About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed
Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial
photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science
The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body
condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher
John Durban on NOAA’s
Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center
for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her
death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three
Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old,
according to estimates, as I discussed in
Water Ways on Jan. 4.
The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are
used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report.
The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other
adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to
be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second
photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been
Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to
record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his
post shows Granny with J-45, an 8-year-old male named
Se-Yi’-Chn, whose mother died in August. Granny and Se-Yi’-Chn were
chasing a salmon that was eventually caught by the older animal and
shared with the younger one, according to the report.
“Helping other family members catch food is a key role for
older, post-reproductive females like J2,” John wrote. “This is a
striking example that, through such cooperative behaviors,
individuals will put the pod’s health ahead of their own.”
The video (below) explains the ongoing aerial study of killer
whales, with John Durban interviewed by NOAA science writer Rich
Press. Besides Durban, Holly Fearnbach of Southwest Fisheries
Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium are
involved in the photogrammetric project.
For additional information, check out the following blog
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.
June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve
seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not
around to help kick off the month-long celebration.
J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves
in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but
none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18,
Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West
Coast of Vancouver Island.
Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the
San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on
June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile,
plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness
Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest,
which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather
than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the
event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”
A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power,
medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the
festivities, along with music and food. For information, download
press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center
or visit the Stillwaters
The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for
Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki
Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana
Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other
activities are planned.
For the remainder of the month, activities include an
informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat
June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for
endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and
Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of
Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled
can be followed on the Orca
Month website or the Facebook page.
Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network
and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made
up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation
between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of
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
When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually
check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the
same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each
of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.
Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two
days discussing how to create a medical database for all the
Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine
mammal population in the world.
Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual
orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such
as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.
“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical
mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get
meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern
Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the
U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both
countries and down the West Coast.
“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it
takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of
players with different types of data.”
Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides
of the border, Barre said.
Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share
available information that will eventually be used in research
reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a
nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the
information should have the right to publish his or her findings,
he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their
observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.
Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the
database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas
Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by
individual killer whales;
Observations of skin conditions;
Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body
conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible
Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and
other health conditions.
The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline
in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year
and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape
and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind
the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern
Residents are well known.
Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including
Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful
ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I
learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease
organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer
whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound
understanding of disease in
Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife
Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked
with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are
under close human observation and each has its own medical record.
Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose,
besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.
The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving
normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When
they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”
Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field.
If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the
animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought
to a hospital for care.
People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and
leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about
hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.
When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it
was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals
in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has
grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose
numbers are increasing in the wild.
Information collected for individual killer whales would not be
so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she
Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal
Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual
health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the
overall population. From there, management decisions were made to
protect the overall health of the population.
The same kinds of results could come from pulling together
information on the killer whales, she said.
“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on
the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you
can develop strategies to manage the problems.”
The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries
and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.
For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a
satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast,
presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those
travels in a moment.
NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for
eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern
Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly
recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest
risk of extinction.
Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts
through enforcement, education and evaluation: This
includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise
and other problems to be identified.
Target recovery of critical prey: Because
chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the
whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to
healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic
threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time
in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places
that are important to them.
Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale
health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales
are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to
reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.
And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named
Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal
fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all
of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.
The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in
winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any
behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go
and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be
assessed on the water.
Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the
whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20.
NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport,
Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales,
assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and
fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.
Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can,
as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect
coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible
expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled
for next year.
“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big
part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending
time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”
The researchers are trying to account for differences among the
pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various
conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers
would like to see whether the whales are going to different places
or acting differently.
Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the
researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to
record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings
are collected at the end of the season.
In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key
actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales
and provide information about hormone levels and other indications
of general health.
Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his
companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed
their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino,
Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s
Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time,
they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan.
Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north
from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew
on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned
back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were
Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong
currents rising up from the underwater chasm.
The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for
the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching
Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long
but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
on Jan. 29.
From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up
the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off
the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going
as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan.
Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days,
mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching
the edge of the continental shelf.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going
all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about
a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the
coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport
(not yet depicted on the map).
The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island
has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska
population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of
death has not yet been determined. For additional information,
news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a
satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the
orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.
On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of
K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old
K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and
presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de
Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.
Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the
designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas
outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project
in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer
Deceased orca calf
If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on
Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a
necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated
The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was
one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in
December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science
Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was
too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight
Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a
Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her
family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan
Island says everything points to the whale being one of the
seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.
“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles,
research director for CWR.
Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field
biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer
whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young
orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing
more than a dead marine mammal.
“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah
told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye
patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients.
Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in
the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the
whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are
expected within two or three weeks.
Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate,
transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents.
Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is
still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And
they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in
2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.
For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one
of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend
mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and
struggling to survive along with the orcas.
Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which
remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast
and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known
in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011,
when the population reached about 300, according to a report by
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph
and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to
Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of
their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote
areas where they may not be seen by anyone.
Several older transients among this population have died in
recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared
told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly
harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.
Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast
transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in
California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the
estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For
details, check out the
2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).
More on tagging study
Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the
winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of
their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered
and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be
protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad
This year’s data could provide additional information about how
the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North
Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.
The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of
North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out
through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the
entrance to the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group
of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out
that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading
west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center
for Whale Research.
Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but
it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales
are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research
Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the
University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the
Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the
spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in
late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the
“NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”
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
The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their
annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month
later than normal.
As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is
heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.
The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are
late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands,
then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September.
Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their
preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if
that’s all they can find.
In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget
Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three
pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the
most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes
Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).
On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three
pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as
reported by Orca
“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports
of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when
typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca
Network’s sighting report from Sunday.
“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and
this was the first October to come and go without the Southern
Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people
will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs,
and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K
and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of
the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of
On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north
from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L
pods continued north, and J pod headed south.
Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales
did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my
head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”
The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this
year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook
to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon
in other areas besides Puget Sound.
Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon
islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J
pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as
they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and
Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.
This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island,
passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are
somewhere around Kingston.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey
Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told
me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along
above and below the surface.
We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as
December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer
whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something
Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:
The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf
since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the
west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a
38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two
sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a
brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a
6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a
5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.
While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to
mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since
August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four
of her offspring.
The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82:
28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by
the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca
taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.
Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its
overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important
advancement in orca research.
By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe
level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month,
researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a
healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further
observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.
I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could
track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that
the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible
reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic
chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic
chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser
amounts of the chemicals.
Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in
the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human
observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod
returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was
lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and
after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when
something goes wrong with a calf.
Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and
fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the
health of individual whales and the overall population.
Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to
those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to
assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop
wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher
elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be
general agreement that drones are the way to go.
John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115
flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that
their overall condition appeared better than in the past few
“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is
good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to
have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and
their predators,” Durban said in a
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat
different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and
neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is
the only way that they are able to control their population within
the carrying capacity of their food supply.
“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving
since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric
surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a
seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your
chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”
The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it
comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management
has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River
dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing
Canada’s Fraser River.
“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot
fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what
little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while
counting unborn whales.”
Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were
well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below.
The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press
can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and
links about the new tool. See
Water Ways Sept. 9.