Tag Archives: orcas

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.


View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

Group petitions to expand orca critical habitat

Because Southern Resident killer whales spend so much time foraging in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal waters from Washington to Northern California should be designated for special protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Southern Resident killer whales NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whales // NOAA photo

The environmental group listed research conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service — including ongoing satellite-tracking studies — in a new petition to the agency. The “Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation …” (PDF 340 kb) calls for the West Coast to be designated as critical habitat from Cape Flattery in Washington to Point Reyes in California. The protected zone would extend out nearly 50 miles from shore.

Environmental activists have long argued that the whales depend on more than the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for their survival. Those inland areas, currently designated as critical habitat, are where the whales normally spend most of the summer months. But when winter comes around, where the whales go has been a relative mystery until recent years.

Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity
Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity

An intensive research program has pointed to the conclusion that all three pods venture into Pacific Ocean, and K and L pods travel far down the coast. Research methods include a coastal network of people watching for whales, passive recorders to pick up sounds from the orcas, and work from large and small research vessels. Satellite tracking has allowed researchers to map the whales’ travels. (See Water Ways, Jan. 14.) In addition, forage activity has been observed where rivers drain into the ocean, and many researchers believe that the Columbia River may be especially important.

In addition to the proposal to expand critical habitat, the petition calls for NMFS to include man-made noise among the characteristics getting special attention. The petition states:

“Moreover, in revising the critical habitat designation for Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS must also preserve waters in which anthropogenic noise does not exceed levels that inhibit communication, disrupt foraging activities or result in hearing loss or habitat abandonment.

“A variety of human activities, including shipping operations, have the potential to impair these functions by generating additional ocean noise, resulting in the acoustic degradation of killer whale habitat.

“Global warming and increasing ocean acidification, both products of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute to rising levels of ambient noise.”

Characteristics already considered in protecting the orcas’ critical habitat include water quality, prey quality and abundance, and adequate room to move, rest and forage.

I thought it was interesting that the Center for Biological Diversity would petition the agency to expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents at a time when federal researchers are building a pretty strong case to do that on their own.

Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the center, told me that she sees the petition as supportive of those research efforts, which seem to be building toward a legal and policy shift:

“They have been putting a lot of funding into that research, and we’re thrilled about that. The agency has been pretty clear that it does intend to designate critical habitat in the winter range.

“This petition puts them on a time frame. They have 90 days to decide if the petition may be warranted… Within a year, they must inform the public about what their plans are.

“This is supportive of what the agency already has in mind. It just gives them a little kick to move forward faster.”

The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species … on which are found those physical or biological features … essential to the conservation of the species and … which may require special management considerations or protection.”

Within critical habitat, federal agencies are required to focus on features important to the survival of the species.

The petition mentions a recent study suggesting that Southern Residents may require consistent availability of chinook salmon, rather than “high numbers of fish that are only available for a short period of time.” If those findings hold up, coastal foraging may be critical to the population’s survival, the petition says, citing work by Katherine Ayres of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.

The Ayres study concludes that the whales become “somewhat food-limited during the course of the summer” and, therefore, “the early spring period when the whales are typically in coastal waters might be a more important foraging time than was previously thought.”

It could be pointed out that the Southern Residents spent little time in Puget Sound this year, and researchers speculate that they may have been finding better prospects for food among the more abundant runs of chinook returning to the Columbia River.

While J and K pods have have begun to rebound in population, L pod has declined to historic lows, totaling only 36 individuals last fall. Where there is uncertainty, the petition calls on NMFS to act on the side of protection. The petition states:

“Without proper oversight, human activities will continue to degrade this region, compromising the continued existence of habitat characteristics required for the population’s survival and recovery. As NMFS is aware, anthropogenic pressures have already contributed to the decline of salmon stocks throughout the northwestern United States.

“Nutritional stress resulting from low Chinook abundance may act synergistically with the immunosuppressive effects of toxic contaminants, present in prey species from both coastal and inland marine waters, causing Southern Residents to experience a variety of adverse health effects, including increased mortality. The population may be unable to adapt to further reductions in prey availability.”

In a news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the whales:

“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks. The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.

“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest and beloved by people across the country. If this population of amazing, extremely intelligent animals is going to survive for future generations, we need to do more to protect their most important habitat.”

J pod orcas head out to Pacific Ocean

For the past 10 days, L-87, and presumably J pod, seemed happy to just hang out around Texada Island in Canada’s Strait of Georgia. Then they headed south around the southern end of Vancouver Island and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to researchers with the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

orcas 1-14

As of this morning, the killer whales had just entered the open ocean, as shown in the map on this page.

L-87, a 22-year-old male orca who travels with J pod, has been tracked by satellite since Dec. 26, when researchers attached a transmitter to his dorsal fin in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. See Water Ways, Jan. 3, 2014.

The pod’s movements around Texada Island can be seen on the series of maps updated every few days by the researchers, led by Brad Hanson. Check out 2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.

Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and almost a complete mystery to scientists.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette
Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii, on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but rarely seen by human observers.

In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales only three times twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are few and far between.

This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and slightly south of Kauai.

By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career. (See video below.)

Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird
Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest, Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is difficult to see.

These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores, which are known to eat sharks.

We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins and occasionally larger whales.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone
Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Robin says little is known about how they group together, because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally, the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families, including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often joins with others.

Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats (and) whether they cross international boundaries.”

In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several volunteers.

Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species, now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of which are shown on Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project page on Cascadia’s website.

Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)

Two older female orcas die, affecting L pod

Two of the oldest female orcas in L pod have been reported missing and presumed dead by the Center for Whale Research, which will release its annual census count of the three local orca pods on July 1.

The overall population of the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, has dropped to 82 animals, continuing the general decline since the three pods totaled 89 whales in 2005. The current count is barely above the low point of 79 animals in 2001.

One of the missing females is L-2 or “Grace,” estimated to be 53 years old. Since she has no surviving female children, her long line of ancestry will die out with the eventual death of her son, L-88 (“Wave Walker”).

Killer whales, both male and female, generally stay with their mothers for life. In a healthy orca population, each matriline is headed by an older female, along with all her surviving children and grandchildren.

Since L-2 was beyond reproductive age, her matriline reached a dead end with the death of her daughter, L-67 (“Splash”) and L-67’s daughter L-101, (“Aurora”), both in 2008. There were no other females to carry on the line.

L-67’s other offspring was L-98 (“Luna”), who became separated from his family and lived for several years in Nootka Sound along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Movies have been made about Luna and the unsuccessful effort to reunite him with his family. Luna was killed by a tugboat in 2006.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, said it has been evident for some time that L-2’s matriline would die out. At least three or four other matrilines in L pod are in a similar condition, which leads Balcomb to believe that the population is likely to continue its decline before it turns around, if that’s possible.

L-2, last seen in December, is survived by a son, L-88 (“Wave Walker”), whose fate is yet to be determined. The 20-year-old was very close to his mother.

“When the mother dies, there is a high probability that the male son will not survive,” Ken told me. “It seems a male needs an older female. I think there is some sort of role in the social structure. Maybe the female keeps track of relationships and who is appropriate for mating. It is all speculation, but L-2 was a container of wisdom.”

Sometimes a male will survive if he is accepted into another group with older females. L-87 (“Onyx”), a 21-year-old male, lost his mother. He began traveling with K pod and later with J pod, which may have kept him going. His sister, L-22 (“Spirit”) and her two sons remain in L pod.

But the number of reproductive females in each pod is really what establishes hope for the future, Ken said.

“That’s why L-112 is such a tragedy,” he noted.

L-112, a 3-year-old female named “Victoria” or “Sooke,” was found dead on Long Beach in February of 2012. An investigation listed the cause as “blunt-force trauma.” The cause of trauma may never be known, according to the latest reports. (It is probably time for me to update the evidence that is available.)

I guess I haven’t said anything about the other female reported missing. She is L-26 (“Baba”), last seen in March and reported as looking emaciated by researchers with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. L-26, estimated to be 57 years old, has a 20-year-old daughter, L-90 (“Ballena”). We’ll see how L-90 fares over the next few years.

As in all populations, including our own, individuals get old and die. Ken noted that he has been keeping tabs on these whales for nearly 40 years, which means he has grown older with them.

“When we began this study, we didn’t think they would live this long,” Ken told me. “It is sad that lives have ended, but nature marches on.”

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya
Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

Orcas bring excitement to Kitsap shorelines

A group of eight transient killer whales pass Lions Park Thursday. Kitsap Phone photo by Larry Steagall.
A group of eight transient killer whales pass by Bremerton’s Lions Park Thursday afternoon.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall.

I was at my desk Thursday afternoon, tracking down some information for a story, when a call came into the newsroom: Killer whales were passing under Bremerton’s Manette Bridge.

Oh sure, I thought, I’ve heard this type of call before. Although I never fail to check out orca reports, such calls usually lead to what I call a “wild whale chase” with no whales being found. It usually turns out that someone has seen a sea lion resting on the surface with a big flipper sticking up in the air.

A moment later, I got a call at my desk. It was Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who had heard about eight transient killer whales on their way toward Dyes Inlet. He mentioned that marine mammal biologist Brad Hanson was following them in a boat.

My heart skipped a beat, and the rest of my day involved talking about whales, watching whales and writing about whales along with the people watching them. Please check out my story on the Kitsap Sun’s website.

J pod returns after an extended absence

J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, returned to the San Juan Islands yesterday after an unusually long absence.

J pod returned to the San Juans yesterday after being gone more than 70 days. Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya
Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

J pod typically passes through the area throughout the winter months. It is K and L pods that spend more time in the open ocean along the West Coast. Until yesterday, J pod had been gone for more than 70 days, according to Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters.

Orca Network received reports that J pod was off Victoria around noon. The pod moved east and then north along San Juan Island, shuffling along the west side between Lime Kiln State Park and Henry Island all afternoon. They were last seen heading north up Haro Strait.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research reported that all the members of J pod were accounted for and no animals had died through the winter, which is cause for celebration. (See Orca Network’s Facebook page.) It appeared no babies had been born either. The last J pod calf was J-49, first spotted in August of last year.

K and L pods should begin to make their appearances in the inland waters in the near future. Whether they stick around probably depends on how many salmon they encounter. Typically, these Southern Resident orcas begin to roam around the San Juans and lower Strait of Georgia in early to mid-June, as chinook salmon return to rivers in the region.

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya
Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

Orca-tagging project comes to an end for now

A research project that involved tracking the travels of K pod for more than three months in the Pacific Ocean apparently has ended, as the transmitter seems to have run out of battery power, according to research biologist Brad Hanson.

Tagged whale

“This has been a phenomenal deployment,” Brad told me yesterday after it appeared he had logged the final transmission from K-25. “It has been a quantum leap forward for us in terms of understanding what is going on.”

K-25 is a 22-year-old male orca who was implanted with a satellite tag on Dec. 29. The battery was expected to last for 32,000 transmissions, and it actually reached about 35,000, said Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. No data arrived yesterday during the normal transmission period.

The three months of satellite tracking data will be combined with fecal and prey samples from a 10-day research cruise to serve up a wealth of information about where the Southern Resident killer whales go and what they eat during the early part of the year, Brad said. Until now, this has been a major blank spot in the understanding of these whales, he noted.

The information gathered over the past three months should prove valuable in management efforts to protect and restore these orcas, which are familiar to human residents of the Puget Sound region. After the data are analyzed, federal officials should be able to say whether they have enough information to expand “critical habitat” into coastal areas for the endangered killer whales. If not, we should know what additional information may be required.

