I admit I’m little late to the party, since this video was
posted on NOAA’s
Facebook page three days ago., Still, I wanted to show it to
those of you who may not be closely following the killer whale
research. At the end of this video, researchers Brad Hanson and
Candice Emmons talk a little bit about their work.
With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise,
Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in
coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be
L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.
The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since
Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies
were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the
end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to
surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep
this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all
“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L
pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a
senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science
The current research cruise also has been among the most
exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up
into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and
a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of
Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite
tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team
stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always
been easy to find for observation and tracking.
So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than
this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first
time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was
the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales
coming together in the open ocean.
“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told
me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well
as variability between years.”
As I mentioned in
Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in
winter and what they are eating are essential elements for
extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical
habitat designation for the Southern Residents.
With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the
researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as
the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea
birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the
general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.
“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the
fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See
Facebook page for his latest written notes.
The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early
Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales
were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached
in a small Zodiac work boat.
“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we
saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf
The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with
apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in
the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very
energetic, Brad said.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L
pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of
the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April
“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they
make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan
Baurick, a reporter with the
Kitsap Sun (subscription).
Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months
— especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since
the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.
As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the
Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with
the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their
observers have been moving about for the past day or so.
While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s
research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have
worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the
If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s
Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11
aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag
attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two
days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of
The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by
the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was
the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected
outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad
The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved
around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the
satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a
period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so
long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod,
which had never been tracked that extensively before.
Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work
helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to
notes from the cruise:
“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer
coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate
Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon,
and California. The data used for this petition was derived from
only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013
satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability
between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale
from L pod a high priority.”
Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the
south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the
Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday
afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the
whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone
The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and
attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.
The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish
that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K
and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again,
from the cruise notes:
“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on
the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able
to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and
collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their
environment this time of the year.
“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the
winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree
to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start —
four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today
(Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to
near Willipa Bay.”
By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website,
I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and
again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon,
they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and
were continuing on south.
Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which
includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf
Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan
Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be
doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in
San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before
the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two
Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the
Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the
endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde
heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side
of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to
observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a
That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51,
which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a
36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s
10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.
“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers,
who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.
For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait
of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this
morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the
last week of December, who was with her family.
Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video
on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.
“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci
commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that
was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51
was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken
with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations.
The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19
in K pod and 34 in L pod.
Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on
its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the
Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m.
tonight. For background, see
Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.
A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will
set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern
Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada
The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still
attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate
J pod without searching far and wide.
“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re
hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the
NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a
researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is
leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the
Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major
goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the
general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are
choosing to spend their time.
Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J
pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the
daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there
remains some lingering doubt. (Review
Water Ways from Jan. 22.)
J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been
spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the
Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the
edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope
for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver
Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map
at the bottom of this page for their path.
This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out
in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite,
the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf
but stayed only a day.
The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from
Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be
surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although
their locations are currently unknown.
What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad
said. The weather often determines the success of observations and
operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but
seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could
see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open
ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a
“toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and
“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which
the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is
unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and
other top predators, such as seabirds.”
As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on
NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I
will try to report interesting developments as well.
Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami
Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population
of Southern Resident killer whales.
Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to
her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the
effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a
lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say
they are prepared for that eventuality.
A news release issued today by
NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among
the endangered orcas:
“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of
the population she came from, the decision does not impact her
residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that
has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”
The original listing created an exemption for captive killer
whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in
2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that
captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal
status from their wild counterparts.”
NOAA received nearly
20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered,
and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home.
But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which
does not plan to give her up.
“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44
years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered
Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is
healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with
Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that
the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen
or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing
to treat her life as an experiment.”
As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:
“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related
to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to
move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries
and would undergo rigorous scientific review.
“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity
raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed.
These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of
released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social
integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity
could impact wild animals.
“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins
have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with
the death of the released animal.”
Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for
returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns
raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko
(“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising
campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and
learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated
with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever
found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years
after his release.
Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely
different, since we can identify her family, including her mother,
L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and
still doing fine.
Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget
Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now.
Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely
option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move
about, Howie says.
Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said,
because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which
makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would
need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm
or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or
so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their
The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the
killer whale would be better off living out her life in
now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the
risks that come with moving her to open waters.
Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a
potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions
“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her
newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot
speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”
Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any
enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit”
under the ESA.
Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said.
The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San
Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after
determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be
furthered and developed into an action plan.
Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before
the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita.
The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund,
contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse
under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at
issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her
lack of animal companionship.
A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has
discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions,
despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and
Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release
“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn
about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as
circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have
been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts
from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment
enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable
Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the
logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My
Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions
UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I
talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He
did not know the location of J pod at that time.
Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of
Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a
satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named
For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways,
traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait
of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three
orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods
remains largely unknown among whale researchers.
From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed
mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of
Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning
back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans,
by the next afternoon.
The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night
and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite
tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When
it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the
Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a
As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and
possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into
Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of
unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the
Salish Sea Hydrophone
Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s
Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.
J pod crossed the Canadian border and came into Puget Sound over
this past weekend, allowing Brad Hanson and his fellow researchers
to meet up with whales.
Brad, of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was able to
locate the killer whales from a satellite transmitter attached to
J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.
As you can see from the chart, the whales swam south, then
turned back north near Vashon and Maury islands. The researchers
met up with them Saturday morning on their return trip past
Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to an update on the
The newest baby in J pod, designated J-50, was spotted with
J-16, according to the report from Hanson and crew. Other reports
have indicated that J-36 was also nearby, so it appears that the
new calf’s mother still is not certain. Researchers agree that the
mom is either J-36, a 15-year-old orca named Alki, or else Alki’s
mother — 42-year-old J-16, named Slick.
The researchers collected scraps of fish left behind by the
orcas’ hunting activities. Fecal samples also were collected. Those
various samples will help determine what the whales were
Orca Network published photos taken by whale observers near
Edmonds north of Seattle as well as from Point No Point in North
Yesterday, J pod headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The
map shows them at the entrance to the strait going toward the ocean
at 6:15 this morning.
Orca Network reports that K and L pods apparently headed into
Canada’s Strait of Georgia on Friday, as J pod moved into Puget
Sound. It sounds like the two pods missed each other. We’ll see if
they meet up in the next few days.
Meanwhile, at least one group of transient killer whales has
been exploring South Puget Sound for more than 50 days, according
to the Orca Network report. That’s a rare occurrence indeed. A
second group of transients has been around for much of that time as
Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale
in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale Research.
We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16,
known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as
Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her
three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.
“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me,
but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not
sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From
all indications, the little one is doing fine.
Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16,
because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as
likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told
Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an
overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been
swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year.
Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side.
According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their
babies near the surface of the water.
Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital
area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A
good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For
comparison, see Questions
& Answers at Center for Whale Research website.
I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was
acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail
slapping and porpoising.
“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16
a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they
would group up at times.
“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,”
A 24-year-old male orca named Blackberry, designated J-27, has
been carrying a satellite transmitter since Monday, allowing
experts to track the movements of J pod.
The research project, started in 2011 and led by Brad Hanson of
the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is designed to figure out
where J pod goes in winter and early spring. J pod does not seem to
travel far down the West Coast, as K and L pods do.
As luck would have it, the satellite tag was in place Wednesday
when a portion of J pod headed into East Sound on the south side of
Orcas Island. A day later, they were seen by observers with a new
calf, J-50, which I reported in
Water Ways yesterday and updated today. Nobody seems to recall
the whales ever going into that waterway, as suggested by comments
to a post on Orca
Network’s Facebook page yesterday at 5:19 p.m. It’s long been
speculated that orcas seek out calm waters, when possible, to give
The mother of J-50 is still a mystery, though it could be solved
as observers notice which adult female is spending the most time
with the young animal.
After J-27 was tagged about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey
Island, San Juan Island and Victoria, the whales worked their way
through the islands near the Canadian border, then moved north to
Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia, east of Comox, B.C. As of
this morning, they were still traveling around that general
vicinity, as you can see from the map on this page and previous
maps on the project’s webpage. The page called
“2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging” also
contains information about the project’s goals.
I have written about these tagging efforts and the controversy
surrounding them since permits were first proposed under the
Endangered Species Act. You’ll find last year’s stories and links
to previous stories in Water Ways on
Jan. 3, 2014, and later on
Jan. 14, 2014. You can also search the blog for “satellite and
orcas” to find just about everything I’ve blogged about on the