Tag Archives: killer whales

Hope of seeing larger orca population dashed by calf’s death

A seven-week-old baby orca born to our Southern Resident pods was reported missing and presumed dead today. This was the newborn orca who brought so much hope and excitement to our area, being the first reported birth in more than two years.

The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. The calf is reported missing and presumed dead. Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.
The baby orca, L-120, with its mother a few weeks ago while still alive. // Photo courtesy of Carrie Sapp.

When I called Ken Balcomb this morning, he was in a “subjective” state of mind, as he put it. Ken, of the Center for Whale Research, has been keeping track of the three Southern Resident pods since 1976, and he’s clearly worried that these whales may be headed for extinction.

As we talked on the phone, Ken was peering through the large windows of his home on San Juan Island and watching a large purse seine vessel scooping up chum salmon and possibly other species as bycatch.

“I look at this every day, and I’ve seen this for almost 40 years,” Ken said. “There is no letup on the human part. Virtually no fish are getting past the outlet. We know the Fraser River runs are in poor shape, and our management doesn’t seem to take any kind of ecosystem approach.”

Salmon biologists set the sport and commercial fishing seasons based on an estimate of the number of fish returning. They update that estimate during the season based on harvest numbers caught in the nets.

“Whatever they are doing, it obviously has not worked, since we’ve seen run after run not doing well,” Ken said. “I get subjective about it and wonder when our society is going to do something to get more prey (for the whales).”

Ken said there was much hope for the seven-week-old orca, designated L-120, the third known offspring of the 23-year-old mother designated L-86.

“I was optimistic,” he told me. “When we first saw the baby, it had a squished-looking head, but even human babies can be born with a flattened head.

“Within a week, it was filling out well and was energetic,” he continued, and there was no reason to believe the calf would die.

The Southern Residents are known to bear a heavy burden of toxic chemicals, but transient killer whales are even more contaminated. The difference may be that transients, which eat marine mammals, may be getting enough food. Was the orca mom unable to nurse her baby? Did the toxic chemicals cause an immune deficiency? Or was there another problem? We’ll probably never know.

All three orca pods were probably out in the ocean when the youngster disappeared. The mom was seen with other whales on Friday, Saturday and Sunday without the calf — something that would not happen if the baby were alive.

L-120 was the third calf born to L-86. Her second calf, L-112, washed up dead at Long Beach in February 2010. After much investigation, researchers concluded that L-112 had died of blunt force trauma, but what caused the injury was never determined. Ken suspects some kind of explosive detonation, although that cause was discounted by investigators.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network said the orcas have faced a shortage of food, toxic chemicals, routine shooting with guns and a series of captures that depleted the population.

“We haven’t treated these magnificent orcas well at all,” Howie said in a news release. “As a society we are not successfully restoring this orca community, despite the many warnings and legal declarations.

“Our challenge is clear: Bountiful salmon runs must be restored and protected or we won’t see resident orcas in the Salish Sea in coming years,” he added.

The latest population count places the total number at 78, the lowest number since 1986, according to records by the Center of Whale Research.

Killer whales expected to head south any day now

UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
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As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.
Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.

These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days, so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the whales from shore.

From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas, because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you don’t find the whales right away.

Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based observers can help researchers track whale movements and occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our knowledge about what they are eating.

Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.

The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a known route of their travels.

I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas from others as well.

“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta by email, info@orcanetwork.org.

If offering a location for the map, please give a clear description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from that location or just believe it would work based on the view of the water.

Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased its reporting through the years and has not heard of many problems.

“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,” he said.

Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their travels. See the “Be Whale Wise” website.

When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted. Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.

Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network website, Facebook page or Twitter feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.

As Howard stated in a news release:

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Orcas Dyes

Erich Hoyt will talk about orcas and more

Erich Hoyt, who has been enjoying adventures with killer whales and other sea creatures since the early 1970s, will share his understanding of the underwater world during a series of presentations from British Columbia to Northern California.

Erich Hoyt
Erich Hoyt

The tour begins today on Saturna Island in British Columbia. For the full schedule, visit The Whale Trail website.

Erich has a rare talent. He is both an engaging writer as well as an experienced scientific researcher. His first book, “Orca: A Whale Called Killer,” is essential reading for orca supporters. His understanding of the oceans has led him into the field of conservation, seeking greater protections for marine habitats throughout the world.

As Erich prepared for his upcoming tour, sponsored by The Whale Trail, I had the privilege to visit with him for more than an hour via Skype from his home in Bridport, England.

We discussed how people’s attitudes in the U.S. and Canada have changed since 1973. That was when Erich’s curiosity was sparked by encounters with Northern Resident orca pods in British Columbia, where he had moved from the U.S. with his family.

