Tag Archives: Southern Residents

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

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Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

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‘Missing’ L-pod orcas spotted; all Southern Residents accounted for

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that Paul Pudwell of Sooke Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Photo: Paul Pudwell
L-54 near Sooke, B.C., last week
Photo: Paul Pudwell

Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for identification by Ken and company.

By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see Water Ways, July 1 and Water Ways, July 7.

To see the ID photos, check out the Facebook page of Sooke Coastal Explorations.

By the way, nobody has come up with new words to my proposed song, “L-54, Where Are You?”

It’s a girl! Orca gender identified; her mother remains a mystery

Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research.

The baby killer whale, J-50, with her family.Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research
The baby killer whale, J-50, reveals that she is a girl as she swims with her family in British Columbia.
Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research

We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16, known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.

“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me, but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From all indications, the little one is doing fine.

Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16, because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told me.

Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year. Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side. According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their babies near the surface of the water.

Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For comparison, see Questions & Answers at Center for Whale Research website.

I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail slapping and porpoising.

“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16 a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they would group up at times.

“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,” he added.

Because J-27, a male in J pod, has been carrying a satellite transmitter since Dec. 28, experts have a pretty good idea about their location, as the orcas move about. Check out the maps on NOAA’s website, “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

As of this afternoon, J pod, including the J-16 clan, was near Nanaimo, B.C., and headed south toward the Washington border, according to Tom Cogan, who was in the vicinity.

K pod reverses course at Point Reyes, heads north

UPDATE, Jan. 17, 2013

It looks like K-25 and his companions did a little zig-zagging yesterday, also turning south and then north again. The latest report from this morning shows them near Coos Bay.
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UPDATE, Jan. 16, 2013

K pod crossed the Oregon border yesterday on their way back north. The latest satellite data from this morning places the orcas near Port Orford, Ore., according to an update from Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who is helping with the tracking effort.
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UPDATE, Jan. 15, 2013

After turning around at Point Reyes Friday night, K pod has proceeded north. The latest satellite data from this morning showed the whales at Crescent City, Calif., about 20 miles from the Oregon border. The orcas are still traveling north, but will they come back to Puget Sound?
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Killer whale experts were anticipating yesterday that K pod might make it to Monterey Bay and perhaps a little farther south, as I described in a story in this morning’s Kitsap Sun.

K-25 1-12

Everyone was wondering exactly where these whales would linger and where they would eventually turn around and return north.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective reported this morning that satellite data showed that the whales had turned around last night after reaching Point Reyes, which is north of San Francisco Bay. They continued rapidly north, reaching Bodega Bay this morning.

Where K pod will travel next is anyone’s guess. But, if we’ve learned anything through the years about Southern Residents, we know that they will remain unpredictable. I’ll keep reporting their travels as long as they seem interesting.

New L pod calf reported among rare superpod

A new calf was spotted today in L pod. The baby, L119, is the offspring of L77, Matia.
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Hyde via Capt. Jim Maya

UPDATE, June 3

The Center for Whale Research has reported the apparent absence of two additional Southern Resident killer whales as a result of an encounter last Tuesday by center researchers Dave Ellifrit, Erin Heydenreich and Barbara Bender.

In addition to L-112, the 3-year-old female found dead near Long Beach in February, and J-30, a 17-year-old male who has not been seen since December, the research team reported that two older females appear to be missing. They are L-5, estimated at 47, and L-12, estimated at 78. (Their ages are estimates, because the annual census that keeps track of every birth and death began 36 years ago.)

“We will wait for a couple more good encounters with L pod before writing them off to make sure they were not just missed,” the researchers said in their report of the encounter, which also includes 10 photos.

Orca Network has tentatively removed all the missing whales from its list of living orcas, leaving the number of survivors at 85.
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Killer whales return to Salish Sea — with new baby

Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a story for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The newborn orca, K-44, was photographed with his mother in Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not been around for weeks.

I was ready in early June to write about their return, because that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the orcas away.

I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.

Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they will travel over the next few months before heading into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall.

The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how you can tell males from females.

Websites worth watching:

Orca Network’s sightings page (with signup for e-mails)

Salish Sea Hydrophone Network (with links to past and present underwater sounds)

Whale of a Purpose

Center for Whale Research

It's a boy! / Photo: Center for Whale Research

Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

The annual North of Falcon process is about to get under way again, beginning with a public meeting in Olympia on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, state, federal and tribal managers are expected to outline their preseason forecasts of abundance for each salmon species. See meeting announcement in the Kitsap Sun and on the North of Falcon website.

Chinook salmon are the primary prey for Puget Sound's killer whales. Here, J-40 grabs a fish off False Bay, San Juan Island
Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research.

This year, there will be a new elephant in the room … actually, something as large as an elephant — a killer whale. But more about that in a moment.

The process of determining how many salmon of each species are available for harvest and how to divide up the catch has become a complex project involving commuter simulations, policy discussions and demands from fishing constituents. The goal is to make abundant stocks of salmon available for harvest while protecting “weak runs” — particularly those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Sure, the process has its flaws, but I have not heard of any better ideas for protecting weak runs outside of stopping all fishing for a period of time. So far this year, I haven’t had time to get a head start on what salmon managers are thinking, but I’ll be following the discussions as they move along.

I’ve been thinking about the comments people sometimes post on this blog, blaming all the salmon problems on commercial fishing, tribal fishing or the locations of fishing nets. Because such comments are often based on a lack of knowledge, I was wondering if such folks ever consider attending these meetings to find out how fishing decisions are made. The meetings, which are open to the public, begin with general discussions and get more technically oriented right up to the point when final decisions are made in mid-April.

While the fishing issues are complex by themselves, it is becoming clear that anglers and tribal fishermen may soon need to share their chinook salmon — a highly prized sport and table fish — with another species, the Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species.

In a letter to salmon managers (PDF 1.5 mb), Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced that he would convene a series of workshops to study the relationship between chinook fishing and the survival of the Puget Sound orcas:

“The basic question NMFS must answer is whether Chinook salmon fisheries that affect the abundance of prey available to the killer whales are significantly and negatively affecting the well-being of the Southern Resident population and, if so, how those negative effects might be reduced.

“At the conclusion of the scientific workshop process, NMFS and others will be better able to determine what recovery actions are appropriate and, more specifically, whether and under what conditions additional constraints on salmon fishing may be necessary.”

As recently as 2008, the federal agency concluded that fishing at the levels allowed through the North of Falcon process had no serious effects on the whales. But, according to Stelle, more recent analyses may show otherwise:

“Our conclusions, which are preliminary at this point, strongly suggest that the amount of Chinook available to the whales in comparison to their metabolic requirements is less than what we estimated in the 2008 consultation, particularly during those summer months when the whales spend considerable time foraging in the Salish Sea.

“This change results from several factors, including but not limited to revised estimates of the metabolic requirements of the whales, their selective preference for larger Chinook salmon, and inclusion of a broader range of years to represent expected variations in the abundance of Chinook salmon available to the whales.”

While allocations for killer whales may not be explicit this year, the workshops could result in reduced harvest under the next Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan. For a more detailed discussion of the early analysis, download “Effects of Fisheries on Killer Whales” (PDF 345 kb).

For an outline of the proposed discussions, go to “A Scientific Workshop Process to Evaluate Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 21 kb).

To read a news story on the topic, reporter Craig Welch touched on the issue in the Feb. 11 edition of the Seattle Times.

Orca tagging raises questions about research

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
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