About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed
Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial
photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science
The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body
condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher
John Durban on NOAA’s
Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center
for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her
death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three
Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old,
according to estimates, as I discussed in
Water Ways on Jan. 4.
The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are
used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report.
The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other
adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to
be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second
photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been
UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as
“Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three
Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern
Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in
1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old
and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100.
Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research
website. More to come.
When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a
year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this
time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca
calves over the previous 12 months. See
Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.
Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total
of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be
a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar
The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an
18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near
Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the
tribute and wonderful photos
on Orca Network’s webpage.
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve
seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not
around to help kick off the month-long celebration.
J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves
in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but
none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18,
Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West
Coast of Vancouver Island.
Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the
San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on
June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile,
plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness
Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest,
which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather
than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the
event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”
A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power,
medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the
festivities, along with music and food. For information, download
press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center
or visit the Stillwaters
The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for
Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki
Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana
Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other
activities are planned.
For the remainder of the month, activities include an
informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat
June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for
endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and
Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of
Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled
can be followed on the Orca
Month website or the Facebook page.
Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network
and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made
up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation
between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of
An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center
for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research
Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the
killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all
living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand
the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can
decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to
find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for
efforts to protect them.
On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain
your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated.
The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the
I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which
showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with
killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described
these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on
the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have
learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of
step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read
these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the
Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many
more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center
for Whale Research.
With highest regards, Chris.
The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract
with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month
survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound.
Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by
Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas,
researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives
and even their unique behaviors — which I would call
“personalities” for want of a better term.
Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the
lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness
for the animals in the
first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in
“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a
few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the
word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most
folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we
were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy —
mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from
Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo
technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a
few skeptics, I’m sure.”
I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a
number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning
now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far
we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting
how much more we have to learn.
log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct
encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study
on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit
“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM
and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½
mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were
initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several
minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port
Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and,
at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove
again for several minutes.
“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour
of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for
photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits.
Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach
the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a
little farther offshore.
“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By
maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated
by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet.
The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a
leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds
down, still proceeding westerly.”
Remember that this was only months after the final capture of
killer whales in Puget Sound. (See
account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the
intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales
came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.
If only they could know how much human attitudes around the
world have changed over the past 40+ years.
When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually
check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the
same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each
of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.
Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two
days discussing how to create a medical database for all the
Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine
mammal population in the world.
Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual
orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such
as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.
“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical
mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get
meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern
Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the
U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both
countries and down the West Coast.
“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it
takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of
players with different types of data.”
Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides
of the border, Barre said.
Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share
available information that will eventually be used in research
reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a
nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the
information should have the right to publish his or her findings,
he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their
observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.
Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the
database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas
Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by
individual killer whales;
Observations of skin conditions;
Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body
conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible
Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and
other health conditions.
The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline
in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year
and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape
and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind
the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern
Residents are well known.
Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including
Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful
ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I
learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease
organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer
whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound
understanding of disease in
Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife
Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked
with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are
under close human observation and each has its own medical record.
Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose,
besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.
The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving
normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When
they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”
Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field.
If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the
animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought
to a hospital for care.
People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and
leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about
hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.
When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it
was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals
in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has
grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose
numbers are increasing in the wild.
Information collected for individual killer whales would not be
so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she
Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal
Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual
health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the
overall population. From there, management decisions were made to
protect the overall health of the population.
The same kinds of results could come from pulling together
information on the killer whales, she said.
“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on
the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you
can develop strategies to manage the problems.”
The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries
and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.
Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of
their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod
were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb.
The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when
J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s
“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb.
25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the
newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken
stated in a news release
The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA
researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn
swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her
daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced
Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn,
apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing
around her deceased calf. See
Water Ways, Jan. 19.
The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been
Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was
12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish
who is just entering the reproductive age.
J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after
the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some
members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he
photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see
J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.
The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay
the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents
until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted
Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was
carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.
“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern
Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population,
it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves
did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news
release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive
their first year.
“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores
the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon
– if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and
The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a
year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have
infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is
listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents
to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami
Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel
Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the
Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team,
said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but
they include various family groups in both pods.
The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed
them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the
Water Ways, Wednesday.)
On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark
Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of
Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.
“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark
wrote in a report to the Center
for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were
doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30
p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were
still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of
the Olympic Peninsula).”
After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the
south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day
Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.
“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact
with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no
vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook
post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to
stay with them all night.
“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the
Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned
north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the
Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon
were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations
with the whales.”
In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed
“surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they
have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were
eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad
but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce
winds and waves tomorrow.
As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track
K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting
last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from
Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him.
That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s
Eve, when it was first attached.
It might have been easier to locate the whales if the
transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad
Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well
aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at
least a general pattern.
After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M.
Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the
area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region
between the Columbia River and Westport.
To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back
on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia
River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry.
By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the
Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves
between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific
Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the
Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the
transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.
This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada
headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to
“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we
headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore
waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning,
with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous
small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we
were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with
members of L pod.”
Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the
research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective
and Bio-Waves — were able to get
on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.
The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted
for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to
L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions,
they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the
animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy
As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the
entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.
On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal
samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are
eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days.
Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical
habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems
clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original
critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.
For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a
satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast,
presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those
travels in a moment.
NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for
eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern
Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly
recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest
risk of extinction.
Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts
through enforcement, education and evaluation: This
includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise
and other problems to be identified.
Target recovery of critical prey: Because
chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the
whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to
healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic
threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time
in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places
that are important to them.
Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale
health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales
are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to
reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.
And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named
Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal
fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all
of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.
The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in
winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any
behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go
and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be
assessed on the water.
Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the
whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20.
NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport,
Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales,
assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and
fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.
Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can,
as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect
coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible
expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled
for next year.
“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big
part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending
time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”
The researchers are trying to account for differences among the
pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various
conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers
would like to see whether the whales are going to different places
or acting differently.
Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the
researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to
record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings
are collected at the end of the season.
In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key
actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales
and provide information about hormone levels and other indications
of general health.
Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his
companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed
their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino,
Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s
Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time,
they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan.
Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north
from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew
on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned
back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were
Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong
currents rising up from the underwater chasm.
The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for
the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching
Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long
but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
on Jan. 29.
From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up
the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off
the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going
as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan.
Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days,
mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching
the edge of the continental shelf.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going
all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about
a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the
coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport
(not yet depicted on the map).
The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island
has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska
population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of
death has not yet been determined. For additional information,
news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a
satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the
orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.
On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of
K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old
K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and
presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de
Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.
Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the
designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas
outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project
in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer
Deceased orca calf
If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on
Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a
necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated
The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was
one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in
December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science
Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was
too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight
Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a
Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her
family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan
Island says everything points to the whale being one of the
seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.
“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles,
research director for CWR.
Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field
biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer
whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young
orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing
more than a dead marine mammal.
“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah
told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye
patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients.
Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in
the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the
whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are
expected within two or three weeks.
Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate,
transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents.
Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is
still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And
they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in
2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.
For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one
of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend
mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and
struggling to survive along with the orcas.
Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which
remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast
and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known
in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011,
when the population reached about 300, according to a report by
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph
and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to
Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of
their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote
areas where they may not be seen by anyone.
Several older transients among this population have died in
recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared
told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly
harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.
Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast
transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in
California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the
estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For
details, check out the
2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).
More on tagging study
Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the
winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of
their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered
and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be
protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad
This year’s data could provide additional information about how
the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North
Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.
The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of
North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out
through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the
entrance to the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group
of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out
that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading
west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center
for Whale Research.
Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but
it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales
are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research
Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the
University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the
Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the
spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in
late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the
“NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”