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.”
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
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
“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
“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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?”
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
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
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.
The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new
calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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.)
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
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
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
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
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
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
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
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
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“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!”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where
offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large
“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
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
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
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
In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the
Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any
status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused
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
Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first
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
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
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
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