Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

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.

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.”

Orca ‘baby boom’ continues with new calf born to mom in L pod

The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British Columbia.

Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91 or Muncher. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91, or Muncher.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

The mother of the baby is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. This is the fifth orca calf born to the Southern Resident pods since December of last year, following a two-year period in which no calves were born and survived.

The birth was confirmed by orca researcher Mark Malleson of Victoria and by Dave Ellifrit and Melissa Pinnow of the Center for Whale Research, according to a news release issued this evening by CWR.

“The mother and baby and other L pod whales spent the afternoon and evening in Haro Strait ‘fishing,’ and by day’s end were joined by J and K pod members,” the news release states.

Orca observers throughout the Northwest are understandably excited about the news of a new baby orca, particularly given that the four other calves born since December are reportedly healthy and thriving.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.

“We hope this year’s ‘baby-boom’ represents a turn-around in what has been a negative population trend in recent years,” says the statement from the Center for Whale Research.

Monika Weiland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute, added a note of caution on her Facebook page:

“While the whale community is understandably excited about the births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed,” Monika wrote, noting that NOAA Fisheries has listed the Southern Residents as among the species at most risk of extinction.

“The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed, and soon,” she continued. “Without an increase in abundance of their primary prey, chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population of whales is going to recover.”

Monika argues that one of the most important actions for the recovery of chinook is to breach the four lower Snake River dams, which have outlived their usefulness.

Meanwhile, researchers will be watching closely to see how mother and baby do over the next days, weeks and months.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 82 — or 83 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 27 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Video of new orca baby shows swimming,
tail-lobbing with mom

I admit I’m little late to the party, since this video was posted on NOAA’s Facebook page three days ago., Still, I wanted to show it to those of you who may not be closely following the killer whale research. At the end of this video, researchers Brad Hanson and Candice Emmons talk a little bit about their work.

The mother has been identified as L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso. See Water Ways, Feb. 27.

For notes on the trip, visit the website of the “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging Project.” As of this evening, the research vessel Bell M. Shimada was south of the Columbia River on the final leg of the 21-day research cruise.

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.

New baby orca born
into J pod, first spotted near San Juan Island

Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The newest calf, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The newest orca baby, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a press release.

That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51, which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s 10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.

“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers, who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.

For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the last week of December, who was with her family.

Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.

“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51 was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations. Please, BeWhaleWise.org.”

The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19 in K pod and 34 in L pod.

Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m. tonight. For background, see Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.