Tag Archives: Orca

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”

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.

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

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.

Attack by orcas scatter dolphins near Nanaimo

John Buchanan of Squamish, British Columbia, was in the right place at the right time when a group of transient killer whales mixed it up with hundreds of fleeing white-sided dolphins.

John said it appeared that the orcas had formed a line to herd the dolphins into shallow water in Departure Bay near Nanaimo.

“The only way they could escape was going through the orcas,” he told me. “I was wondering if they would swim right into the ferry. The ferry may have made the escape a little narrower for them.”

John happened to be on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay on Vancouver Island when the wild encounter occurred on Monday.

“I was just traveling on the ferry to meet someone at Nanaimo,” said Buchanan, who is active in the environmental groups, including Squamish Stream Keepers. “I always have my camera close by.

“We were just coming into Departure Bay. Someone spotted the orcas, then the water just exploded with all these dolphins in the bay. The orcas had them pinned in.

“I bet there was all kinds of action going on under the water,” he said. “It was spectacular, especially when one orca was breaking in one direction and another was breaking in the other direction.”

John recorded that exciting shot of a double breach on his camera, which you can see toward the end of the video.

Later, he was informed by a biologist at Vancouver Aquarium that breaching is often how the whales celebrate a kill. Although he noticed a lot of chasing at the time, he never spotted any dead or dying dolphins nor was any blood in the water.

John posted the video on YouTube on Monday, the same day he recorded the dramatic encounter. As of this morning, the number of views was approaching 100,000.

CBC News posted the video on its webpage, and John has been approached by people who would like to purchase the footage, but he plans to keep it available for public viewing.

“I’ll never see anything like that again,” he said.

At my suggestion, John sent photos to Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. Ken reported that the orcas included T-100s. According to the book “Transients” by John Ford and Graeme Ellis, they are a group of killer whales seen mainly in Southeast Alaska.

Orca Awareness Month marks whales’ return

UPDATE, June 7, 2013
Orca Network reported last night:
The L12s, who had been with J pod for a two days, departed late in the afternoon June 2, then returned June 5 with most, if not all, of the rest of L pod. These 60+ orcas traveled up and down their familiar route from south of San Juan Island well into Georgia Strait for the past two days, passing Lime Kiln Lighthouse this evening, heading south.
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June is Orca Awareness Month, as proclaimed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and whale observers are now waiting for all three pods to get back together for their annual salmon feast in the Salish Sea.

In previous years, the three Southern Resident pods might have shown up by now, but it would not be surprising to see them as late as the end of this month or even early July.

Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night. Photo by Capt. Jim Maya
Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night.
Photo by Capt. Jim Maya

J pod has been around our local waterways following an unusual absence, as I reported in Water Ways last month (May 16). As of last night, J pod was near Stuart Island, which is just south of the Canadian border, according to a report from Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters. Jim, who sent the photos shown on this page, called it “one of my best evenings ever on the waters of the San Juan Islands.”

Earlier this week, J pod was seen several times with 10 members of L pod, known as the L-12 subpod, which includes a year-old calf, L-119.

The rest of L pod and K pod have not been back for awhile, although K pod was spotted along the west side of Vancouver Island on May 20. K pod is the one tracked for three months this past winter by researchers with the National Marine Fisheries Service. See Water Ways, April 5.

Continue reading

K pod turns offshore from Strait of Juan de Fuca

UPDATE, Jan. 27, 2013

K pod has reached the mouth of the Columbia River for the second time since K-25 was darted with a satellite tag a month ago. To preserve the life of the transmitter battery, the data is now being sent less frequently. See Robin Baird’s update on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

UPDATE, Jan. 25, 2013

After dipping their dorsal fins into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K pod turned back to the ocean, as we reported yesterday. This morning, they were still heading down the Washington Coast, approaching the Columbia River. See Robin Baird’s post for Brad Hanson.

UPDATE, Jan. 24, 2013

The orcas took another alternate route again. Instead of heading on into the Salish Sea, K pod turned around in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, not far from where we last reported them yesterday. As of this posting, they are back in the ocean, near the mouth of the strait, according to the latest satellite data posted by Robin Baird of Cascadia Research for Brad Hanson, NOAA’s principal researcher.
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UPDATE, Jan. 23, 2013

Answering yesterday’s question about where K pod will go next, the orcas made a turn to the east and headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, back toward the familiar waters of Puget Sound. Take a look at the latest map of the whales’ travels that Robin Baird posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

As of this morning, K pod was nearing Port Angeles. From there, they could turn north toward Victoria and the San Juan Islands or head into Admiralty Inlet on their way to Central Puget Sound.
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K pod has made two interesting detours since Saturday, when the orcas returned to Washington state waters from the south, according to tracks generated by the K-25, who has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than three weeks.

As the whales approached the Columbia River on Saturday, they took a sharp turn to the left and headed out to sea, reaching the edge of the continental shelf. Their failure to delay their travels at the mouth of the Columbia has been a surprise to those of us who assumed they would find salmon in the vicinity. See map on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

The whales then followed the edge of the shelf until they were offshore of Queets, where they began to move toward shore again.

