Tag Archives: Ken Balcomb

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.”

This is the second orca to be born among the Southern Residents this year. Before 2019, no successful births had occurred since 2016. The first one this year was designated L-124 and was born in January to L-77 (named Matia). At last report, the youngster was doing well.

The new calf’s mother has not yet been identified. Jennifer said the newborn was seen with several J-pod females, the closest being J-31, known as Tsuchi. This is a 24-year-old orca known for assisting new mothers. Jennifer and John sent their photographs to the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island for official identification.

Ken Balcomb, director of the center, told me that more observations will be needed to confirm the mother. Another researcher associated with the center was able to find the calf Friday not far from the initial sighting, but the waters were rough, Ken said. I’m waiting for more information.

Jennifer reported that the young calf had the orange coloration of a newborn as well as fetal folds, which are caused by being bent over in the womb. The folds tend to disappear a few weeks after birth, and Ken’s best guess is that the calf is one to three weeks old.

John and Jennifer are owners of The Whale Centre, a whale-watching company in Tofino, B.C. When they spotted the whales Thursday, their boat was not carrying passengers. Instead, the two were working as whale researchers under a permit from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Jennifer wrote about the encounter in a blog entry on The Whale Center’s website, where she posted some of the photos that she and John took. After the new calf was spotted, whale-watching boats stayed away to give the whales room, she said.

The Center for Whale Research has maintained an annual census of the Southern Residents since 1976. Ken and his staff have not just kept records of the number of whales but also their close-knit family structures, including who is related to whom.

Killer whales belong to a matriarchal society in which older females lead the family groups and the whales stay with their mothers for life.

A decline in the orca population since 1997 led NOAA Fisheries to list the Southern Residents as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.

Following captures for marine parks in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the population recovered until 1997, when their numbers reached 98 whales. A general decline followed until last year when they were down to 74. The two new calves bring the current count to 76.

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.

Her current condition does not mean that she is no longer at risk. In March, her terribly bad breath suggested an underlying medical problem, perhaps beyond the lack of food.

J pod, one of the three southern resident killer whale pods, typically spends most of the winter in the northern part of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. The whales sometimes cross the Canadian border to check out food availability in Puget Sound.

The orcas prefer to eat chinook salmon, although they occasionally eat other fish. Younger chinook, known as blackmouth, can be found in inland waters during the winter, but they are smaller and provide less energy for the amount of effort it takes to catch them.

Ken observed that J pod seemed to be catching blackmouth in Admiralty Inlet when he watched them on Sunday. Read his full report at the Center for Whale Research website.

Anglers were reportedly catching fair numbers of blackmouth in the Kingston-Edmonds region, where the orcas were seen Sunday, according to Puget Sound creel reports. Foraging by the orcas was noticed by many whale observers, according to the latest whale-sightings report from Orca Network.

“Sunday turned out to be more wonderful than we could have hoped when Js/L87 made their way north and foraged all day in glassy calm seas in the great wide open between Edmonds, South Whidbey, and the Kitsap Peninsula,” wrote Alisa Lemire Brooks, who compiled an extensive report of minute-by-minute sightings. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough salmon to entice a longer stay, since they showed up off the west side of San Juan Island the following morning.”

If Princess Angeline has overcome her malnourished condition, it would be truly welcome news. The critically endangered southern residents, with 75 animals, are close to the lowest population observed since many were captured for the aquarium trade during the 1960s and ‘70s. “Peanut head” describes the shape of an orca’s head when a severe loss of blubber creates an indention behind the blowhole.

Princess Angeline, named after the daughter of Chief Seattle, is the mother of Tahlequah, or J-35, a 21-year-old orca mom who became heartbreakingly famous for carrying her dead calf on her head for 17 days. Tahlequah herself has remained relatively healthy.

Another whale showing peanut head last year was K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. He lost his mother, K13 or Skagit, in 2017. Males who lose their mothers often struggle to survive. K pod has not been observed lately, so Scoter’s status is unknown.

L pod visits Monterey Bay on March 31.
Video: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

The importance of the orcas’ social networks, including the sharing of salmon, is described nicely in an article written by Sarah DeWeerdt and published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the Kitsap Sun.

Meanwhile, L pod traveled down the coast to Monterey Bay, Calif., where the whales seemed to be catching chinook from the Sacramento River, according to reports from March 31. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News:

“They go wherever they can find Chinook salmon…,” she said. “We know they aren’t getting enough food; we know that they’re struggling; and we’re seeing some whales that are skinnier …. This year is a good year for salmon in Monterey Bay…. It’s just great to know that this is a habitat that can still provide them with food.”

Fishing guides, including Monterey Bay Charters, were reporting good fishing when targeting salmon.

The newest calf in the southern resident population, designated L-124, was seen alive and apparently healthy among the whales in Monterey Bay. The calf, who was born in January and called “Lucky” by Ken Balcomb, is the third calf for L-77, a 32-year-old female named Matia. Her first calf survived only a short time, but her second calf, L-119 named Joy, seems to be doing well.

It will be interesting to see when the whales all show up together in Puget Sound this year. J pod tends to pop in and out of Puget Sound all winter, while K and L pods often travel up and down the Washington Coast, sometimes as far as northern California, as L pod did this year. Years ago, the whales all got together in late May or June, staying around the San Juan Islands most of the summer.

In recent years, their movements have become less predictable. Last year, none of the pods showed up during the entire month of May — something that has never happened before, at least not since the first observations were recorded in the early 1970s. See Water Ways, June 29, 2018.

In contrast to the fish-eating southern resident orcas, the transient orcas, which eat marine mammals, have been seen more and more in Puget Sound. An apparent abundance of harbor seals and California sea lions seem to be feeding them well, both in North and South Puget Sound.

As I’ve often reported, transients are the unknowing allies of the endangered southern residents, since they reduce the population of seals and sea lions, which prey upon the salmon that are so important to the residents.

In Canada, Gary Sutton, a captain with the whale-watching company Ocean Ecoventures, counted eight groups of transients in the same area of Georgia Strait on Sunday. If all the individuals in the groups can be confirmed with IDs, it would be a total 41 transients, a possible record aggregation, he says.

“A LOT of socializing ensued with tons of spyhops and vocals,” Gary said in a report to Orca Network. “I managed to capture the majority of them on camera and a few visual IDs.”

As for the southern residents, reporter Simone Del Rosario of Q13 Fox News comes to a provocative and unwelcome conclusion, based on her extensive research for a five-part television series.

“I’ve spent the past year analyzing this question: Is this the last generation of southern resident orcas?

“I’ve looked at the threats to their survival: the lack of prey; contaminants; and vessel disturbance. I’ve interviewed the foremost experts in this field and pressed the politicians who have the power to make a change. I’ve traveled across the state and even to Canada learning about solutions and meeting the people who are pushing them forward.

“A year later, I’ve come to a conclusion, and it’s one I don’t make lightly. There is no question: This is the last generation. Humans — who are responsible for putting these mammals in such a critical state — need to act now if there’s any chance at turning around the killer whales’ decline.”

And so, in effect, she actually leaves the door open for humans to make the changes needed to save the whales. I recommend the series, which can be viewed from five video players on the webpage “The last generation: southern resident orcas in danger of extinction.”

I first confronted the possibility of extinction two years ago in a Water Ways blog post that includes an interview with Ken Balcomb. That was before the death of Scarlet, or J-50, and before a newborn orca calf died to be carried around by its mom. It was before the formation of the governor’s Killer Whale Task Force and the resulting legislation being debated in Olympia.

My question: How long can the orcas remain on the edge of extinction? Or, if I’m feeling optimistic: How long MUST the orcas remain on the edge of extinction?

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

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

By now, you may have heard about the male transient killer whale who attacked and killed a newborn orca while the baby was swimming next to its mother.

A newborn transient orca swims next to its mother shortly before being attacked by an unrelated adult male orca. // Photo: Jared Towers

Jared Towers, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, witnessed the killing. He said he was both “horrified and fascinated” by the event, which he described as the first case of infanticide ever reported among killer whales. The incident took place in Canadian waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.

Jared told reporter Bethany Lindsey of CBC News that the distressing scene is something that he will never be able to unsee, but he did his best to observe and record the rare incident.

This killing of a tiny calf by an unrelated male orca has been troubling me since I first heard about it more than a week ago — and that’s what I told longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb when I called him on the phone.

“I was shocked, as was Jared,” Ken told me. “It is very unusual. The interesting thing is that we know the individual who killed the baby. We don’t know why it happened. It could have been just a squabble of some sort.”

It wasn’t just the male orca involved. The attacker’s mother also played a role in keeping the mother of the calf at bay and ultimately dragging the dead baby away.

In the animal world, infanticide occurs in a myriad of situations among terrestrial species, including lions, rodents and even primates, Jared recounted in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The practice of killing infants of the same species has also been observed in three types of dolphins.

