Tag Archives: Orca

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

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sen. Kevin Ranker breathes new life into Orca Protection Act

The proposed Orca Protection Act, which was declared dead last week in the Washington State Senate, has sprung back to life with the addition of a budget provision that offers a new chance of passage.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya, 2013

The newly resuscitated bill, approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is nearly identical to the original bill, which includes special protections for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. If approved by both houses, the legislation would impose new restrictions on boaters and drone pilots, increase on-water patrols by state law-enforcement officers and support studies regarding what people can do to save the whales.

The original legislation died on Feb. 14 when the Senate failed to approve it before a deadline passed for bills that had no budget impact, as I described in Water Ways last Saturday. The bill was revived this week when its sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, used a procedural maneuver to add a new budget provision.

Specifically, Ranker proposed a $5 increase in the cost of special vehicle license plates that depict endangered species, including orcas. The extra money would be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for marine patrols and other orca-related activities.

As a result of Ranker’s maneuver, the original bill, SB 6268, will get a new bill number, SB 5886, which is a bill originally submitted by Ranker in March 2017 with no text. A wholesale amendment on Thursday planted the text of the Orca Protection Act into SB 5886, which still carries the title “Relating to natural resources.”

Dave Pringle, Democratic policy analyst who works closely with Ranker, told me that the senator heard support for the maneuver from fellow legislators who wanted a chance to vote on the bill. Ranker expects it to pass the Senate with strong support from fellow Democrats as well as a number of Republicans. Action on the Senate floor could come next week, when the bill would move on to the House.

The bill describes the 76 Southern Resident orcas as “critically endangered” with a population falling to a 36-year low. The whales are important to the ecosystem and to the culture of Washington tribes. The Southern Residents also provide the foundation of a $60-million tourist industry, according to the bill.

The legislation calls for at least 100 law-enforcement patrols during whale-watching season. Remotely controlled aircraft, known as drones, would not be allowed to come within 200 yards of any Southern Resident orca — which is the same limitation for vessels under existing law. The bill also would require vessels to slow to 7 knots within 400 yards of a whale. Current law has no speed limit.

The revised bill adds an exception from the requirements for distance and speed when vessel operators cannot tell that they are too close to the whales because of fog, rain or other weather conditions.

The bill also would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations about what further actions could be taken by the Legislature and state agencies to help restore the orca population. It also calls for meetings and collaborations with wildlife officials in British Columbia to discuss protecting and restoring the orcas.

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.

Orca celebrations and environmental learning are filling our calendar

From killer whales to native plants, it’s a potpourri of activities and events I would like to share with you. June is Orca Month. But first, on Saturday, we can celebrate the 15th anniversary of the remarkable rescue of a young killer whale named Springer.

Also coming in June are gatherings small and large, including a water-based festival in Silverdale later in the month.

Celebrate Springer!

This Saturday, May 20, folks will come together to celebrate Springer — the lost baby orca who was rescued and returned to her home in British Columbia. The 15th anniversary of the rescue will be commemorated on Vashon Island, at the Vashon Theatre, 17723 Vashon Highway SW.

Springer and her calf, named Spirit, who was born in 2013. // Photo: Christie MacMillan

The celebration will include stories recounting the event, starting when Springer was found alone near the Seattle-Vashon Island ferry lanes and continuing through her return to the north end of Vancouver Island after being restored to good health. The celebration will include dancing by the Le-La-La Dance Group. These are the First Nations dancers who welcomed Springer back to her home waters 15 years ago.

For details, check out the web site of The Whale Trail, which is sponsoring the celebration, which I wrote about in Water Ways on the 10th anniversary of the rescue.

Orca Month

The kickoff of Orca Month will include a tribute to Granny, the elderly matriarch who led J pod for decades until her death this past year. The opening event, sponsored by Orca Salmon Alliance, will be Sunday, June 4, at Golden Gardens Bathhouse in Seattle. RSVP on the Orca Month Facebook page.

If you would like to immerse yourself in information about the Southern Resident killer whales, you may enjoy the annual “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop on Whidbey Island on Saturday, June 10. Speakers will include Howard Garrett of Orca Network discussing the status of the Southern Residents, Mike Ford of NOAA talking about killer whale genetics, and Jacques White of Long Live the Kings addressing the critical Salish Sea Salmon. For details and reservations, visit the Orca Network website.

Other events during Orca Month include a screening of the film “The Unknown Sea” in Burien on June 1, naturalists in the parks on June 3, “Day of the Orca” in Port Townsend on June 3, beach cleanups on June 13, Orca Sing on San Juan Island on June 24, and Orca Awareness Weekend at Seattle Aquarium on June 24 and 25. All events, including those in Oregon and British Columbia are featured on the Orca Awareness Month webpage.

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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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Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

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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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Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

Orca Awareness Month includes many activities

June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not around to help kick off the month-long celebration.

Logo

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18, according to Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile, plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness Month.

Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest, which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”

EcoFest

A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power, medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the festivities, along with music and food. For information, download the press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center or visit the Stillwaters website.

The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana Lyons (see Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other activities are planned.

For the remainder of the month, activities include an informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled can be followed on the Orca Month website or the Facebook page.

Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of extinction.

Orca Awareness Month is recognized in Washington state in a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 474 kb). In British Columbia, a proclamation was issued for the first time by the attorney general and lieutenant governor. For BC residents, a new Facebook page, Orca Month BC, is available.

A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:

Ken,

Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.

Balcomb

The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.