The next question, as the whales approached the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was whether they would enter the strait and return to Puget Sound, continue past the strait along Vancouver Island or turn around and head south again. Their answer was a fourth course, veering sharply offshore into the open Pacific Ocean.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who has been mapping the satellite data, reported that as of 7 a.m. today K pod was about 30 miles southwest of Cape Beale on the southwest side of Vancouver Island. That would put the pod about an equal distance from Cape Flattery at the northwest corner of Washington state.

Anyone wish to guess where these orcas will go from here?

K pod has been tracked to an area offshore of Washington State and Vancouver Island.
K pod has been tracked to an area offshore of Washington State and Vancouver Island.
Tracking data from NOAA

‘Ways of Whales Workshop’ to feature new info

Orca Network’s annual “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Whidbey Island Saturday has lined up some great speakers this year.

The cost of the daylong workshop is $30, or $25 for students and seniors. If you register right away, you can buy lunch for an extra $10. Visit the website for registration and additional information.

Peter Ross, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, will discuss toxic pollution and whales in a talk titled, “Of Whales and Men: Ocean Pollution in the 21st Century.” Peter is a leading researcher in the effort to determine why killer whales in the Northwest are among the most contaminated mammals in the world.

Other speakers include Don Noviello of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who will discuss plans to protect marine mammals from the threat of an oil spill; John Gussman and Jessica Plumb, who are documenting in film and photos the restoration of the Elwha River; Steve Mashuda, an attorney for Earthjustice who will review legal attempts to remove the Southern Resident killer whales from the Endangered Species Act; and Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who will present a theory about why male orcas stay with their mothers for life.

Sustainable Cinema Series

Another event worth noting is the film “The Pacific Rim: Americas” about the dynamic geology of the West Coast.

The film will be shown Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Dragonfly Cinema in Port Orchard. Jim Bolger of the Puget Sound Partnership will lead a discussion during the event. A $5 donation is suggested. See Kitsap County’s news release for details.

The film is being shown as part of the Sustainable Cinema Series, sponsored by Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who hopes the films will stimulate discussion about environmental issues.

K pod reverses course at Point Reyes, heads north

UPDATE, Jan. 17, 2013

It looks like K-25 and his companions did a little zig-zagging yesterday, also turning south and then north again. The latest report from this morning shows them near Coos Bay.
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UPDATE, Jan. 16, 2013

K pod crossed the Oregon border yesterday on their way back north. The latest satellite data from this morning places the orcas near Port Orford, Ore., according to an update from Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who is helping with the tracking effort.
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UPDATE, Jan. 15, 2013

After turning around at Point Reyes Friday night, K pod has proceeded north. The latest satellite data from this morning showed the whales at Crescent City, Calif., about 20 miles from the Oregon border. The orcas are still traveling north, but will they come back to Puget Sound?
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Killer whale experts were anticipating yesterday that K pod might make it to Monterey Bay and perhaps a little farther south, as I described in a story in this morning’s Kitsap Sun.

K-25 1-12

Everyone was wondering exactly where these whales would linger and where they would eventually turn around and return north.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective reported this morning that satellite data showed that the whales had turned around last night after reaching Point Reyes, which is north of San Francisco Bay. They continued rapidly north, reaching Bodega Bay this morning.

Where K pod will travel next is anyone’s guess. But, if we’ve learned anything through the years about Southern Residents, we know that they will remain unpredictable. I’ll keep reporting their travels as long as they seem interesting.

Satellite tracking shows K pod has reached California

UPDATE, Jan. 11, 2013

K-25 and presumably all of K pod traveled south all day yesterday, reaching an area just north of Point Reyes National Seashore this morning. Will they linger near San Francisco or continue on to Monterey Bay, the southernmost location ever reported for the Southern Residents? See map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDDATE, Jan. 10, 2013

As of this morning, K pod had moved south about 150 miles in 24 hours to an area just north of Fort Bragg, Calif. See the map on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDATE, Jan. 9, 2013

It appears that K pod has chosen to hang out for awhile outside of Humboldt Bay near Eureka, Calif., not far from where the pod was located yesterday via satellite transmissions. Recent movements can be seen on the map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research met up with Jeff Jacobson of Humboldt State University yesterday. Ken spotted from shore while Jeff took his boat out to photograph the whales, according to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. During the foraging, Jeff was reported to have picked up some fish scales to identify what the whales were eating, and he may have gotten some fecal samples as well, according to Brad.

The weather is a little rough to get out on the water today, but conditions may improve over the next day or so, Brad told me.
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In the 10 days that a satellite transmitter has been attached to K-25, this 21-year-old male killer whale has traveled from South Kitsap to Northern California.

The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. NOAA map
The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. / NOAA map

K-25 — and presumably all of K pod — was reported off Eureka, Calif., this morning. Where the whales will go from there is a matter of intense interest among orca researchers.

This is the first time that the endangered Southern Residents have ever been tracked for more than three days in the open ocean, and researchers have told me they are somewhat surprised at their pace of travel.

I wrote about the tagging project in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, where I briefly touched on the controversy over whether it is wise to attach these barbed tags to the endangered orcas. For now, there’s not much more to be said.

For background on the tagging program, check out my previous stories and blog posts:

Story, Dec. 4, 2010: Satellite Tagging Could Track Killer Whales in Winter … but at Some Risk?

Blog entries

Orca tagging raises questions about research (Dec. 8, 2010):

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags (Dec. 28, 2010)

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales (Feb. 22, 2012)

Update on orca research cruise and tracking effort (Feb. 26, 2012)

Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.
Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.