Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that
Paul Pudwell of Sooke
Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have
not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted
July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver
Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for
identification by Ken and company.
By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern
Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had
just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the
population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number
includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami
Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see
Water Ways, July 1 and
Water Ways, July 7.
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.
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
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.
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
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
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
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
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
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
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
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
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“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!”
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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.