Those were the days when little was known about killer whales. Orcas were still being captured in the Northwest and sent to aquariums throughout the world. Since then, we have learned how those first captures had a serious effect on the close-knit orca communities. Continuing threats today include pollution and a lack of chinook salmon, the primary prey of orcas.

In 1999, Erich helped start a research program in Russian to bring the same kind of scientific scrutiny and conservation concerns to killer whales on the opposite side of the ocean. That program, involving Russian scientists, revealed the presence of two types of orcas, those that eat marine mammals and those that eat fish — similar to what we call “transients” and “residents” in the Northwest.

Orca communities identified so far in Russia range in size from 50 to 600 animals. As we’ve seen in the Northwest, cultures — such as vocal dialects and feeding habits — are handed down from mother to offspring.

An awareness of orcas, as seen in the U.S. and Canada, has not reached Russia or many places in the world, Hoyt says. Russia still allows killer whales to be captured, and last year seven orcas were taken from the Sea of Okhotsk. Earlier captures in Russia were especially disheartening to the researchers who had come to know the individual animals taken from their families.

During his presentation, Erich will show a brief video of some of the Russian capture efforts.

In countries such as Russia, China and Japan, new marine aquariums are being built all the time, with orcas and beluga whales as the star attractions. That’s in stark contrast to the situation in the U.S., where a growing awareness of wild orcas along with the film “Blackfish” has helped change people’s attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.

Erich told me that he would like to see more people around the world come to know individual orcas by name, as we do here in the Northwest.

“Look at how far things have come, from when we didn’t know anything about them to when we start to see them as our friends,” he said.

About a week ago, I reported that NOAA Fisheries had undertaken a yearlong review to determine if the “critical habitat” for Southern Resident killer whales should be extended down the Washington and Oregon coasts. See Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription). A special consideration for protecting the whales from undue noise was part of the petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hoyt agreed that sound should be given special consideration by the federal government.

“Rob Williams (a Canadian researcher) talks about acoustic refuges,” Erich noted. “It is a challenging issue, because whales and dolphins can hear so well… We will need much larger marine protected areas if we really want to protect them…”

A general increase in noise levels in the ocean can lead to habituation by marine mammals, he noted. As they grow accustomed to louder sounds, the animals may adjust — but how will that affect their ability to communicate and find prey? What are the prospects for their long-term survival under more noisy conditions?

And then there is the special issue of mid-frequency sonar, which can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss for some species. Navies that use sonar must be extra careful to avoid impacts, he said.

Erich and I also talked about L-112, the young female orca that washed up dead near Long Beach about the time the Royal Canadian Navy was conducting exercises far to the north. Investigators were unable to determine what caused the “blunt-force” injury to the animal. But they ruled out explosives being used by the Navy, because the currents were in the wrong direction and the distance was too great.

“This brings to mind the crash of the Malaysian jetliner,” Erich said. “You know something unusual happened, but it defies almost any explanation you bring up. Scientists tend to come up with explanations that are the simplest … but they should be careful not to rule anything out.”

Killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb has suggested that L-112’s mother may have carried her dead daughter to the area where she was found. Hoyt said he has personally observed a female white-sided dolphin carrying her dead offspring for more than two hours in Northern Japan.

“It was really touching. We didn’t know at first if the baby was dead. We were not very close. But eventually the mother just let go of the baby.”

Erich expects mixed audiences at his upcoming appearances — from people who know more about certain issues than he does to people who are dragged to the event by a friend.

One message will be that people can watch whales from shore without causing them any disturbance. That’s the mission of The Whale Trail, the organization sponsoring Erich’s trip to locations where killer whales may be seen from shore.

I told Erich about my first adventures with killer whales during the fall of 1997, when 19 orcas visited Dyes Inlet. See “The Dyes Inlet Whales 10 Years Later.” One of my messages at that time was to encourage people to watch from vantage points in Tracyton, Chico and Silverdale.

“Land-based whale watching is really close to my heart,” Erich told me. “It’s the kind of thing that’s important for the community … and a fantastic way to get to know wildlife.”

Hoyt’s appearances in Washington state include this Wednesday in Port Townsend, Thursday in Port Angeles and May 18 in Seattle. Visit The Whale Trail website for the full schedule.

Also, check out Erich Hoyt’s webpage for information about his ongoing activities.

K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.

Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.


View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

Group petitions to expand orca critical habitat

Because Southern Resident killer whales spend so much time foraging in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal waters from Washington to Northern California should be designated for special protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Southern Resident killer whales NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whales // NOAA photo

The environmental group listed research conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service — including ongoing satellite-tracking studies — in a new petition to the agency. The “Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation …” (PDF 340 kb) calls for the West Coast to be designated as critical habitat from Cape Flattery in Washington to Point Reyes in California. The protected zone would extend out nearly 50 miles from shore.

Environmental activists have long argued that the whales depend on more than the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for their survival. Those inland areas, currently designated as critical habitat, are where the whales normally spend most of the summer months. But when winter comes around, where the whales go has been a relative mystery until recent years.

Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity
Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity

An intensive research program has pointed to the conclusion that all three pods venture into Pacific Ocean, and K and L pods travel far down the coast. Research methods include a coastal network of people watching for whales, passive recorders to pick up sounds from the orcas, and work from large and small research vessels. Satellite tracking has allowed researchers to map the whales’ travels. (See Water Ways, Jan. 14.) In addition, forage activity has been observed where rivers drain into the ocean, and many researchers believe that the Columbia River may be especially important.

In addition to the proposal to expand critical habitat, the petition calls for NMFS to include man-made noise among the characteristics getting special attention. The petition states:

“Moreover, in revising the critical habitat designation for Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS must also preserve waters in which anthropogenic noise does not exceed levels that inhibit communication, disrupt foraging activities or result in hearing loss or habitat abandonment.

“A variety of human activities, including shipping operations, have the potential to impair these functions by generating additional ocean noise, resulting in the acoustic degradation of killer whale habitat.

“Global warming and increasing ocean acidification, both products of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute to rising levels of ambient noise.”

Characteristics already considered in protecting the orcas’ critical habitat include water quality, prey quality and abundance, and adequate room to move, rest and forage.

I thought it was interesting that the Center for Biological Diversity would petition the agency to expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents at a time when federal researchers are building a pretty strong case to do that on their own.

Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the center, told me that she sees the petition as supportive of those research efforts, which seem to be building toward a legal and policy shift:

“They have been putting a lot of funding into that research, and we’re thrilled about that. The agency has been pretty clear that it does intend to designate critical habitat in the winter range.

“This petition puts them on a time frame. They have 90 days to decide if the petition may be warranted… Within a year, they must inform the public about what their plans are.

“This is supportive of what the agency already has in mind. It just gives them a little kick to move forward faster.”

The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species … on which are found those physical or biological features … essential to the conservation of the species and … which may require special management considerations or protection.”

Within critical habitat, federal agencies are required to focus on features important to the survival of the species.

The petition mentions a recent study suggesting that Southern Residents may require consistent availability of chinook salmon, rather than “high numbers of fish that are only available for a short period of time.” If those findings hold up, coastal foraging may be critical to the population’s survival, the petition says, citing work by Katherine Ayres of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.

The Ayres study concludes that the whales become “somewhat food-limited during the course of the summer” and, therefore, “the early spring period when the whales are typically in coastal waters might be a more important foraging time than was previously thought.”

It could be pointed out that the Southern Residents spent little time in Puget Sound this year, and researchers speculate that they may have been finding better prospects for food among the more abundant runs of chinook returning to the Columbia River.

While J and K pods have have begun to rebound in population, L pod has declined to historic lows, totaling only 36 individuals last fall. Where there is uncertainty, the petition calls on NMFS to act on the side of protection. The petition states:

“Without proper oversight, human activities will continue to degrade this region, compromising the continued existence of habitat characteristics required for the population’s survival and recovery. As NMFS is aware, anthropogenic pressures have already contributed to the decline of salmon stocks throughout the northwestern United States.

“Nutritional stress resulting from low Chinook abundance may act synergistically with the immunosuppressive effects of toxic contaminants, present in prey species from both coastal and inland marine waters, causing Southern Residents to experience a variety of adverse health effects, including increased mortality. The population may be unable to adapt to further reductions in prey availability.”

In a news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the whales:

“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks. The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.

“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest and beloved by people across the country. If this population of amazing, extremely intelligent animals is going to survive for future generations, we need to do more to protect their most important habitat.”

J pod orcas head out to Pacific Ocean

For the past 10 days, L-87, and presumably J pod, seemed happy to just hang out around Texada Island in Canada’s Strait of Georgia. Then they headed south around the southern end of Vancouver Island and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to researchers with the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

orcas 1-14

As of this morning, the killer whales had just entered the open ocean, as shown in the map on this page.

L-87, a 22-year-old male orca who travels with J pod, has been tracked by satellite since Dec. 26, when researchers attached a transmitter to his dorsal fin in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. See Water Ways, Jan. 3, 2014.

The pod’s movements around Texada Island can be seen on the series of maps updated every few days by the researchers, led by Brad Hanson. Check out 2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.

