Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research,
taken under federal permits NMFS 15569/ DFO SARA 388

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 death.”

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 grandmother.

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 said.

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.

Orca Awareness Month includes many activities

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.

Logo

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, according to 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 Month.

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.”

EcoFest

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 the press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center or visit the Stillwaters website.

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 Lyons (see 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 extinction.

Orca Awareness Month is recognized in Washington state in a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 474 kb). In British Columbia, a proclamation was issued for the first time by the attorney general and lieutenant governor. For BC residents, a new Facebook page, Orca Month BC, is available.

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

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.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

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 whales.

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 them.

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 behavior.

A 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 Sound.

Medical records to be compiled for individual orcas in Puget Sound

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.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This is the kind of information that could become part of their medical records. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This kind of information could become part of the orca medical records. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

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 could include:

  • 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 pregnancy; and
  • 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 said.

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.

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

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.

Report

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.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • 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.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

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. 22.

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 over 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. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

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).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

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, review the 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.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

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 whale.

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 people.

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 Hanson.

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 U.S. Navy.

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 webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

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 year.

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 born.

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 Star.

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 salmon.

“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 years.

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 blubber.

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’ milk.

“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 them.”

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 Research.

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 whales.

“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 forever.”

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

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 Network.

“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 chum!”

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 else.

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.

J53
The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

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 years.

“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 news release.

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.

Recent news coverage:

Aerial images of baby orca and new studies with unmanned aircraft

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 project.

Aerial photos of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby. Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.
Aerial photo of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby taken from unmanned hexacopter.
Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.

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 Coast.

“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 on the 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 blog, “Whale of a Purpose.”