Tag Archives: orcas

Orca Network plans to ‘Livestream’ Ways of Whales Workshop

Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts, careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by nature.

Ways

Tickets will be available at the door. Go to “Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.

For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream the event live on the Internet. Connect with the Livestream network to join the event via computer.

In addition to speakers providing the latest information about orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita, or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the Salish Sea.

For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened that to “Toki.”

“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with indications that a combination of changing public attitudes, questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,” Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.

"Toki's retirement home," as Howard Garret calls it. Photo: Orca Network
“Toki’s retirement home” in the San Juan Islands, as Howard Garrett calls it.
Photo: Orca Network

A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government — but so far that determination has been of little consequence.

The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so the plan goes.

It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans — would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course, attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.

Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium (Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki to Puget Sound. (See Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

Orca baby boom keeps on booming with another new calf in L pod

A new calf, L-123, has been confirmed by the Center for Whale Research. Photo: Mark Malleson, CWR
A new calf, L-123, is shown with its mother, L-103 or Lapis. The new baby was confirmed by the Center for Whale Research.
Photo: Mark Malleson, CWR

I am pleased to repeat the message we’ve heard again and again over the past year: The baby boom continues for the orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new calf in L pod — the seventh to be born to the three Southern Resident pods since December of last year.

The new baby, designated L-123, is the first documented calf for L-103, a 12-year-old female named Lapis. I have a special fondness for Lapis and her family, because her mother, L-55 or Nugget, was one of the 19 orcas that stayed in Dyes Inlet for a month during 1997. Nugget was 20 years old at the time, and her first born, L-82 or Kasatka, was 7. Kasatka had a calf of her own in 2010. Now, with the birth of this new calf, our old friend Nugget is the grandmother of two.

The new calf was first photographed Nov. 10 by Alisa Lemire Brooks and Sara Hysong-Shimazu from Alki Point in West Seattle, according to a news release from the Center for Whale Research. See entry on Orca Network’s Facebook page. Because of poor visibility and sea conditions, those photos and others taken later by Melisa Pinnow and Jane Cogan were not clear enough to confirm the birth of a new orca. High-resolution photos taken yesterday by Mark Malleson, a research associate with the Center for Whale Research, were used for the final confirmation.

Having seven orca calves born in a 12-month period is almost unheard of. In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.

Researchers will be watching all the new calves as they grow. Getting through the first year is often the toughest, as the young whales learn to survive while their immune systems develop.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 83 — or 84 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 28 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

The news release announcing the new baby adds this note of caution:

“While a new calf born to this struggling population is certainly cause to celebrate, it is important to remember that another SRKW also means another mouth to feed. With each new calf that is born, we continue to emphasize the need to focus on wild chinook salmon restoration efforts — especially the removal of obsolete dams that block wild salmon from their natal spawning habitat, such as those on the lower Snake River. We will continue to monitor the new calf in the next several weeks and provide updates whenever possible.”

Carl Safina explores animal culture plus
orca-salmon links

Carl Safina — scientist, teacher, author and documentary filmmaker — will speak Wednesday on a topic of interest to many killer whale observers, “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest.”

The talk, sponsored by the group Orca Salmon Alliance, will be held at the Seattle Aquarium, but it appears the event has been sold out. (Brown Paper Tickets)

Following his speech, Safina will join a panel of experts on salmon and killer whales to discuss the connections between these two iconic species and what it will take for the survival of the species. The experts are Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, Howard Schaller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Safina’s newest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” is winning acclaim for its description of animal culture and even emotions in creatures such as elephants, wolves and killer whales.

“We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe, but clearly we are not alone on earth,” wrote Tim Flannery in his review of “Beyond Words” in the New York Review of Books. “The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of ‘Beyond Words’ we need to reevaluate how, and why.”

“Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion,” Flannery continues. “Prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this?”

Previously, in a PBS series “Saving the Ocean,” Safina explored the effort to restore chinook salmon to the Nisqually River. During a two-part segment, he interviewed numerous biologists and talked to tribal leader Billy Frank before Billy’s untimely death.

The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance is a consortium of environmental groups focused on supporting the recovery of orcas and salmon. Proceeds from Wednesday’s event will support the organization.

“We can’t recover the highly endangered population of orca living off the Northwest coast without also restoring their primary food source, the chinook salmon,” said Deborah Giles, Science Advisor for OSA.

Thousands vote to name four new killer whales

Interest in Puget Sound’s killer whales continues to grow, as demonstrated recently when more than 3,000 people from throughout the world helped name four new baby orcas.

The new babies are named Scarlet, Nova, Sonic and Windsong. I’ll tell you more about these new names in a moment, but first I’d like to describe the naming process and how it might change.

Scarlet, J-50 Photo: The Whale Museum
Scarlet, J-50 // Photo: The Whale Museum

People were thrilled to get the chance to name some orca calves this year, considering that the past two years no new babies were around to be named, according to Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum.

The Whale Museum holds an annual vote on its website to name any new members of the Southern Resident killer whale community. Once the whales are named, people are free to “adopt” the young animals, contributing to the Whale Museum’s educational, research and orca-protection programs. Although any living whale is eligible for adoption, people are especially excited to become connected with little ones. Check out the orca adoption page.

What I never realized is that when someone adopts a baby orca and then renews the adoption year after year, he or she will receive annual reports and photos for as long as the whale survives. Since killer whales may live as long as humans, I bet more than a few people have some interesting scrapbooks of their whale adoptees.

Nova, J-51 Photo: The Whale Museum
Nova, J-51 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Knowing that a fair number or orcas don’t survive their first year, some people were surprised that orcas born as recently as March were being named now, Jenny said. Other people have never understood why it takes so long to name the babies.

