Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an
excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern
Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring
Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the
necropsy, which I reported in
Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations
as he watched the young whale grow up:
“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the
J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in
1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who
took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when
J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age
of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of
50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.
“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby
(J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of
a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including
perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her
teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”
Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high
levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern
Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with
the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain
deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:
“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream
when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh
food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and
freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is
nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the
bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body
Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face
of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population —
including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and
her unborn offspring.
“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern
Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore
abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have
any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their
recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass
if we do not take immediate action.”
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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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, email@example.com.
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
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
“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,”
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
“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,”
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
“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.
Whale Trail website for the full schedule.
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the
movements are completely different from what they do in
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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’
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
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
news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the
“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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.