The situations are too rare to identify specific causes, Jared noted, but several hypotheses have been put forth. The leading suggestion is that the death of the infant causes the mother to stop lactating and makes her fertile again. That means the attacking male may have a chance to integrate his genes into the population, as opposed to a competing male.

Less likely reasons, at least in this situation, involves the goal of reducing the number of mouths to feed when food is scarce for a given population. In some species, an infant may be cannibalized for food. But in this case food is not especially scarce for transients, which eat seals and sea lions. Also, there was no evidence of feeding, such as oil on the water or birds in the air, Jared reported.

“Lastly,” Jared writes, “non-adaptive explanations for infanticide purport that it is a socially pathological behavior that may be conducted accidentally or as a result of environmental stressors.”

Killer whales as pathological killers? That’s something to ponder. But, again, there is no evidence to point to a particular cause in this case.

I can’t help but wonder if transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, may be more prone to committing infanticide than resident killer whales, which eat only fish. No doubt the male transient would know the technique for killing an orca calf, which is about the size of a sea lion.

Ken Balcomb has observed teeth marks on some of the Southern Resident killer whales, sometimes the result of juveniles playing too rough.

“Usually it’s a young whale biting a big whale,” he said. “They don’t have any hands, so they just bite. We’ve seen young whales tussling around together.”

On rare occasions, Ken has also observed serious wounds on some whales, including one adult male whose dorsal fin was bent over during an apparent attack by another orca. The size and shape of the teeth marks, known as rakes, provide clues to the size of the attacker. But since nobody sees most of the serious attacks, the cause or behavior leading up to the incidents will never be known.

In the recent case, which occurred in December 2016, Jared and his fellow researchers went out to observe a group of transients, whose calls had been picked up on hydrophones. When the researchers got to the area just north of Johnstone Strait, they saw an older female, known as T068, swimming with her 32-year-old son, T068A. The two were following a group of three orcas swimming unusually fast.

In that second group was a 13-year-old mother with a 2-year-old calf along with her 3-year-old sister, who exhibited bleeding wounds on her sides and loose flesh on her dorsal fin. About a mile ahead was the 28-year-old mother of the two sisters, T046B, who was accompanied by three young whales, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.

The entire group of related whales came together just before noon near Haddington Island, while the two unrelated whales were about 200 yards behind and still following.

The attack apparently began about 20 minutes later with observations of splashing and erratic movements, then the male attacker was seen to move away from the group. The other whales followed. When they all came together, they began circling vigorously. That’s when the researchers caught up with the whales and noticed that the baby was no longer with its mother.

The male attacker “swam close past the research boat, and the fluke of the neonate could be seen in his mouth with the body intact trailing underneath his lower jaw,” states the report.

The baby’s mother seemed to chase the male attacker, while the attacker’s mother attempted to block her way.

“Intense vocal activity could be heard through the hull of the boat, so the hydrophone was deployed,” the report says. “A wide variety of excited discrete and aberrant pulsed calls, whistles, and percussive sounds were recorded….

“At 12:35, (the baby’s mother) rammed (the male) near the surface with sufficient force to cause a noticeable undulation through his body, sending blood and water into the air,” the report says.

The event was over about as quickly as it began, with the male carrying away the dead baby. Later the male’s mother was seen carrying the lifeless calf. The larger family group followed the two, staying about 200 yards behind and off to one side.

The researchers followed for another hour and a half, when underwater video showed that neither the male nor his mother had the baby. A short time before, they were seen circling as if paying attention to something below them. As darkness fell, the researchers broke off the observations and headed home, but not before noticing that the male had the intact baby in his mouth again, as he and his mother continued on.

Jared said it is not surprising that the attacker’s mother assisted her son, “because bonds between maternally related killer whales can be particularly strong.” After all, orca moms are known to help their sons find food and even share food with them. The mother’s bloodline would be continued through her son by the killing, provided that the dead infant was not his offspring and that he could later mate with the baby’s mother.

Killer whales are top predators and complex creatures. Their actions cannot always be explained. I remember being surprised to learn that resident orcas occasionally kill harbor porpoises, but they never eat them. See my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

My discussion with Ken brought me back to the harsh reality of our world. Maybe we can’t fully explain why a male killer whale would attack a newborn of his own kind. But who can explain why a human being would abuse and sometimes kill his own child or take a gun and kill a large number of strangers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
—–

When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading