chico Salmon Park. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

It’s a reminder that chum salmon are now running in Puget Sound, and the whales are close behind. The chum also are entering our local streams. So this is the time to visit your nearest salmon stream to see if the fish have arrived. Tristan Baurick wrote about recent conditions for the Kitsap Sun.

As always, if you wish to see chum swimming upstream and possibly spawning, one of the best places to go is Chico Salmon Park next to Kitsap Golf and Country Club. For the latest information about the park, read the story in the Kitsap Sun by Terri Gleich.

9 Salmon map

With a couple of updates, my Salmon Viewing Map and videos still offer a guide to the best public spots to watch salmon on the Kitsap Peninsula. Click on the map at right to access the videos and other information, including viewing tips.

If you would like to learn about salmon from the experts, make a note of these events:

  • Saturday, Nov. 7, Poulsbo Fish Park, 288 Lindvig Way. Children’s activities included, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Salmon Viewing Saturday
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Chico Salmon Park, Chico Way at Golf Club Road, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No charge. Kitsap Salmon Tours.
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, Mountaineers Rhododendron Preserve, 3153 Seabeck Highway. Tours, involving a hike of about 1.5 miles, begin at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Nov. 14. Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month later than normal.

As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula. The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands, then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September. Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if that’s all they can find.

In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).

On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as reported by Orca Network.

“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca Network’s sighting report from Sunday.

“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and this was the first October to come and go without the Southern Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs, and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of chum!”

On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L pods continued north, and J pod headed south.

Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”

The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon in other areas besides Puget Sound.

Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.

This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island, passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are somewhere around Kingston.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along above and below the surface.

We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something else.

Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:

The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a 38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a 6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a 5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.

While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four of her offspring.

The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82: 28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.

J53
The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

Carl Safina explores animal culture plus
orca-salmon links

Carl Safina — scientist, teacher, author and documentary filmmaker — will speak Wednesday on a topic of interest to many killer whale observers, “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest.”

The talk, sponsored by the group Orca Salmon Alliance, will be held at the Seattle Aquarium, but it appears the event has been sold out. (Brown Paper Tickets)

Following his speech, Safina will join a panel of experts on salmon and killer whales to discuss the connections between these two iconic species and what it will take for the survival of the species. The experts are Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, Howard Schaller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Safina’s newest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” is winning acclaim for its description of animal culture and even emotions in creatures such as elephants, wolves and killer whales.

“We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe, but clearly we are not alone on earth,” wrote Tim Flannery in his review of “Beyond Words” in the New York Review of Books. “The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of ‘Beyond Words’ we need to reevaluate how, and why.”

“Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion,” Flannery continues. “Prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this?”

Previously, in a PBS series “Saving the Ocean,” Safina explored the effort to restore chinook salmon to the Nisqually River. During a two-part segment, he interviewed numerous biologists and talked to tribal leader Billy Frank before Billy’s untimely death.

The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance is a consortium of environmental groups focused on supporting the recovery of orcas and salmon. Proceeds from Wednesday’s event will support the organization.

“We can’t recover the highly endangered population of orca living off the Northwest coast without also restoring their primary food source, the chinook salmon,” said Deborah Giles, Science Advisor for OSA.

Thousands vote to name four new killer whales

Interest in Puget Sound’s killer whales continues to grow, as demonstrated recently when more than 3,000 people from throughout the world helped name four new baby orcas.

The new babies are named Scarlet, Nova, Sonic and Windsong. I’ll tell you more about these new names in a moment, but first I’d like to describe the naming process and how it might change.

Scarlet, J-50 Photo: The Whale Museum
Scarlet, J-50 // Photo: The Whale Museum

People were thrilled to get the chance to name some orca calves this year, considering that the past two years no new babies were around to be named, according to Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum.

The Whale Museum holds an annual vote on its website to name any new members of the Southern Resident killer whale community. Once the whales are named, people are free to “adopt” the young animals, contributing to the Whale Museum’s educational, research and orca-protection programs. Although any living whale is eligible for adoption, people are especially excited to become connected with little ones. Check out the orca adoption page.

