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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”