Tag Archives: satellite transmitter

Killer whale tracking study continues this year

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.
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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.

orca tracks 1-3

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 River.

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 darts.

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.

K pod turns offshore from Strait of Juan de Fuca

UPDATE, Jan. 27, 2013

K pod has reached the mouth of the Columbia River for the second time since K-25 was darted with a satellite tag a month ago. To preserve the life of the transmitter battery, the data is now being sent less frequently. See Robin Baird’s update on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

UPDATE, Jan. 25, 2013

After dipping their dorsal fins into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K pod turned back to the ocean, as we reported yesterday. This morning, they were still heading down the Washington Coast, approaching the Columbia River. See Robin Baird’s post for Brad Hanson.

UPDATE, Jan. 24, 2013

The orcas took another alternate route again. Instead of heading on into the Salish Sea, K pod turned around in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, not far from where we last reported them yesterday. As of this posting, they are back in the ocean, near the mouth of the strait, according to the latest satellite data posted by Robin Baird of Cascadia Research for Brad Hanson, NOAA’s principal researcher.
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UPDATE, Jan. 23, 2013

Answering yesterday’s question about where K pod will go next, the orcas made a turn to the east and headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, back toward the familiar waters of Puget Sound. Take a look at the latest map of the whales’ travels that Robin Baird posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

As of this morning, K pod was nearing Port Angeles. From there, they could turn north toward Victoria and the San Juan Islands or head into Admiralty Inlet on their way to Central Puget Sound.
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K pod has made two interesting detours since Saturday, when the orcas returned to Washington state waters from the south, according to tracks generated by the K-25, who has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than three weeks.

As the whales approached the Columbia River on Saturday, they took a sharp turn to the left and headed out to sea, reaching the edge of the continental shelf. Their failure to delay their travels at the mouth of the Columbia has been a surprise to those of us who assumed they would find salmon in the vicinity. See map on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

The whales then followed the edge of the shelf until they were offshore of Queets, where they began to move toward shore again.

The next question, as the whales approached the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was whether they would enter the strait and return to Puget Sound, continue past the strait along Vancouver Island or turn around and head south again. Their answer was a fourth course, veering sharply offshore into the open Pacific Ocean.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who has been mapping the satellite data, reported that as of 7 a.m. today K pod was about 30 miles southwest of Cape Beale on the southwest side of Vancouver Island. That would put the pod about an equal distance from Cape Flattery at the northwest corner of Washington state.

Anyone wish to guess where these orcas will go from here?

K pod has been tracked to an area offshore of Washington State and Vancouver Island.
K pod has been tracked to an area offshore of Washington State and Vancouver Island.
Tracking data from NOAA

Satellite tracking shows K pod has reached California

UPDATE, Jan. 11, 2013

K-25 and presumably all of K pod traveled south all day yesterday, reaching an area just north of Point Reyes National Seashore this morning. Will they linger near San Francisco or continue on to Monterey Bay, the southernmost location ever reported for the Southern Residents? See map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDDATE, Jan. 10, 2013

As of this morning, K pod had moved south about 150 miles in 24 hours to an area just north of Fort Bragg, Calif. See the map on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDATE, Jan. 9, 2013

It appears that K pod has chosen to hang out for awhile outside of Humboldt Bay near Eureka, Calif., not far from where the pod was located yesterday via satellite transmissions. Recent movements can be seen on the map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research met up with Jeff Jacobson of Humboldt State University yesterday. Ken spotted from shore while Jeff took his boat out to photograph the whales, according to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. During the foraging, Jeff was reported to have picked up some fish scales to identify what the whales were eating, and he may have gotten some fecal samples as well, according to Brad.

The weather is a little rough to get out on the water today, but conditions may improve over the next day or so, Brad told me.
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In the 10 days that a satellite transmitter has been attached to K-25, this 21-year-old male killer whale has traveled from South Kitsap to Northern California.

The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. NOAA map
The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. / NOAA map

K-25 — and presumably all of K pod — was reported off Eureka, Calif., this morning. Where the whales will go from there is a matter of intense interest among orca researchers.

This is the first time that the endangered Southern Residents have ever been tracked for more than three days in the open ocean, and researchers have told me they are somewhat surprised at their pace of travel.

I wrote about the tagging project in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, where I briefly touched on the controversy over whether it is wise to attach these barbed tags to the endangered orcas. For now, there’s not much more to be said.

For background on the tagging program, check out my previous stories and blog posts:

Story, Dec. 4, 2010: Satellite Tagging Could Track Killer Whales in Winter … but at Some Risk?

Blog entries

Orca tagging raises questions about research (Dec. 8, 2010):

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags (Dec. 28, 2010)

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales (Feb. 22, 2012)

Update on orca research cruise and tracking effort (Feb. 26, 2012)

Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.
Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.