Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

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.”