Jenny explained that the current naming process is based on tradition and the idea that young killer whales should get a name and be eligible for adoption after making it through their first winter — the most trying period for young animals. This year, names were given to whales first spotted in December, February (two babies) and March — all surviving at least a portion of the winter.

Over the past few years, more observers — including naturalists associated with commercial whale-watching boats — have been able to identify individual orcas and notice changes in family structure. The information often goes to the Center of Whale Research, which conducts an annual census of the Southern Residents as of July 1. To stay on top of things, the Center for Whale Research has been confirming new births soon after they are reported.

Sonic, J-52 Photo: The Whale Museum
Sonic, J-52 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Just as the Internet has changed the reporting of news, we are now seeing an ongoing population count of the Southern Residents with very little delay in learning about new births in the population.

In a similar fashion, Jenny told me that she has begun to consider a change in the naming process. She said it has always troubled her that young whales sometimes die without being honored with a name, and it becomes somewhat arbitrary which orcas get names and which ones don’t.

Perhaps the original idea of naming whales after their first winter helps to spare people the emotional upset of losing a young animal that has barely been named and “adopted” by supporters of The Whale Museum.

“Is it really any easier to lose them if they don’t have a name?” Jenny pondered. “They may put on a great show, but this population is suffering. If you only tell happy stories, how can we expect things to change?”

Windsong, L-121 Photo: The Whale Museum
Windsong, L-121 // Photo: The Whale Museum

The three Southern Resident pods are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Until a recent “baby boom” starting in December, no new calves were born for more than two years. Six whales died during that time. The situation was bleak and is still quite worrisome.

Based on studies, we know that a nursing mother passes more toxic chemicals to her first-born than to subsequent babies. We also know that the risk of death for an orca calf is greater during the first few years of life. But I would not think that naming a baby orca and then reporting its death would be any more traumatic than reporting the death of an older whale that people have known over many years.

“I believe everything deserves a name,” Jenny told me, saying the process of naming newborn orcas more quickly will take some planning and a full discussion by the board of The Whale Museum. The current system coordinates with outside groups in choosing names for specific orca families, and the names of individuals within a family are often coordinated. For example, this is how the new names came about:

Scarlet: Born in December to J-16 or “Slick,” this young whale was designated J-50. She has “rake” marks on both sides of her body, believed to be caused when another orca used its teeth to assist in her delivery. “Scarlet” refers to the scars from the rake marks. Other proposed names outvoted in the naming process were Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration and strength; Hi-Yu, a Chinook word for plenty; and Fraser, the salmon river in British Columbia considered an important food source for the whales.

Nova: First seen in February, this male orca was designated J-51. He is the first offspring of J-41, named Eclipse. The name Nova, which relates to the celestial name of his mother, is the description of a star that flares into brightness before fading back to its original intensity. Other options outvoted were Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of sunlight; Twilight; and Moonshadow.

Sonic: First seen in March, this male orca was designated J-52. His mother, J-36 or Alki, has contributed to a large and thriving family that consists of three generations. Sonic, of course, relates to sound waves. Other options under consideration were Galiano, a Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; Thetis, another Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; and Capilano, a historic family in the Coast Salish Community in British Columbia.

Windsong: Spotted by researchers off the Washington Coast in February, this young male is the second offspring of L-94 or Calypso. He is designated L-121. The name Calypso came from a song by John Denver about Jacques Cousteau’s ship. “Windsong” was the name of the album. Other options were Calliope, a musical instrument using compressed air as well as a muse in Greek mythology; Tango, a dance; and Alcyone, Cousteau’s second ship.

Another new baby was spotted two weeks ago. The mother is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. When this youngster will be named is not certain.

Orca ‘baby boom’ continues with new calf born to mom in L pod

The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British Columbia.

Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91 or Muncher. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91, or Muncher.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

The mother of the baby is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. This is the fifth orca calf born to the Southern Resident pods since December of last year, following a two-year period in which no calves were born and survived.

The birth was confirmed by orca researcher Mark Malleson of Victoria and by Dave Ellifrit and Melissa Pinnow of the Center for Whale Research, according to a news release issued this evening by CWR.

“The mother and baby and other L pod whales spent the afternoon and evening in Haro Strait ‘fishing,’ and by day’s end were joined by J and K pod members,” the news release states.

Orca observers throughout the Northwest are understandably excited about the news of a new baby orca, particularly given that the four other calves born since December are reportedly healthy and thriving.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.

“We hope this year’s ‘baby-boom’ represents a turn-around in what has been a negative population trend in recent years,” says the statement from the Center for Whale Research.

Monika Weiland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute, added a note of caution on her Facebook page:

“While the whale community is understandably excited about the births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed,” Monika wrote, noting that NOAA Fisheries has listed the Southern Residents as among the species at most risk of extinction.

“The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed, and soon,” she continued. “Without an increase in abundance of their primary prey, chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population of whales is going to recover.”

Monika argues that one of the most important actions for the recovery of chinook is to breach the four lower Snake River dams, which have outlived their usefulness.

Meanwhile, researchers will be watching closely to see how mother and baby do over the next days, weeks and months.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 82 — or 83 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 27 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

‘Missing’ L-pod orcas spotted; all Southern Residents accounted for

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that Paul Pudwell of Sooke Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Photo: Paul Pudwell
L-54 near Sooke, B.C., last week
Photo: Paul Pudwell

Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for identification by Ken and company.

By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see Water Ways, July 1 and Water Ways, July 7.

To see the ID photos, check out the Facebook page of Sooke Coastal Explorations.

By the way, nobody has come up with new words to my proposed song, “L-54, Where Are You?”

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.