Tag Archives: killer whales

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?

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Amusing Monday: Contest reveals amazing underwater photos

Exceptional patience, unusual skill and a certain degree of rapport with animals were all needed to capture a split image of swans above and below the water as they feed.

“Love Birds” by Grant Thomas, British Underwater Photographer of the Year
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest
Click on all images to enlarge

The picture by Grant Thomas won first place among British photographers in the annual Underwater Photographer of the Year contest. With more than 5,000 entries, the competition is becoming one of the most interesting photo contests in the world.

“I chose Loch Lomond as the location for this shot due to its idyllic scenery, water access and friendly swans,” said Thomas, who now lives in New Zealand. “My initial idea was to frame a split shot of one swan feeding below the surface. But when I noticed how comfortable they were around me, I was confident, with some patience, I could get that magical shot of the two.”

“The fisherman” by Filippo Borghi, winner in the “Behaviour” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Martin Edge, one of three judges in the contest, noted how this photograph impressed the judges more and more as they looked at it. The split between water and air forms a perfect curve at the traditional one-third line, with the scene punctuated by blue sky and puffy clouds, he said.

“The eyes have just enough base at the bottom of the frame to look into,” he added. “Like archways, the curved neck of both swans draws the eye even further into the frame.”

Out of the 5,000 images, 110 were called out for awards and featured in the 2018 UPY Yearbook (PDF 37.2 mb), which can be downloaded from the UPY website. A video presenting all the winners can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

“Seahorse Density” by Shane Gross, winner in the “Macro” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“I do not believe that you will find a better selection of underwater images anywhere else, either online, in magazines, books, journals or any other publication I can think of,” said Edge, who has published several of his own books on underwater photography. “In my opinion, this particular edition is a universal experience in superior underwater imagery.

“Since the conception of this competition four years ago, we have seen a number of groundbreaking techniques, which have inspired and encouraged other creative photographers to continue to push the boundaries,” he added.

“Black-Saddle Snake Eel” by Marchione dott. Giacomo, highly commended in the “Macro” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Speaking of pushing boundaries, the photograph judged to be the overall best in the contest this year is a composite panoramic photograph of a shipwreck by German photographer Tobias Friedrich. One can see amazing details on the cargo deck of the SS Thistlegorm, a British merchant ship sunk by German aircraft in World War II. Trucks carrying motorcycles remain as they were before the ship sank 77 years ago.

The image simply does not work on a small scale, so I’m not showing it on this page. But you can click and zoom in on the award-winning photograph titled “Cycle War.”

The winner in the “Behaviour” category is Filippo Borghi of Italy, who spent two days in shallow water near Osezaki, Japan, to get the shot of a cormorant with a sardine in its mouth.

“Breathtaking” by Tobias Friedrich, highly commended in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

Edge’s note to the photographer: “Filippo, this is one of my top four images in this year’s competition of UPY. Flawless in every way. Congratulations!”

A picture of three seahorses together in perfect profile was the winner in the “Macro” category. Photographer Shane Gross of Canada placed his off-camera strobe and flashlight on a small tripod behind the trio and waited for them to turn the right way, as the sun set and plankton began to rain down.

“Sand tiger shark” by Tanya Houppermans, winner in the “Portrait” category.
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

One of my favorite photos among the winners is a “highly commended” image in the “Macro” category showing a black-saddle snake eel with a tiny shrimp on the end of its nose. I’ve been writing a lot lately about the Puget Sound food web, and I’ve learned that a key to successful energetics is the size of a predator compared to its prey. This miraculous photo, taken by Italian Marchione dott. Giacomo in Indonesia, captures in fine detail this sense of scale.

From a photo of a tiny shrimp, I’d like to jump to a “highly commended” shot of a killer whale in the “Wide Angle” category. The picture was taken near Skjervoya, Norway, by Tobia Friedrich, the same photographer who revealed the shipwreck Thistlegorm. He noticed a pod of killer whales circling a net filled with herring and used a 8-15 mm fisheye lens to provide a mystical feeling.

“Evening Snorkel” by Brook Peterson, third in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“This is an image that transports you to a wondrous moment in an extreme location,” said contest judge Alex Mustard. “Tobi had the inspiration not only to shoot the orca, but to also tell the bigger story with the snow-covered mountains surrounding the fjord.”

The winner in the “Portrait” category showed a sand tiger shark in the midst of a “ball” of bait fish near the wreck of the Caribsea off North Carolina. U.S. photographer Tanya Houppermans laid on her back and aimed her camera upward until the fish parted and she got a clear shot of the shark’s white underbelly.

In another engaging photo by a U.S. photographer, multiple elements — colorful coral, intense sunset and human silhouettes — were all put into a single frame by Brook Peterson. The image, which took third place in “Wide Angle,” was captured in Egypt’s Red Sea.

“Cooking Sausage” by Pekka Tuuri, highly commended in the “Wide Angle” category
Photo: © Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest

“This lovely sunset split shot is enhanced with the other snorkelers on the pier,” wrote judge Martin Edge. “Most of us would have avoided them, but Brook had other intentions, which made for a dynamic different image.”

A whimsical image of an underwater campfire — fire under ice — came “highly commended” by the judges in the “Wide Angle” category. Photographer Pekka Tuuri of Finland pulled together a bunch of props to create this picture. Dry ice was used to create bubbles, and a piece of orange gel over a dive light provided the proper color for the “fire.” Pieces of firewood were nailed together, and the sausage came from a local gas station near Kuortane , Finland, the site the frozen-over Kaatiala quarry.

