The Center for Whale
Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her
mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot
from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than
100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research
Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the
health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track
of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s
Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine
Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S.
and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.
I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways”
nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold
great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft
can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance
of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of
the project on
“Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.
The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather
valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation
on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer
Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to
spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and
apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as
hard as I thought it might be. Check out
NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.
Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the
condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West
“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial
images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny
they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project
NOAA Fisheries’ website.
In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has
posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one
of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her
“Whale of a Purpose.”
The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new
calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British
The mother of the baby is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher.
The newborn has been designated L-122. This is the fifth orca calf
born to the Southern Resident pods since December of last year,
following a two-year period in which no calves were born and
The birth was confirmed by orca researcher Mark Malleson of
Victoria and by Dave Ellifrit and Melissa Pinnow of the Center for
Whale Research, according to a news release
issued this evening by CWR.
“The mother and baby and other L pod whales spent the afternoon
and evening in Haro Strait ‘fishing,’ and by day’s end were joined
by J and K pod members,” the news release states.
Orca observers throughout the Northwest are understandably
excited about the news of a new baby orca, particularly given that
the four other calves born since December are reportedly healthy
In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been
keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves
born in a single year was nine in 1977.
“We hope this year’s ‘baby-boom’ represents a turn-around in
what has been a negative population trend in recent years,” says
the statement from the Center for Whale Research.
Monika Weiland, executive director of the Orca Behavior
Institute, added a note of caution on her
“While the whale community is understandably excited about the
births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed,”
Monika wrote, noting that
NOAA Fisheries has listed the Southern Residents as among the
species at most risk of extinction.
“The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive
if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed,
and soon,” she continued. “Without an increase in abundance of
their primary prey, chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population
of whales is going to recover.”
Monika argues that one of the most important actions for the
recovery of chinook is to breach the four lower Snake River dams,
which have outlived their usefulness.
Meanwhile, researchers will be watching closely to see how
mother and baby do over the next days, weeks and months.
The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 82 — or
83 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami
Seaquarium. That total consists of 27 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
And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we
could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San
Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)
I reported last week in
Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales
had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to
update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen,
so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.
Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for
Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer
whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of
the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s
report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as
Encounter Number 59.
“Due to forest fires in several different places in British
Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which
made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,”
Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L
group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging
by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon
before he headed off to the west.”
The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year
in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in
last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and
more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon —
are not arriving together in significant numbers.
The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female,
and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a
22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena
is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was
once an extended family.
Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as
the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early
1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name
of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy
(See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the
It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the
song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If
anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on
As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named
“Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or
“Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”
Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male
named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was
once called the L-9 subpod.
Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is
the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod,
and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.
This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the
western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the
Pacific Ocean near Westport.
Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for
exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to
be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for
the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including
memberships. See “SupportingThe
Center for Whale Research.”
With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some
changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional
funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to
coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the
Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales
identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out,
he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but
the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that
time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in
upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north
often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.
Increased funding for research projects, including census
counts, could come as a result of the new
“Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by
NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species
considered at the greatest risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries,
statement when announcing the new campaign:
“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight
species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near
future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that
they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats
that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and
intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and
The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine
Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet
beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea
turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California
Coast white abalone.
The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed
five-year plan to be unveiled in September.
A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due
today, and it appears that the total population of the three
Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this
But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of
orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait,
according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which
conducts the annual census.
The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no
longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is
for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more
families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay
together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are
becoming less certain.
“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely
different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now,
we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”
The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July
1 each year and reports it to the federal government by
Four orca births can be reported since the last census was
J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last
J-51 a male*
calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
L-121 a male*
calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
J-52 a female
male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March
*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale
Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update
These were the first births among Southern Residents to be
reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a
hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That
was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead
on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was
pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside
her body could have led to her death as well. For more details ,
see Water Ways from
Dec. 7 and from
While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have
occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until
the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are
truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we
could see one or more whales added to the death list.
In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer
since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of
whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all
the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported
yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any
“missing” whales were identified.
Since the census report is not due until October, there is time
to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any
more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a
judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July
1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be
Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct
because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily
chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the
rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain
Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as
wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if
the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.
“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we
named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were
coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the
same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less
pulses and the fish are more spread out.”
The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said,
so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.
The Center for Whale
Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in
Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries
Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering
memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional
This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal
of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An
individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special
member benefits, go to “Supporting the
Center for Whale Research.”
In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake
River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat
for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His
experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has
placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested
“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative
“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these
four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and
are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a
very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river
(now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and
rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”
“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild
salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are
dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer
whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding
animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon
upon which they depend…
“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon
and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone.
Call or write your representatives today!”
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