UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as
“Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three
Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern
Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in
1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old
and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100.
Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research
website. More to come.
When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a
year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this
time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca
calves over the previous 12 months. See
Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.
Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total
of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be
a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar
The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an
18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near
Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the
tribute and wonderful photos
on Orca Network’s webpage.
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
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.
Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the
San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a
tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.
While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in
inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not
been around for weeks.
I was ready in early June to write about their return, because
that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of
the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off
the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine
mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the
I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas
and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up
with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon
connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For
now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no
apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.
Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they
will travel over the next few months before heading into Central
and South Puget Sound in the fall.
The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever
identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even
years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph
of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for
Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how
you can tell males from females.
Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a
little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who
want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to
six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in
Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the
Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the
ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales
go is important if people are going to protect their habitat,
according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest
Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine
It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored
spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage
areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of
long-term survival, officials say.
On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about
this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all
research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite
transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an
operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the
skin on the dorsal fin of the animal. Continue reading →
The Samish Tribe recently held a formal ceremony to name J-45, a
killer whale first spotted in March. See the Kitsap
Sun, March 5. The young orca is the son of J-14, named
It is becoming a tradition for the Samish Tribe to name the
offspring of the whale we call Samish, now a 35-year-old female.
Samish is the granddaughter of J-2, or Granny as she is called.
Granny is possibly the oldest living orca among the Puget Sound
Officials with The Whale
Museum in Friday Harbor participated in the naming ceremony
Saturday. They provided the account below, which I think you will
By the way, some of our local orcas have shown up in Central
Puget Sound, where they were sighted this morning between
Fauntleroy and Southworth. I have not yet heard if these animals
have been identified. (Note: I updated this with a
story late this afternoon.)
The Samish Indian Nation Names New Calf
Friday Harbor — On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the Samish Indian
Nation held a traditional potlatch naming ceremony for J-45, the
newest J Pod calf in the Southern Resident Community of orcas.
The Whale Museum participated in the ceremony by providing
ceremonial gifts for the attendees as well as a greeting by
Executive Director Jenny Atkinson. The museum was asked to appoint
a witness to the ceremony. Because of her role as the Orca Adoption
Program Coordinator and the storykeeper of the whales, Jeanne Hyde
Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect
Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a
variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry
showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial
Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales,
blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:
“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of
alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go
zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go
zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale
Research) voted for no action.
“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so
unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most
intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat
aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their
livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our
regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”
I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of
KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and
balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the
When the Southern Resident killer whales came south out of
Canada over the weekend, all three pods were together for a
Biologists for the Center for Whale Research were able to
identify all known members of all three pods on Sunday, which means
that none of the whales have died the past few months. It also
means that apparently no new babies have been born.
After watching several whales pass by the Center and receiving
various reports of more whales up north, both Orca and Starlet
(boats) departed. At approximately 4:10 p.m. both vessels
encountered J, K, and L pods traveling in tight groups up Boundary
Pass. It appears that all members of the three pods were present,
totaling 86 whales. The encounter ended at 6:30 p.m. The whales
were traveling tight in two groups and continued north up Boundary
Pass. Observers: Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Erin
Heydenreich, Emma Foster and Basil Von Ah
Howard Garrett of Orca Network informed me this afternoon that
he had received a report that L pod, now intact with the L-12
subpod, had headed back out of the area. I haven’t yet discussed
this with folks tracking salmon, but it probably means that the
whales are not finding an adequate number of chinook to make it
worth staying around.
If anyone has any new information about test fisheries in the
San Juan Island area, please pass it on.
Orca Network remains
the best single source of information about the movements of
whales, because the managers of the Web site take reports from
whale watch boats as well as research scientists. The organization
posts daily updates, which are sent to anyone who signs up for the
Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern
California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the
vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several
species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.
The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the
“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but
the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on
them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for
NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready
to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents
to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central
Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened
and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7
percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water
supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of
millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the
technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the
“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of
millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s
eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision
after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our
economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species
Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and
Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological
opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible
avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”
It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the
plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water
use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are
spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to
Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that
salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in
whether the population is able to avoid extinction.
Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water
operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction
to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River
ought to be a concern.
“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking
destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath
of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for
People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are
at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do
to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it
doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in
California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on
fish in the whales’ backyard.”
The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal
judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue
with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the
“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have
no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in
the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve
Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our
killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay
to find a decent meal.”
UPDATE: THURSDAY, MARCH 12
I just read on Orca Network that Ken Balcomb has corrected the date
that L pod was seen in Monterey Bay. It should have been March 5,
making the trip two days longer than first reported.
Here’s a short piece I just completed for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun,
after I talked with Ken Balcomb.
Orcas Travel Fast to California
MONTEREY BAY, CALIF.
A group of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound recently
completed a nearly 1,000-mile trip to Monterey Bay, Calif., in 11
days — demonstrating just how fast orcas can swim.
“They were really scootin’,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for
Whale Research after identifying photos of L pod, one of three
groups of whales that frequent Puget Sound.
Members of the pod were photographed off South Kitsap on Feb. 20
and then again last Tuesday (March 3) in Monterey Bay, Calif. It
may be a record in terms of documenting actual sightings at the
beginning and end of their travels, “but we know they can 75 or 80
miles a day, even around here,” said Balcomb, based on San Juan
Island. “They did in it one direction (to California). Here, they
usually go back and forth.”
Given that the sightings in Puget Sound and Monterey Bay were
about 1,000 miles and 11 days apart, the rate of travel would be
about 90 miles a day without a layover.
The last sighting of L pod was Saturday in the Farrallon
Islands, Balcomb reported. That’s about 100 miles northwest of
Monterey and about 30 miles west of San Francisco.
In recent years, sightings of the Puget Sound whales have
increased off the California coast, where whale watchers have been
on alert to photograph orcas for identification.