Tag Archives: killer whales

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Will fake killer whale fool sea lions in Astoria — and what if it does?

I was eager to find out if a 32-foot fiberglass replica of a killer whale could scare off a huge number of sea lions crowded together on the docks in Astoria, Ore.

I kept telling my wife Sue, “It’s not going to work” — and I had not the slightest idea that the motorized orca might capsize during its attempt to frighten the persistent sea lions.

About 1,000 people were on hand last night when a human operator drove the orca toward the sea lions, according to Associated Press reporter Terrence Petty. A passing cargo ship created a wake that rushed toward the shore and capsized the fake killer whale. And that was that for now. You can read the story in the Kitsap Sun.

I understand that the fake killer whale might be deployed again against the sea lions in August, when their numbers are expected to be high again. I still doubt that it will work — unless the operators can find a way to aggressively approach the sea lions and stay with the effort for an extended time. It might help to play recordings of transient killer whales — the kind that eat marine mammals. But my understanding is that transients don’t make many sounds when they are in their hunting mode.

I readily admit that I’m not a killer whale expert, but let me tell you why I believe that any sort of limited effort with fake orcas will fail. It’s not that sea lions don’t fear transients. In fact, if sea lions can be convinced that they are being approached by a real killer whale, their fear level could be quite high.

I’ve heard from homeowners who live on Hood Canal, Dyes Inlet and other shorelines that when transient killer whales are around, seals and sea lions head for shore, climb up on docks and even attempt to board boats to get away from them.

So I don’t know if the fiberglass orca will fool the sea lions in Astoria, but does anyone think that these marine mammals are crazy enough to jump into the water if they believe a killer is there waiting for them?

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.

Spotting newborn orca increases success of ocean research cruise

With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise, Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

A newborn orca with its mother L-94, named Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background. NOAA photo by Candice Emmons
A newborn orca swims with its mother L-94, Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background.
NOAA photo by Candice Emmons

The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all survived.

“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The current research cruise also has been among the most exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always been easy to find for observation and tracking.

So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales coming together in the open ocean.

“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well as variability between years.”

As I mentioned in Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in winter and what they are eating are essential elements for extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical habitat designation for the Southern Residents.

With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.

“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See NOAA’s Facebook page for his latest written notes.

The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached in a small Zodiac work boat.

“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf looks great.”

The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very energetic, Brad said.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April or May.

“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan Baurick, a reporter with the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months — especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.

As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their observers have been moving about for the past day or so.

K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. NOAA photo
The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.

Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to notes from the cruise:

“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. The data used for this petition was derived from only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013 satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale from L pod a high priority.”

Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone array.

The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa. The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again, from the cruise notes:

“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their environment this time of the year.

“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start — four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today (Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to near Willipa Bay.”

Those are the last notes available, either on NOAA’s tagging webpage or on NOAA’s Facebook page. I’ve been in touch by email with Brad, but his latest message had nothing new since Wednesday.

By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website, I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon, they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and were continuing on south.

Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in the San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two weeks ago.

For previous reports on the whales, see Water Ways for Feb. 12 as well as a previous post on Jan. 22. A report on the research cruise can be found in Water Ways on Feb. 10.

New baby orca born
into J pod, first spotted near San Juan Island

Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The newest calf, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The newest orca baby, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a press release.

That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51, which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s 10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.

“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers, who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.

For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the last week of December, who was with her family.

Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.

“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51 was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations. Please, BeWhaleWise.org.”

The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19 in K pod and 34 in L pod.

Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m. tonight. For background, see Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.

Research cruise will observe J pod orcas
for the next 21 days

A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada research vessel.

The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks. // NOAA photo

The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate J pod without searching far and wide.

“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the coast.

Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are choosing to spend their time.

Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there remains some lingering doubt. (Review Water Ways from Jan. 22.)

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map at the bottom of this page for their path.

This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite, the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf but stayed only a day.

The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although their locations are currently unknown.

What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad said. The weather often determines the success of observations and operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a “toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and currents.

“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and other top predators, such as seabirds.”

As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I will try to report interesting developments as well.

J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8.
Tracked by satellite, J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8. // NOAA map

Lolita joins endangered orcas; her supporters
push on for her return

Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say they are prepared for that eventuality.

A news release issued today by NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among the endangered orcas:

“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of the population she came from, the decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”

The original listing created an exemption for captive killer whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in 2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts.”

NOAA received nearly 20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered, and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home. But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which does not plan to give her up.

Andrew Hertz, general manager at Miami Seaquarium, said in a statement issued today:

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44 years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment.”

As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:

“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.

“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed. These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity could impact wild animals.

“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with the death of the released animal.”

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko (“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years after his release.

Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely different, since we can identify her family, including her mother, L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and still doing fine.

Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now. Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move about, Howie says.

Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said, because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their time.

The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the killer whale would be better off living out her life in now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the risks that come with moving her to open waters.

Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions for Lolita.

“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”

Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit” under the ESA.

Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said. The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be furthered and developed into an action plan.

Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita. The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her lack of animal companionship.

A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions, despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and aquariums.

Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release from Orca Network:

“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable today.”

For additional information from NOAA Fisheries, visit the website: “Southern Resident Killer Whale — Lolita.”

PETA and ALDF issued a joint news release today.

Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My post in Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions about Lolita.

J pod killer whales still making the rounds, mostly up to the north

UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He did not know the location of J pod at that time.
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Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways, traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods remains largely unknown among whale researchers.

J pod travels, Jan. 21-25 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 21-25
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Since my last report in Water Ways on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center has posted two maps showing the travels of J pod. See “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans, by the next afternoon.

J pod travels, Jan. 24-27 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 24-27
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a day.

As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.