Tag Archives: orcas

A second orca calf has been born among the Southern Residents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Learning the fate of Springer’s stick, a key to an orca rescue

When is a medical intervention appropriate for a sick or ailing killer whale?

It’s a complicated question, as I learned by interviewing a variety of experts in a two-part series just published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

One aspect of the story that I found interesting was how a simple tree branch helped to make a connection between humans and a lonely orca named Springer. If you have read my story, you might be interested in how the stick played an ongoing role after the rescue.

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Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

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Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

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