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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the
movements are completely different from what they do in
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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’
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
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
news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the
“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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review,
that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as
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
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.”
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
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
“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
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
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
Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the
Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from
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
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
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
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