What I never realized is that when someone adopts a baby orca and then renews the adoption year after year, he or she will receive annual reports and photos for as long as the whale survives. Since killer whales may live as long as humans, I bet more than a few people have some interesting scrapbooks of their whale adoptees.

Nova, J-51 Photo: The Whale Museum
Nova, J-51 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Knowing that a fair number or orcas don’t survive their first year, some people were surprised that orcas born as recently as March were being named now, Jenny said. Other people have never understood why it takes so long to name the babies.

Jenny explained that the current naming process is based on tradition and the idea that young killer whales should get a name and be eligible for adoption after making it through their first winter — the most trying period for young animals. This year, names were given to whales first spotted in December, February (two babies) and March — all surviving at least a portion of the winter.

Over the past few years, more observers — including naturalists associated with commercial whale-watching boats — have been able to identify individual orcas and notice changes in family structure. The information often goes to the Center of Whale Research, which conducts an annual census of the Southern Residents as of July 1. To stay on top of things, the Center for Whale Research has been confirming new births soon after they are reported.

Sonic, J-52 Photo: The Whale Museum
Sonic, J-52 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Just as the Internet has changed the reporting of news, we are now seeing an ongoing population count of the Southern Residents with very little delay in learning about new births in the population.

In a similar fashion, Jenny told me that she has begun to consider a change in the naming process. She said it has always troubled her that young whales sometimes die without being honored with a name, and it becomes somewhat arbitrary which orcas get names and which ones don’t.

Perhaps the original idea of naming whales after their first winter helps to spare people the emotional upset of losing a young animal that has barely been named and “adopted” by supporters of The Whale Museum.

“Is it really any easier to lose them if they don’t have a name?” Jenny pondered. “They may put on a great show, but this population is suffering. If you only tell happy stories, how can we expect things to change?”

Windsong, L-121 Photo: The Whale Museum
Windsong, L-121 // Photo: The Whale Museum

The three Southern Resident pods are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Until a recent “baby boom” starting in December, no new calves were born for more than two years. Six whales died during that time. The situation was bleak and is still quite worrisome.

Based on studies, we know that a nursing mother passes more toxic chemicals to her first-born than to subsequent babies. We also know that the risk of death for an orca calf is greater during the first few years of life. But I would not think that naming a baby orca and then reporting its death would be any more traumatic than reporting the death of an older whale that people have known over many years.

“I believe everything deserves a name,” Jenny told me, saying the process of naming newborn orcas more quickly will take some planning and a full discussion by the board of The Whale Museum. The current system coordinates with outside groups in choosing names for specific orca families, and the names of individuals within a family are often coordinated. For example, this is how the new names came about:

Scarlet: Born in December to J-16 or “Slick,” this young whale was designated J-50. She has “rake” marks on both sides of her body, believed to be caused when another orca used its teeth to assist in her delivery. “Scarlet” refers to the scars from the rake marks. Other proposed names outvoted in the naming process were Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration and strength; Hi-Yu, a Chinook word for plenty; and Fraser, the salmon river in British Columbia considered an important food source for the whales.

Nova: First seen in February, this male orca was designated J-51. He is the first offspring of J-41, named Eclipse. The name Nova, which relates to the celestial name of his mother, is the description of a star that flares into brightness before fading back to its original intensity. Other options outvoted were Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of sunlight; Twilight; and Moonshadow.

Sonic: First seen in March, this male orca was designated J-52. His mother, J-36 or Alki, has contributed to a large and thriving family that consists of three generations. Sonic, of course, relates to sound waves. Other options under consideration were Galiano, a Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; Thetis, another Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; and Capilano, a historic family in the Coast Salish Community in British Columbia.

Windsong: Spotted by researchers off the Washington Coast in February, this young male is the second offspring of L-94 or Calypso. He is designated L-121. The name Calypso came from a song by John Denver about Jacques Cousteau’s ship. “Windsong” was the name of the album. Other options were Calliope, a musical instrument using compressed air as well as a muse in Greek mythology; Tango, a dance; and Alcyone, Cousteau’s second ship.

Another new baby was spotted two weeks ago. The mother is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. When this youngster will be named is not certain.