This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern
Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a
25-year-old male named Nyssa.
It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern
Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The
transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar
deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached
to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after
about a month.
The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the
entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson,
project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
That tells the researchers something about the movement of the
whales later in the year than previous deployments have
A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended
the total tracking period to more than four months.
Looking back through the
tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his
entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near
the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have
ventured into Northern California.
On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters,
reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days
later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks
Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then
they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near
the Columbia River.
Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia
Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of
the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was
loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.
The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples
of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the
whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are
finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead
to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and
increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical
habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has
concluded that more information is needed before changing the
designated protection area.
Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods
should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands,
as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams
in the Salish Sea.
Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the
San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty
of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos
That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient
killer whales that have traveled as far south as the
Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have
been sighted in northern Puget Sound.
I admit I’m little late to the party, since this video was
posted on NOAA’s
Facebook page three days ago., Still, I wanted to show it to
those of you who may not be closely following the killer whale
research. At the end of this video, researchers Brad Hanson and
Candice Emmons talk a little bit about their work.
It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for
the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.
Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have
piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is
needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget
Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West
NOAA announced in
today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider
expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species
Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the
next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.
On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a
24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved
about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia
until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new
satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso.
K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to
A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M.
Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving
Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the
researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua
River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on
The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles
“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day
— lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales
repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to
notes from the cruise.
The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days
and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour
period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday
morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading
The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s
cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J
pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA
In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed
the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the
tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled
with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the
Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent
a lot of time this year).
Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the
West Coast all the way to California.
Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of
the whales also are included among recent findings.
We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to
expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as
Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of
last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision
announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough.
This is how it is stated in the notice:
“While data from new studies are available in our files and have
begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat
designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be
conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use
and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide
the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.
“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing
data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet
sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical
habitat as requested in the petition.”
In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer
whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological
features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such
features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other
nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and
habitats protected from disturbance.
Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency
must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales
outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.
Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the
Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the
endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde
heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side
of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to
observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a
That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51,
which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a
36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s
10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.
“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers,
who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.
For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait
of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this
morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the
last week of December, who was with her family.
Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video
on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.
“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci
commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that
was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51
was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken
with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations.
The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19
in K pod and 34 in L pod.
Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on
its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the
Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m.
tonight. For background, see
Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.
A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will
set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern
Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada
The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still
attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate
J pod without searching far and wide.
“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re
hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the
NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a
researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is
leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the
Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major
goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the
general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are
choosing to spend their time.
Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J
pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the
daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there
remains some lingering doubt. (Review
Water Ways from Jan. 22.)
J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been
spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the
Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the
edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope
for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver
Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map
at the bottom of this page for their path.
This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out
in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite,
the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf
but stayed only a day.
The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from
Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be
surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although
their locations are currently unknown.
What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad
said. The weather often determines the success of observations and
operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but
seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could
see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open
ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a
“toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and
“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which
the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is
unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and
other top predators, such as seabirds.”
As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on
NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I
will try to report interesting developments as well.
Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami
Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population
of Southern Resident killer whales.
Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to
her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the
effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a
lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say
they are prepared for that eventuality.
A news release issued today by
NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among
the endangered orcas:
“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of
the population she came from, the decision does not impact her
residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that
has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”
The original listing created an exemption for captive killer
whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in
2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that
captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal
status from their wild counterparts.”
NOAA received nearly
20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered,
and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home.
But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which
does not plan to give her up.
“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44
years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered
Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is
healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with
Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that
the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen
or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing
to treat her life as an experiment.”
As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:
“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related
to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to
move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries
and would undergo rigorous scientific review.
“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity
raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed.
These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of
released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social
integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity
could impact wild animals.
“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins
have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with
the death of the released animal.”
Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for
returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns
raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko
(“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising
campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and
learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated
with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever
found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years
after his release.
Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely
different, since we can identify her family, including her mother,
L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and
still doing fine.
Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget
Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now.
Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely
option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move
about, Howie says.
Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said,
because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which
makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would
need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm
or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or
so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their
The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the
killer whale would be better off living out her life in
now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the
risks that come with moving her to open waters.
Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a
potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions
“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her
newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot
speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”
Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any
enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit”
under the ESA.
Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said.
The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San
Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after
determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be
furthered and developed into an action plan.
Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before
the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita.
The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund,
contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse
under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at
issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her
lack of animal companionship.
