It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales
that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary
prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.
It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough
to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could
be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a
growing fetus during times of a food shortage.
Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s
condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about
two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those
miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of
pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.
In a story published today in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with
other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft
(drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern
Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.
Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales,
which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how
hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated,
but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When
adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin
to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’
long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.
One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone
studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in
winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam
and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the
spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that
spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not
in significant numbers.
The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is
providing precise measurements about the length and width of each
killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it
will be important to document whether physical changes observed in
the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the
“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne
Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more
than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations
might be affecting their health and reproduction.”
Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and
oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern
By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its
five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition
to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the
risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether
actions proposed to help them have been carried out.
Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight
endangered species across the country that are headed for
extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight,
selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as
“Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans
were released for all eight species.
The plan called
“Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2
mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’
survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and
effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document
describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the
whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.
The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is
supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year,
but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.
For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically
wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things
have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have
remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible
for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low
this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to
get a complete count until September, he told me.
Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the
whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be
made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be
counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups
during multiple encounters.
“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the
end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there
is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”
As with this year, the census could not be completed at this
time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of
whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last
Water Ways, July 1, 2015.
As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has
requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an
early indication of their condition, but his requests have been
denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase
a membership in
the Center for Whale Research.
On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that
are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the
second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters
during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of
orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open
Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an
aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point
near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this
“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49
were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a
zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up
vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera.
The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls,
surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to
take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get
some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had
not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”
The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces
much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed
fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see
from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower
than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of
Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is
predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year
average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than
last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high
numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See
2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).
Considering the apparent difference between the number of
chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no
wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.
Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the
annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of
whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months.
Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with
the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can
tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still
living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that
when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in
When Lolita, a female orca held captive since 1970, was listed
among the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales,
advocates for Lolita’s release were given new hope. Perhaps the
listing would help Lolita obtain a ticket out of Miami Seaquarium,
where she has lived since the age of 5.
But a U.S. district judge ruled last week that the Endangered
Species Act could not help her. While the federal law prohibits
human conduct likely to “gravely threaten the life of a member of a
protected species,” it cannot be used to improve her living
conditions, according to the
ruling (PDF 3.3 mb) by Judge Ursula Ungaro in the Southern
District of Florida.
“We very much disagree with the decision, and we will be
appealing it,” said attorney Jared Goodwin, who represents the
plaintiffs — including the People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network.
Over the objections of attorneys for Miami Seaquarium, the judge
said the plaintiffs have a right to sue the aquarium, but Lolita’s
care and well-being falls under a different law: the Animal Welfare
The judge noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service,
which is responsible for marine species under the ESA, had
previously stated that keeping threatened or endangered species in
captivity is not a violation of the ESA. NMFS also deferred
enforcement activities to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the ESA prohibits listed species from being “harassed,”
Judge Ungaro said the term takes on a different meaning for animals
held in captivity, since the law is designed to conserve species in
the wild along with their ecosystems.
The judge took note of the complaints about Lolita’s living
conditions, including the small size of her tank, harassment by
white-sided dolphins that live with her and the lack of shade or
other protection from the weather. But those aren’t conditions to
be judged under the ESA, she said.
“Thus, while in a literal sense the conditions and injuries of
which plaintiffs complain are within the ambit of the ordinary
meaning of ‘harm’ and ‘harass,’ it cannot be said that they rise to
the level of grave harm that is required to constitute a ‘take’ by
a licensed exhibitor under the ESA,” she wrote.
Judge Ungaro also cited statements made by NMFS in response to
comments from people who want to see Lolita released into a sea pen
or possibly into open waters. Such a release, “could itself
constitute a ‘take’ under Section 9(a)(1) of the act,” she said,
“The NMFS noted concerns arising from disease transmission
between captive and wild stocks; the ability of released animals to
adequately forage for themselves; and behavioral patterns developed
in captivity impeding social integration and affecting the social
behavior of wild animals,” the judge wrote.
Jared Goodman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the judge
needlessly applied a separate definition of “harassment” to captive
versus wild animals. Conditions at the aquarium are clearly
harassment for Lolita, he said, and the Endangered Species Act
should provide the needed protection.
The Animal Welfare Act, which should require humane treatment
for captive animals, is long out of date and needs to be revised
based on current knowledge about marine mammals, he said.
The same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in May against the
Department of Agriculture for issuing a new operating license to
Miami Seaquarium without adequately considering the conditions in
which Lolita is being kept. Previously, a court ruled that the
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted properly when it
renewed the license for Miami Seaquarium each year, because the law
does not require an inspection for an ongoing permit.
That is not the case with a new license, which was required when
the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership as the result of a
stock merger in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Federal inspectors
should have reviewed the legal requirements to certify that
Lolita’s tank and other facilities met the standards before issuing
a new license, Jared said. According to documents he obtained
through public disclosure requests, it appears that the federal
agency simply “rubber-stamped” its previous approvals, he said,
adding that a formal review would show that the aquarium in
violation of animal welfare rules.
As the legal battles go on, it is difficult to see how Lolita is
any closer to being “retired” to a sea pen in Puget Sound where she
was born, although Howard Garrett of Orca Network and other
supporters have developed a plan for Lolita’s return and even have
a specific site picked out. See “Proposal
to Retire the Orca Lolita.” (PDF 3.5 mb).
Meanwhile, with SeaWorld’s announcement
that it will no longer breed killer whales or force orcas to
perform for an audience, a new group called The Whale Sanctuary
Project is looking for sites to relocate whales and dolphins that
might be released. The project has received a pledge of at least $1
million from Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company. For details,
check out the group’s website and a
press release announcing the effort. I should point out that
SeaWorld officials say they won’t release any animals.
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.