I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA
Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance”
for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and
dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic
explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used
for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have
acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in
Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command.
I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.
The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the
behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud
noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among
whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how
animals may be affected in other ways by noise.
The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for
minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information
may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other
cases protections may be reduced, according to information from
Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans
(whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals
and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing
abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may
The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups:
1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from
airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in
which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as
from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both
peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.
Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their
general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans,
including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans,
including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including
The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals,
including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true
seals, including harbor seals.
After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise,
I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is
measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various
locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more
complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds
account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the
intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the
animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’
Fisheries webpage on the guidance.
Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some
acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods
used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of
the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental
group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy
over sound exposures for marine mammals.
“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting
that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the
methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with
the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s
science has been sharply criticized.”
The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed
that they call into question how they could be used to protect
marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.
“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We
are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that
depend on their hearing to survive.”
The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the
new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much
noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake
social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species.
NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of
protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other
effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on
“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address
fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that
they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,”
Michael told me.
Sonar in Puget Sound
As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to
Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam
Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in
the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to
the south in Haro Strait.
At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the
Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick
to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was
disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS
Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my
story in the
Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.
Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet
command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the
letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries.
The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals
during testing and training operations.
Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from
observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait
about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy
Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.
Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy
public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed
that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of
Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile
destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never
“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the
requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical
error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of
the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s
email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting
less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the
procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any
Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind
of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some
loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary
actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has
taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance
of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.”
The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”
After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic
calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report
on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source
levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine
mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise
levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).
Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether
the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range,
but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any
changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was
used for a relatively short time.
“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making
mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for
doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at
least have a chance to spot the animals.
Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey
Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts,
careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by
Tickets will be available at the door. Go to
“Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as
lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.
For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream
the event live on the Internet. Connect with the
Livestream network to join the event via computer.
In addition to speakers providing the latest information about
orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network
will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita,
or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the
For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion
that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was
given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened
that to “Toki.”
“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with
indications that a combination of changing public attitudes,
questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually
bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,”
Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.
A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although
the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in
captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you
recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern
Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government
— but so far that determination has been of little consequence.
The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to
return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an
open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a
reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better
conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so
the plan goes.
It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the
Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan
Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which
location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans —
would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course,
attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well
enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.
Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm
Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium
(Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki
to Puget Sound. (See
Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an
investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?
Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been
born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget
Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last
In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has
maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have
more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs
the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were
The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number
for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named
Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named
The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San
Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific
Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct
features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch
— to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the
other recent additions to J pod.
Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated
to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming
north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister,
grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.
This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for
celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is
highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook
“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of
them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken
said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty
good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple
With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three
years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies
per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of
about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of
these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because
of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their
When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for
energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses
and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn
deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies
get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’
“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have
sufficient food available and not so well when there is not
sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed
By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the
ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams
where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he
said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures
and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to
restore salmon runs.
The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or
85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami
Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod
and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by
Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale
Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family
Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his
operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch
Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years
ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually
waited until spring.
Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch
Association, said celebration of the new birth should be
accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the
“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get
another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,”
Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but
having eight calves in this population is exciting.
“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added,
“but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a
good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas.
Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems,
and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate
this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s
keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales
I am pleased to repeat the message we’ve heard again and again
over the past year: The baby boom continues for the orcas that
frequent Puget Sound.
Center for Whale Research has confirmed the birth of a new calf
in L pod — the seventh to be born to the three Southern Resident
pods since December of last year.
The new baby, designated L-123, is the first documented calf for
L-103, a 12-year-old female named Lapis. I have a special fondness
for Lapis and her family, because her mother, L-55 or Nugget, was
one of the 19 orcas that stayed in Dyes Inlet for a month during
1997. Nugget was 20 years old at the time, and her first born, L-82
or Kasatka, was 7. Kasatka had a calf of her own in 2010. Now, with
the birth of this new calf, our old friend Nugget is the
grandmother of two.
The new calf was first photographed Nov. 10 by Alisa Lemire
Brooks and Sara Hysong-Shimazu from Alki Point in West Seattle,
according to a news release from the Center for Whale Research. See
Orca Network’s Facebook page. Because of poor visibility and
sea conditions, those photos and others taken later by Melisa
Pinnow and Jane Cogan were not clear enough to confirm the birth of
a new orca. High-resolution photos taken yesterday by Mark
Malleson, a research associate with the Center for Whale Research,
were used for the final confirmation.
Having seven orca calves born in a 12-month period is almost
unheard of. In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has
been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of
calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.
Researchers will be watching all the new calves as they grow.
Getting through the first year is often the toughest, as the young
whales learn to survive while their immune systems develop.
The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 83 — or
84 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami
Seaquarium. That total consists of 28 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod
and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by
Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale
The news release announcing the new baby adds this note of
“While a new calf born to this struggling population is
certainly cause to celebrate, it is important to remember that
another SRKW also means another mouth to feed. With each new calf
that is born, we continue to emphasize the need to focus on wild
chinook salmon restoration efforts — especially the removal of
obsolete dams that block wild salmon from their natal spawning
habitat, such as those on the lower Snake River. We will continue
to monitor the new calf in the next several weeks and provide
updates whenever possible.”
Carl Safina — 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.