Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • 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.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.

Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

Continue reading

Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

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 Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

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 website.

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 pregnant.

Continue reading

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.”