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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
“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.
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
tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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).
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
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. Continue reading →
The Samish Tribe recently held a formal ceremony to name J-45, a
killer whale first spotted in March. See the Kitsap
Sun, March 5. The young orca is the son of J-14, named
It is becoming a tradition for the Samish Tribe to name the
offspring of the whale we call Samish, now a 35-year-old female.
Samish is the granddaughter of J-2, or Granny as she is called.
Granny is possibly the oldest living orca among the Puget Sound
Officials with The Whale
Museum in Friday Harbor participated in the naming ceremony
Saturday. They provided the account below, which I think you will
By the way, some of our local orcas have shown up in Central
Puget Sound, where they were sighted this morning between
Fauntleroy and Southworth. I have not yet heard if these animals
have been identified. (Note: I updated this with a
story late this afternoon.)
The Samish Indian Nation Names New Calf
Friday Harbor — On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the Samish Indian
Nation held a traditional potlatch naming ceremony for J-45, the
newest J Pod calf in the Southern Resident Community of orcas.
The Whale Museum participated in the ceremony by providing
ceremonial gifts for the attendees as well as a greeting by
Executive Director Jenny Atkinson. The museum was asked to appoint
a witness to the ceremony. Because of her role as the Orca Adoption
Program Coordinator and the storykeeper of the whales, Jeanne Hyde
Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect
Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a
variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry
showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial
Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales,
blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:
“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of
alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go
zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go
zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale
Research) voted for no action.
“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so
unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most
intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat
aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their
livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our
regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”
I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of
KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and
balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the