A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has
discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions,
despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and
Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release
“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn
about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as
circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have
been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts
from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment
enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable
Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the
logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My
Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions
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
After thinking it over, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Researchers says it is likely that J-16 is the grandmother of the
new calf, not the mother.
J-16, known as Slick, could have been babysitting the young
whale when the two were spotted by observers. If so, the mom is
probably J-36, a 15-year-old female named Alki, who was following a
few miles behind at the time.
The pattern of older whales taking care of young relatives has
been seen many times before, occasionally even with newborns, Ken
told me. The mother may have needed some time for rest and recovery
after giving birth, especially if it was a tough delivery, he
The baby had evident scratches, known as “rake marks,” on its
back and dorsal fin caused by the teeth of another killer whale,
Ken said. He believes it could be an indication that the
grandmother assisted with the birth.
Whoever the mother is, the baby’s condition indicates that it
has been nursing, and that’s a good sign.
If J-16 is the mother, she would be the oldest known orca to
give birth among the three Southern Resident pods. If it is J-36,
then the young mom could need help from her own mother.
If J-36 is the mom, then she should be spending most of her time
with her new baby. That could come within a few days or up to a
couple weeks, Ken told me. Observers are making a special effort to
see who is spending time with whom over the next few days.
“This is an interesting little mystery,” Ken said. “If the
whales do their part, we should be able to figure it out.”
Tracking them could be made easier because of a satellite tag
attached to another member of J pod — J-27, a 24-year-old male
named Blackberry. The barbed tag was attached to the whale’s dorsal
fin in open waters about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey Island,
Victoria and the south end of San Juan Island. Since then, the
whales have moved north into Canada. I’ll soon have a separate blog
post on the tracking study.
A newborn killer whale, reported Tuesday by the Center for Whale
Research, was identified as the offspring of 42-year-old J-16 — the
oldest known orca to ever give birth among the three Puget Sound
“No other female has given birth at over 42 years of age in the
four decades of demographic field studies of the Southern Resident
orcas,” according to a statement from
Orca Network. “J-16 was not expected to be carrying a calf due
to her advanced age.”
It’s odd how the circumstances have worked out. The birth of
this new calf, designated J-50, becomes the first major news story
about the Southern Residents since we heard about the death of
J-32, named Rhapsody. See Water Ways for
Dec. 7 and a later report on
Rhapsody was only 18 years old when she died carrying an unborn
calf. Before her death, experts had high hopes that Rhapsody would
live long and produce many babies. If she had ever given birth
before, her offspring died before they were noticed by
So it is that we have the death of a young killer whale with an
unborn calf and now a new birth to an older whale thought to be
beyond reproductive age. Let’s hope this new baby orca survives,
lives long and contributes to the endangered killer whale
J-16, named Slick, has six known offspring, including the new
baby. Three others are still alive: J-26, a male named Mike, born
in 1991; J-36, a female named Alki, born in 1999; and J-42, a
female named Echo, born in 2007. The deceased offspring are a male
that died at 14 years of age in 2010 and a baby orca that died in
2011 after living about a month.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an
excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern
Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring
Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the
necropsy, which I reported in
Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations
as he watched the young whale grow up:
“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the
J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in
1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who
took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when
J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age
of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of
50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.
“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby
(J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of
a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including
perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her
teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”
Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high
levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern
Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with
the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain
deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:
“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream
when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh
food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and
freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is
nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the
bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body
Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face
of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population —
including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and
her unborn offspring.
“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern
Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore
abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have
any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their
recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass
if we do not take immediate action.”
Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of
J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope
for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget
We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is
called, was pregnant at the time of her death.
“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken
Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination
of the body near Courtenay, B.C.
The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely
that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic
condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues,
according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There
were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he
Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the
necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr.
Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero
tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be
unable to provide any information until he receives approval from
his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts
will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to
gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of
death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry
some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals
in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress
because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.
The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found
floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably
small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally
grow to between 16 and 23 feet.
Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when
she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt,
J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins.
Orca Network’s news release about the death.)
At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life,
with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population
of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24
orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.
Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal
whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales
typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age
15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.
When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar
tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue
is notably larger, Ken explained.
An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That
rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident
population each year.
“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19
babies by now,” Ken said.
Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves
born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of
this year was reporting missing a little more than a month
Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and
presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and
L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.
Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of
Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment:
“We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling,
precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish