Tag Archives: killer whales

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.

Erlands Point family thrilled during orca encounter in Dyes Inlet

It was the thrill of a lifetime when a group of killer whales headed directly toward the Johnson family sitting in their boat on Dyes Inlet. The screams of delight leave no doubt, as you can see and hear from one of the best orca videos I’ve viewed in quite a while.

It was Wednesday evening this week, and the Johnsons had just put their 23-foot runabout in the water for the first time this summer. The family lives on Erlands Point in Dyes Inlet, and it seemed like a good idea to drive the boat over to the Bremerton Marina for dinner at Bremerton Bar and Grill, Julie Johnson told me.

On the way home, the boat was passing under the Manette Bridge when the group spotted the orcas. Aboard the boat were nine people: Julie and her husband Dr. Jerrold Johnson, their five kids, a nephew and a friend.

The boat passed the whales at a safe distance, Julie told me, then the boat slowed to a stop and the motor was turned off.

“They were coming in our direction, and then they turned and started coming right at us,” Julie recalled. “It was a little intimidating.”

Just before the whales reached the boat, they turned sharply and crossed behind the stern.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “We all came home filled with excitement. We felt very lucky.”

Interestingly, the couple recently took a cruise in Alaska, thinking they would see killer whales. The only sighting was a group of whales far off in the distance.

As for Wednesday night, the boats on Dyes Inlet seemed to be keeping a safe distance from the whales, Julie said.

On Thursday, reports of boat traffic around the orcas were mixed, and Susan Berta of Orca Network said she received some emails with photos of boats that may have been violating the law. She forwarded the photos to federal law enforcement officers.

Federal law requires boaters to stay 200 yards to the sides of killer whales and more than 400 yards to the front.
Graphic: Be Whale Wise

“We kept getting complaints,” Susan said. “It is hard to tell from photos. One showed a boat that may have been close but was stopped. Some cases involved speedboats under full power following the whales and paralleling them close. It’s always hard to tell distances.”

When people are watching from shore, it is especially hard to tell how close the boats are to the whales, Susan said. It may look like boats are swarming around the whales when they may be at a safe distance.

People who have concerns about boater behavior can file a report directly by filling out a form on the Be Whale Wise website. The form goes to enforcement officers for NOAA Fisheries. One can also call the toll-free hotline, (800) 853-1964.

Federal regulations prohibit boat operators from approaching killer whales closer than 200 yards or to position a vessel in the path of a killer whale within 400 yards. A chart explaining the rules (PDF 8 mb) can be downloaded from the Be Whale Wise website.

The whales in Dyes Inlet this week were identified as marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales, probably part of a group of 30 to 50 transients spread around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands starting on Tuesday, the Fourth of July.

The orcas in Puget Sound appeared to be at least four different family groups, according to Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale sighting coordinator for Orca Network. At least half a dozen orcas came into Dyes Inlet on Wednesday, she said, including an older female (T-36) and her daughter (T-36-B) plus the offspring of her daughter. Other identifications will probably come later. Yesterday, another group (the T99s) were seen among the whales.

When whales come into Dyes Inlet, good viewing locations from shore include Bremerton’s Lions Park when they are coming in or going out. If they stay around, you may be able to spot them from Tracyton or Chico boat launches or from Silverdale Waterfront Park.

Amusing Monday: All sorts of animals can be viewed live online

Millions of people watched and waited online for April the giraffe to give birth at Animal Adventure Park near Harpursville, N.Y. — although I am not sure how many were viewing live at the moment of birth. Of course, it is now recorded on YouTube for anyone to see.

As of yesterday, zoo officials announced on Facebook that a new camera will be installed to allow occasional viewing at times to be announced. For a $5 subscription, you can sign up for text alerts about the baby. This has become a real money-maker for the zoo. Frankly, I’m amazed at the level of interest, but it will probably decline now that the baby has arrived.

Each spring, I post an Amusing Monday piece showing where to find some of the best critter cams around the world. I’m pleased to report an ever-expanding number of cameras, not only those in zoos and aquariums but also those in outdoor locations where wildlife experts can study animals without disturbing them. Because of the Internet, we are able to essentially look over the shoulders of researchers and even watch the animals when official observers are not around.

Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, is becoming the go-to website for connecting people live with animals via webcams. As I write this, the number of live video feeds listed on the website totals 65, although the number changes frequently as a result of shifts in animal activity as well as technical issues. Scroll down below the video player for text messaging related to each camera for interactions between video operators and online observers.

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Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

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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.
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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.

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