One of the photographs surprised me as an optical illusion, although that was not mentioned in the notes on the photo. When I first looked at the image called “Battle of the Tompots” (click to view), I saw two owl-like eyes staring at me. It looked like the creature had a yellow beak and whispy feathers over both eyes. But this was actually two fish biting each other’s lips as part of a mating battle. The photo, by Henley Spiers, was the winner in the “British Waters Macro” category.

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor.

Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures.

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident killer whale groups, has recently spent time in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits: NMFS:15569-01, DFO SARA: 388.

Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort.

Current law prohibits a “vessel or other object” from approaching the Southern Residents closer than 200 yards. Using that language, state fisheries enforcement officers have issued at least two citations to people flying their drones over orcas in the San Juan Islands, according to Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In one case filed in 2015, a Mercer Island photographer appealed the citation, saying the law does not apply to drones. The prosecutor in San Juan County eventually dropped the case while requesting a legal clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion from the AG’s Office says the 200-yard limitation for “other objects” should apply to drones flying over the killer whales. The final word, however, would need to come from a judge in a state court.

To eliminate any confusion, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, last year introduced a bill that would prohibit “unmanned aerial systems” from approaching orcas closer than 200 yards in any direction. The one exception would be if the drone inadvertently flies over the whales while traveling to an unrelated destination. See info for HB 1031.

“My intention is to keep drones away from an icon of our state and to prevent the almost harassment, as some people in my district feel, of our orca whales,” Rep. Lytton testified after submitting her bill.

The concern is not so much about one or two drones, although any could crash and harm a whale, Sgt. Mullins told me. But if the rules do not keep drones away from the whales, it will be only a matter of time before lots and lots of whale watchers bring their drones out to photograph the orcas up close while watching from a boat.

“There is already enough drama and confusion out there,” he said. “We don’t need someone driving his boat as well as his drone around these whales.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said they would prefer to broaden the legislation to keep drones from operating around any threatened and endangered species. But no changes have been made so far, perhaps because the specific law being revised is focused entirely on the protection of killer whales.

The bill to protect orcas from drones passed the House last week on a vote of 67 to 31, with all Democrats in support of the legislation along with about a third of the House Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats decided to take a broader approach to the issue of orca protection. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill to complement Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed orca protection and restoration initiative.

The legislation, SB 6268, would more than double the number of marine patrols around the orcas, essentially protecting the animals from aggressive boaters and drone operators anytime the whales are in Puget Sound. Studies have shown that the mere presence of patrol boats leads to greater compliance with the rules, which are designed to allow the whales to find food more easily and to engage in more normal social interactions. The patrols also serve to educate boaters about how to act around the whales.

The cost for the nearly full-time patrols is estimated at about $475,000 per year. If the patrols help save the whales from extinction, it would allow a continuation of the multi-million-dollar tourism industry, not to mention the ecological importance of orcas and the joy that people experience when seeing whales.

Other provisions of the bill would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots anytime they come within 400 yards of a Southern Resident orca. Also included are proposed studies to see how human-generated noise affects the orcas, along with at least one meeting to better coordinate protection and recovery strategies between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada.

The Senate bill appeared to be sailing through the Legislature until Wednesday — the last day to approve bills that originated in the Senate. Democrats were anxious about approving two bills before the end of the day — one dealing with student debt and the other with basic education funding. They thought the so-called Orca Protection Act would be approved with barely a bump in the road.

The first amendment offered to the orca bill was the “ominously numbered amendment 666,” as Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib dubbed it while calling on the amendment’s author, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. The hostile amendment would remove any prohibition against using drones around killer whales.

“The orcas are a really a big tourism attraction in the Puget Sound,” Honeyford told the chamber. “This would allow those tourists who have unmanned aircraft or drones or whatever you want to call them to be able to fly them. They are electric, and they are quiet, and they can take pictures. I believe it would be a great increase in tourism.”

With an eye toward the clock, the Democrats decided not to fight the amendment. They knew that the House bill was coming later to deal with drones, and they apparently hoped to get quick approval of the Orca Protection Act. After all, everyone was still speaking in favor of it.

As you can see in the video above, the Democrats were talking fast. But Republicans along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, a right-leaning Democrat from Hoodsport, appeared to be taking their time. Democrats finally gave up and pulled the bill, essentially killing it for this year.

The original bill to limit drones around the orcas, which originated in the House, is still alive after House passage. It is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 20 by the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology.

Some aspects of the Senate bill, such as the extra patrols around the orcas, could be implemented through the budget, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House bill is titled, “Concerning the use of unmanned aerial systems near certain protected marine species.” That title does not leave much leeway to resuscitate the Senate bill by heavily amending the House bill, Sen. Rolfes told me.

Still, other efforts to protect the orcas could be accomplished with legislative funding of Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery program. He is seeking $3 million from the general fund for the next two years.

The governor’s proposal goes well beyond the idea of extra patrols around the whales. Included is increased hatchery production of chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary food; restoration of chinook salmon habitat in streams and estuaries; and steps to reduce seal and sea lion predation on chinook, which are also on the Endangered Species List.

Inslee’s budget proposal also calls for developing oil spill plans to help the orcas in an emergency, since many experts believe that an oil spill could drive the whales to extinction faster than any other problem they face.

“Funding orca recovery is an urgent issue that cannot wait another legislative session,” said Mindy Roberts, director of People for Puget Sound, a division of Washington Environmental Council. “Our region knows all too well the pressures the orcas face. They are starving because they don’t have enough salmon to feed on; toxics in their bodies are released when they go hungry; and vessels are interfering with their abilities to feed and communicate.”

As she told me in an email, “We will be looking for ways to provide emergency funding for short-term solutions identified in the bills that died and in the governor’s budget proposal.”

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.

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.

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.