UPDATE, Jan 9
L-87 and presumably J pod never headed out to the Pacific Ocean
after going into the Strait of Juan de Fuca last week. Instead,
they stayed around the area for a day and a half before heading up
Haro Strait, spending at least two days around Canada’s Texada
Island. That was similar to the previous trip up through the Strait
of Georgia. Check out the
latest map by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Killer whale researchers are using satellites to track the
movements of J pod this year, as part of an ongoing effort to
understand where Puget Sound’s orcas travel in winter.
The day after Christmas, a satellite transmitter was attached to
L-87, a 22-year-old male. The whale, named “Onyx,” has been
traveling with J pod for at least three years.
Researchers caught up with the pod Dec. 26 in the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, where the satellite tag was attached by shooting a dart
into L-87’s dorsal fin.
Brad Hanson, a researcher with Northwest Fisheries Science
Center, said less in known about the winter movements of J pod than
either K or L pods — even though J pod has a history of spending
more time in Puget Sound than the others.
As you can see from the map, the orcas traveled up into the
Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, circling Texada Island
before returning to Seattle. As of Wednesday night, the whales were
about halfway down the Strait of Juan de Fuca on their way to the
outer coast. Maps and other information about the tracking project
can be found on the blog titled
“2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”
Hanson and his crew went out to meet the whales off Edmonds on
New Year’s Day and collected fish scales and fecal samples the
orcas left behind. By analyzing the samples, researchers hope to
learn what kinds of fish the whales are eating.
As we’ve discussed, 2013 was an unusual year for all three
Southern Resident pods, which spent less time than usual in the San
Juan Islands during the summer followed by shorter trips into South
Puget Sound during the fall.
Brad, who has been in discussions with salmon experts,
speculated that a low run of summer chinook to the Fraser River in
Canada coupled with stronger-than-usual chinook runs off the
Columbia River may have diverted the orcas to the ocean for longer
periods,. They made occasional hunting trips to inland waters in
search of prey.
Whether this unusual pattern will continue probably depends on
salmon abundance this summer and fall. The Southern Residents have
a strong preference for chinook salmon, but they are known to shift
to chum in the fall.
Another new method of locating whales in winter has been the
deployment of seven acoustic recorders along the West Coast, from
Central California to the northwest corner of Washington. Hanson
and his associates recently reported results from a
five-year study of killer whale recordings along the coast.
Different groups of orcas can be distinguished by their unique
calls, or dialects. Southern Residents, in general, were picked up
on the recorder most often off the Columbia River and Westport,
where they were probably preying on salmon bound for the Columbia
One goal of all these studies is to determine whether “critical
habitat” for the orcas should be protected outside of Puget Sound.
Coastal areas, including areas near the Columbia River, would seem
to be good candidates for increased protection for the endangered
Southern Residents. Their numbers have dwindled from 97 to 80
animals over the past eight years.
Out of 131 detections on the recorders, J pod was identified 25
times — all on recorders stationed at Cape Flattery at the entrance
to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Meanwhile, K and L pods showed up
more often in waters off Southwest Washington, suggesting that the
three pods may be going their own ways in winter, with J pod
staying farther north. This idea could be supported with the latest
satellite tracking of J pod.
The study using satellite tags began in 2012, when a tag was
attached to J-26. See
Water Ways, Feb. 22, 2012. Unfortunately the tag remained in
place only three days. See
Water Ways Feb. 26, 2012.
Last year, a satellite tag was attached to K-25, and it remained
on from Dec. 29, 2012
(Kitsap Sun, Jan. 5, 2012) through March, when another tag was
attached to L-88
(Water Ways, March 5, 2013). The first tag continued
transmitting until it ran out of power about April 4
(Water Ways, April 5, 2013). The second tag fell off after
about a week.
Later, researchers discovered that one of the two darts on the
tag attached to K-25 was still in place after the transmitter fell
off. This was not something seen during extensive testing before
deployment, Brad Hanson told me. He suspects that the transmitter
was knocked off, perhaps by another whale. Nobody knows how long
the dart will remain in place.
Since then, the tag was redesigned with a circular tab at the
base of each dart. Now, if a transmitter comes off, the tab will
exert drag through the water and help pull out any remaining
While researchers track L-87 and J pod, they will look for
opportunities to tag another K or L pod whale to compare this
year’s movements to the long travels of last winter. The research
team has scheduled a cruise for mid-March to follow the whales and
collect additional prey samples.
Share on Facebook