Killer whale tracking study continues this year

UPDATE, Jan 9
L-87 and presumably J pod never headed out to the Pacific Ocean after going into the Strait of Juan de Fuca last week. Instead, they stayed around the area for a day and a half before heading up Haro Strait, spending at least two days around Canada’s Texada Island. That was similar to the previous trip up through the Strait of Georgia. Check out the latest map by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
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Killer whale researchers are using satellites to track the movements of J pod this year, as part of an ongoing effort to understand where Puget Sound’s orcas travel in winter.

orca tracks 1-3

The day after Christmas, a satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male. The whale, named “Onyx,” has been traveling with J pod for at least three years.

Researchers caught up with the pod Dec. 26 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where the satellite tag was attached by shooting a dart into L-87’s dorsal fin.

Brad Hanson, a researcher with Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said less in known about the winter movements of J pod than either K or L pods — even though J pod has a history of spending more time in Puget Sound than the others.

As you can see from the map, the orcas traveled up into the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, circling Texada Island before returning to Seattle. As of Wednesday night, the whales were about halfway down the Strait of Juan de Fuca on their way to the outer coast. Maps and other information about the tracking project can be found on the blog titled “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

Hanson and his crew went out to meet the whales off Edmonds on New Year’s Day and collected fish scales and fecal samples the orcas left behind. By analyzing the samples, researchers hope to learn what kinds of fish the whales are eating.

As we’ve discussed, 2013 was an unusual year for all three Southern Resident pods, which spent less time than usual in the San Juan Islands during the summer followed by shorter trips into South Puget Sound during the fall.

Brad, who has been in discussions with salmon experts, speculated that a low run of summer chinook to the Fraser River in Canada coupled with stronger-than-usual chinook runs off the Columbia River may have diverted the orcas to the ocean for longer periods,. They made occasional hunting trips to inland waters in search of prey.

Whether this unusual pattern will continue probably depends on salmon abundance this summer and fall. The Southern Residents have a strong preference for chinook salmon, but they are known to shift to chum in the fall.

Another new method of locating whales in winter has been the deployment of seven acoustic recorders along the West Coast, from Central California to the northwest corner of Washington. Hanson and his associates recently reported results from a five-year study of killer whale recordings along the coast.

Different groups of orcas can be distinguished by their unique calls, or dialects. Southern Residents, in general, were picked up on the recorder most often off the Columbia River and Westport, where they were probably preying on salmon bound for the Columbia River.

One goal of all these studies is to determine whether “critical habitat” for the orcas should be protected outside of Puget Sound. Coastal areas, including areas near the Columbia River, would seem to be good candidates for increased protection for the endangered Southern Residents. Their numbers have dwindled from 97 to 80 animals over the past eight years.

Out of 131 detections on the recorders, J pod was identified 25 times — all on recorders stationed at Cape Flattery at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Meanwhile, K and L pods showed up more often in waters off Southwest Washington, suggesting that the three pods may be going their own ways in winter, with J pod staying farther north. This idea could be supported with the latest satellite tracking of J pod.

The study using satellite tags began in 2012, when a tag was attached to J-26. See Water Ways, Feb. 22, 2012. Unfortunately the tag remained in place only three days. See Water Ways Feb. 26, 2012.

Last year, a satellite tag was attached to K-25, and it remained on from Dec. 29, 2012 (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 5, 2012) through March, when another tag was attached to L-88 (Water Ways, March 5, 2013). The first tag continued transmitting until it ran out of power about April 4 (Water Ways, April 5, 2013). The second tag fell off after about a week.

Later, researchers discovered that one of the two darts on the tag attached to K-25 was still in place after the transmitter fell off. This was not something seen during extensive testing before deployment, Brad Hanson told me. He suspects that the transmitter was knocked off, perhaps by another whale. Nobody knows how long the dart will remain in place.

Since then, the tag was redesigned with a circular tab at the base of each dart. Now, if a transmitter comes off, the tab will exert drag through the water and help pull out any remaining darts.

While researchers track L-87 and J pod, they will look for opportunities to tag another K or L pod whale to compare this year’s movements to the long travels of last winter. The research team has scheduled a cruise for mid-March to follow the whales and collect additional prey samples.

Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and almost a complete mystery to scientists.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette
Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii, on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but rarely seen by human observers.

In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales only three times twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are few and far between.

This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and slightly south of Kauai.

By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career. (See video below.)

Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird
Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest, Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is difficult to see.

These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores, which are known to eat sharks.

We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins and occasionally larger whales.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone
Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Robin says little is known about how they group together, because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally, the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families, including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often joins with others.

Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats (and) whether they cross international boundaries.”

In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several volunteers.

Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species, now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of which are shown on Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project page on Cascadia’s website.

Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)