Tag Archives: Center for Whale Research

News coverage: Killer whale grandmothers help their pods endure

I was surprised to see the sudden surge of news coverage explaining the important role that orca grandmothers play in our Northwest resident pods.

A new research paper adds statistical support to our understanding of why female orcas live long beyond their reproductive years. The new findings are certainly worthy of coverage — although I have never seen a news story about orca research snapped up all at once by the New York Times, Washington Post, Science magazine, National Geographic, London Daily Mail and South China Morning Post, as well as CNN, BBC and Seattle broadcasters.

Most news outlets broke the story within hours of Monday’s publication in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The sudden news blast resulted from a coordinated effort to keep the story under wraps until the right moment, noted Ken Balcomb, the dean of orca research in Puget Sound who provided data and observations for the analysis.

Ken told me that he has rarely seen such widespread interest in killer whale research. A news release promoting the new findings about orca grandmothers was coordinated by the universities where the leading researchers are employed, namely the universities of Exeter and York, both in the United Kingdom. A timed embargo was imposed on the release to make sure no news reporter got the jump on anyone else.

The new findings are especially interesting, as they support the idea that orca grandmothers have much in common with human grandmothers, playing a nurturing and leadership role within their family groups. Also, the endangered Southern Resident orcas have been gaining worldwide attention as they teeter on the brink of extinction. For example, many people have not forgotten the image of Tahlequah (J-35), the 20-year-old orca mom who carried her dead calf around for 17 days last year.

The pronounced role of grandmothers in caring for their grandcalves has long been understood by orca researchers, but the statistical analysis in the new study clearly shows that “the death of a grandmother reduces the survival of her male and female grandoffspring in the two years following her death,” the research paper states.

A calf whose maternal grandmother dies is 4.5 times more likely to die within the next two years when compared to an individual with a living grandmother, the report says. Furthermore, an individual who loses a post-reproductive grandmother is 1.5 times more likely to die than one who loses a grandmother who is still producing offspring.

In the vast majority of species, females lose their ability to reproduce as they approach the end of their lives. But orcas and a few other toothed whales, as with humans, go through menopause and stick around for many years after they can no longer produce offspring. Grandmothers who do not have to care for their own calves seem to provide extra benefits, including an important leadership role, the new research suggests.

“We suspect when breeding grandmothers are supporting their own calves, their movement and activity patterns are constrained and they are not able to provide support and leadership in the same way as post-menopausal females,” states the paper’s lead author, Stuart Nattrass of the University of York, in the joint news release issued by Exeter as well as from York University. “Also, grandmothers with their own calves will be busy caring for their own calves, and be able to invest less in their grand-offspring, compared to post-menopausal grandmothers.”

It has long been known that killer whales generally stay with their mothers from the time of birth until they die, so that multiple generations of related orcas travel and forage together. Mothers tend to share food with their offspring into adulthood, especially their sons who need more food to survive.

Ongoing studies with unmanned aircraft, or drones, are designed to identify patterns of food sharing and socializing that can contribute to long-term survival.

“A lot of our information is based on historical surface data,” Ken noted. “The new drone work has shown a lot more detail, including underwater contacts that we could not see before. Food is important, but so is socializing.”

Grandmothers have been seen to support their grandcalves, sometimes staying with a calf while its mother is gone for a while. Elder females, often post-menopausal, are known to be the leaders of the matriarchal groups. Their knowledge of where to find fish to eat may be the key to success for the pod — especially in this time of food shortage, as the orcas range over wider areas to find new hunting grounds.

The new study explains for the first time in quantitative terms how older grandmothers can enhance the survival of the young members in the family group, thus providing an evolutionary benefit to pods containing post-reproductive females. The data show why the pattern persists over time.

In fact, the study even looked at survival rates when food was more or less available. It turns out that the loss of a grandmother carries even more risk to a youngster when food is scarce, as we are seeing under current conditions in the Salish Sea, according to Dan Franks, of the Department of Biology at the University of York and senior author on the paper.

“The death of a post-menopausal grandmother can have important repercussions for her family group, and this could prove to be an important consideration when assessing the future of these populations,” he said in the news release. “As salmon populations continue to decline, grandmothers are likely to become even more important in these killer whale populations.”

As food grows more scarce, the pods have been splintering into smaller groups, according to Ken Balcomb. That leads to less socializing with other pods and presumably less opportunities for mating. The need for new calves to replenish the population seems paramount, but survival of the existing orcas during a food shortage is no small consideration. Some studies suggest that a high rate of miscarriage occurs among pregnant females when food is scarce, and we know that pregnancy requires increased caloric intake.

The new analysis was based on 36 years of data about the southern resident and northern resident killer whales collected by Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Ken’s overall message has remained the same when it comes to the future of the southern resident orcas. It all has to do with getting more salmon, especially chinook salmon, their primary prey species.

“Unless we do something about the prey resource, we will be seeing problems for the next 20 years,” he said. “There is never going to be a big population even if nobody dies. We are not solving the problem now, and we will be damned if we will be able to solve it 10 years from now.”

