Tag Archives: orcas

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

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.

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

Offshore killer whales gain attention from Canadian government

The Canadian government is calling attention to the special needs of offshore killer whales in a new document, “Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale in Canada (PDF 3.8 mb).”


Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically, physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.

Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status, while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns about their welfare.

While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery strategy points out:

“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

“The small population size and typically large groupings of offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to stochastic events.”

Whale watchers aboard the Manute’a in Southern California experienced an amazing encounter with offshore killer whales in 2012. Some have questioned whether the boat's skipper was too close.

Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988. Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly 300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently in recent years. The report notes:

“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public interest.”

Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a significant portion of their diet.

Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents. Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame retardants) than either residents or transients. From the report:

“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent occurrence off California.

“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North America. Runoff
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large urban centers…”

“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation in offshore killer whales.

“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure to an elevated contaminant environment.”

While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca population.

One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:

“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving increased marine transport of petroleum products and other hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine environment, and to offshores and their prey.”

Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response, and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease exposure. According to the report:

“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid, pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of infectious agents may be introduced into the marine environment.”

Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.

Other risks include noise generated from human operations, including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social behavior.

The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores — including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of noise.

Comments will be taken on the new report until April 27. For information, go to Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Strategy.

In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any special stock status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused study.

L-pod and K-pod whales continue their travels along the West Coast

L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as Eureka, California.

Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first tagged:

K-pod and L-pod whales cross California border before turning back this week. NOAA map
K-pod and L-pod whales cross the California border before turning back this week. // NOAA map

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning back north on Feb. 21.

On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.

On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March 20.

At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka, Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on Tuesday.

The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and early spring.