Brad says he feels a high level of anticipation from his fellow killer whale experts who are eager to learn of the research findings, especially the results of what the whales are eating.

“We have a tremendous amount of data, and we’re trying to push it through as quickly as we can,” he said.

Brad says he won’t release the findings until the analysis is further along. But he did dangle this intriguing tidbit in front of me: The whales are NOT eating chinook salmon exclusively.

The tracking project has another benefit, Hanson said. It will bring new meaning to more than three years of acoustic data (recorded sounds) picked up by hydrophones dispersed along the Washington Coast. Until now, it was not possible to determine the locations of the whales from their sounds alone, because the sounds could be picked up from many miles away. Now, thanks to tracking data, the intensities of their calls and echolocation clicks can be correlated with distance to a greater extent. Researchers are developing a computer model to identify possible locations from as much as seven years of hydrophone data in some places.

The tracking project began on Dec. 29, when K-25, named Scoter, was darted with a satellite tag near Southworth in Kitsap County. K-25 and presumably the rest of K pod then moved out into the ocean. Check out the tracks on NOAA’s satellite tagging website.

“We were extremely lucky to get that tag at the end of the season,” Hanson said.

It was K pod’s last trip into Puget Sound for several months, he noted, and it is a real challenge to get close enough to dart a killer whale, especially when only certain ones are candidates for the tag.

By Jan. 13, the whales had reached Northern California, where they continued south, then turned around at Point Reyes north of San Francisco Bay. They continued to wander up and down the West Coast, including Northern California, into early March. After that, they began to stay mainly off the Washington Coast with trips into northern Oregon. They seemed to focus much of their attention near the Columbia River, where early runs of salmon may be mingling.

The research cruise, originally scheduled for three weeks, ran from March 1 to March 10, cut short by the federal budget sequestration. By following the whales, researchers were able to collect 24 samples of prey (scales and/or tissues of fish) plus 21 fecal samples from the whales themselves. Shortly before the cruise, K pod met up with L pod, probably off the Washington Coast.

The ability to track the whales and the fortune of decent weather were major factors in the success of the research cruise, Brad said. In contrast, several previous cruises had netted only two prey samples and no fecal samples.

“We are ecstatic about the amount of data we collected in such a short period of time,” Brad told me. “If we would have had 21 days instead of 10, just think what we could have done.”

Tagging the whales with a dart, which penetrates the skin, has been controversial among whale observers. Some contend that we already know that the whales spend time in the Pacific Ocean, and maybe that’s enough.

But Brad says many detailed findings from the past three months were never known before — such as how much time the whales spend off the continental shelf and how much time they spend in and around canyons at the edge of the shelf.

The sampling of fish scales and fish tissues should reveal not only the species of fish, but also specific stocks of salmon as well as their age, Brad said.

“Are they actually targeting the larger and older fish?” he wondered. “Some fish are resident on the continental shelf. Are they targeting those? Are they going after the ones they can easily detect, which means not going after the smaller fish?”

The cruise also collected all kinds of information about the ecosystem, ranging from ocean depths to zooplankton to the kinds of birds seen in the area. All that information will feed into a description of the essential habitat the whales need during their winter travels.

During the cruise, another whale, L-88, a 20-year-old male named Wave Walker, was tagged as an “insurance policy” to allow the whales to be tracked if K-25’s transmitter failed. A shorter dart was used on L-88, and the tag apparently fell off about a week later.

The ocean environment is very different from Puget Sound, where the habits of the whales are well known, Brad explained. In the San Juan Islands, groups of whales are rarely far apart compared to the scale of the ocean, he noted.

In the ocean, the orcas were generally grouped up during resting periods. Sometimes Ks and Ls were together; other times they were apart. When they were foraging, however, the individual animals might be spread out for miles.

Brad said he expects to put the new information into some kind of agency report, probably followed by a peer-reviewed journal article.

“We have put a lot of time and effort to get to this point,” he said, adding that the researchers feel a sense of accomplishment now that the effort has paid off.