Headlines about grandmother orcas in stories this week:

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

Continue reading

Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

Continue reading

Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
——

The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

Continue reading

A second orca calf has been born among the Southern Residents

A new orca calf in J pod is seen swimming with several females.
Photo: John Forde and Jennifer Steven, The Whale Centre

A new baby orca has been born in J pod — one of the three critically endangered Southern Resident pods — and a new wave of hope is rippling through the community of whale supporters.

The calf was spotted and photographed Thursday off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia by John Forde and Jennifer Steven. The encounter was just south of Gowland Rocks in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

“That was really exciting,” Jennifer told me about the encounter. “We are super hopeful that this calf will make it and add to the population.”

Continue reading

Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

The killer whale J-17, known as Princess Angeline, seems to have made a remarkable recovery since December, when the 42-year-old female was diagnosed with “peanut head” — an indicator of malnutrition that almost always leads to death.

Princess Angeline, J-17, in Admiralty Inlet Sunday
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research
Federal permits: NMFS 21238 / DFO SARA 388

Now Princess Angeline looks much better and shows few signs of that dire condition, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who got a good look at her Sunday when J pod came into Puget Sound.

“Since New Year’s Eve, J-17 has fared much better than we expected,” Ken told me. “They must have found some winter food up in Georgia Strait.”

At one point, Ken had said it would be a “miracle” if she were ever seen again.

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: TED Ed video features Southern Resident orcas

Last week, a new animation was posted online describing the matriarchal social structure of our beloved killer whales, in which elder females serve as guides for generations of their living descendants. (See first video.)

The new video, part of the TED Ed collection of animations, focuses on the 74 Southern Resident orcas and how they stay with their mothers for life. The video’s creator, animal behaviorist Darren Croft, credits the Center for Whale Research with studies that have successfully identified every filial relationship among the Puget Sound orcas for more than 40 years.

The TED Ed collection includes hundreds of animations created by TED Conferences LLC, the media organization responsible for nearly 3,000 online TED Talks. TED combines the concepts Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) and operates under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” An annual conference is held in Vancouver, B.C., with smaller events held throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

The Ted Ed series was started six years ago to inspire students to discuss creative ideas, develop innovative concepts and become young leaders. TED Ed has developed a flexible curriculum that can be used by teachers or students themselves. Each video has a “create a lesson” button for teachers or students to adapt the video to their own situation and branch out into other ideas.

Students can organize themselves as a club in an after-school setting, work with a teacher in a classroom, become part of a larger ongoing program. or develop an idea alone or with a partner. The program is designed to teach students from ages 8 to 18 and welcomes participants over age 13. See “Get involved” or review the “frequently asked questions.”

The TED Ed videos cover a multitude of topics, including science, technology, health, history, art, literature, health and even riddles. Some are better than others, but the best ones provide tidbits of information that can actually cause one to change his or her way of thinking. YouTube has a large collection of TED Ed videos.

The new video about orca matrilines offers possible explanations for why female whales have been known to live well beyond their reproductive lifespan. Males and females tend to stay with their mothers for life, although males will interact with other pods for mating. As older females die off, their daughters become the new leaders of the matrilines, which together make up larger pods.

The video, called “The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod,” has more than 142,000 views so far and more than 300 comments.

Other TED Ed videos I found worth watching include the second video on this page, “When will the next ice age happen?” and the third, “Jellyfish predate dinosaurs. How have they survived so long?” Also check out the following or search for subjects from the full list:

Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

Continue reading

An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

Hello all,
J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.

—–

It has been heart-breaking to follow the story of the 20-year-old orca mom named Tahlequah (J-35), who has been carrying her dead newborn calf for nearly three weeks. But Tahlequah’s travails might add new insight into the mysterious death of a 3-year-old orca, who washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, has always maintained that the young whale, designated L-112, was killed by a concussive blast of some sort that caused massive trauma inside her skull. He suspects that military operations were to blame.

A 3-year-old orca known as L-112 shown here before her death in 2012.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

The Canadian Navy acknowledges that it was conducting exercises near the U.S.-Canada border up to seven days before the dead whale was found. The activities, which included the use of sonar and detonations, started 85 miles northwest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended up inside the Strait. The detonations were said to be too small to kill a whale except at a very close range.

Continue reading

Two deaths, no births for Southern Resident orcas over the past year

Two deaths — no births. The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas shows a continuing decline in their population, as the normally social killer whales focus their attention on finding enough food to survive.

Crewser, or L-92, a 23-year-old male orca who died in recent months. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The latest whale to go missing and presumed dead is 23-year-old Crewser, or L-92, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. Crewser was last seen alive by CWR staff in November. That was before coastal observers reported that he appeared to be missing from L pod earlier this year. On June 11, Ken and his fellow researchers got a good look at both J and L pods in the San Juan Islands and concluded that L-92 was indeed gone. (Check out the CWR report on L-92.)

Crewser was one of the so-called Dyes Inlet whales, a group of 19 orcas that spent a month in the waters between Bremerton and Silverdale in 1997. (I described that event for the Kitsap Sun in 2007.) Crewser was only 2 years old when he was with his mom, Rascal or L-60, during the Dyes Inlet visit.

Continue reading