Tag Archives: transient killer whales

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Transient orcas may be leaving uneaten food behind

UPDATE, October 27, 2010

In a new development, resident killer whales have been seen toying with harbor porpoises, according to a story by reporter Larry Pynn, who writes about the phenomenon earlier this month in the Vancouver Sun.

He included comments from Joe Gaydos, who was my source on this blog post. He also quoted John Ford, a researcher with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who said females may be treating them like their own offspring:

“It could be a maternal-driven behavior that is misdirected towards another species. These animals (porpoises) are often sort of carried about on their backs or heads, pushed around. It’s almost like a behavior you’d see with a distressed or dead calf of a killer whale. We’ve seen a still-born calf pushed along or carried along by the mother.”


We normally think of predator-prey relationships as being highly efficient systems with little waste. But Puget Sound researchers are finding that some transient killer whales seem to be killing sea lions for no apparent reason.

I’ve always thought that predators kill and eat what they need for survival, thus holding in check the prey population. Predators would never kill more than they need, I assumed, because they would risk eventually wiping out their food source.

Well, it’s time to rethink how some predators think.

Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society tells me that transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, have apparently killed three Steller sea lions and one California sea lion within a month’s time in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.

Examinations of the animals show that they died from blunt trauma, including broken chest bones and abdominal cavities filled with blood. No gunshot wounds or other complicating factors were seen.

Joe told me that boat strikes can cause similar injuries, but it seems unlikely that this many boat injuries could occur in the same precise way with no other injuries being observed. Instead, it appears likely that transient orcas killed them without even taking a bite.

“Cold-blooded killers,” I suggested. I should have asked him about a recent incident in which a group of transients attacked a much-loved gray whale near Whidbey Island before letting it go.
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Another rare attack on gray whales, this one on video

Transient killer whales apparently attacked a gray whale near Whidbey Island yesterday, an encounter caught briefly on video. But the orcas seemed to back off before killing the larger marine mammal.

The footage was captured by Wendy Hensel of Chilliwack, British Columbia, who was aboard the whale-watching boat Mystic Sea out of La Conner. KING 5 TV posted the video on its Web site.

The boat’s skipper, Monte Hughes, told King 5 reporter OWEN LEI that whale watchers were observing a gray whale between Whidbey and Camano islands when a group of orcas raced up from behind in a direct line headed for the gray whale.

All the animals disappeared beneath the waves. When the gray whale surfaced, it was belly up. Moments later, the large whale jerked as if being struck from below.
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Transient orcas must be finding seals to eat

UPDATE: MARCH 20, 2010
The transient killer whales moved up into the San Juan Islands for a couple of days, according to commercial whale watchers. Today, they were sighted at the south end of Whidbey Island.

UPDATE: MARCH 17, 2010
The transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound for about a week may have moved up to the Whidbey Island area, where a group of about five orcas were reported yesterday and today.

Swift and silent killer whales, known as transients, must be finding a good number of seals or sea lions to eat, because a group of a half-dozen or so of these animals appear to have been swimming around Puget Sound for about a week.

This video was recorded this afternoon in Puget Sound by KOMO News. Although KOMO’s Web site does not say specifically where the whales were sighted, they were reported between West Seattle and Vashon Island.

Orca Network’s recent reports include sightings of T87, 88, 90 and 90B south of Victoria last Tuesday. Later that night, transients were heard on the hydrophone off the West Side of San Juan Island. They stayed around the San Juans on Wednesday.

Then on Thursday, they were spotted in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and near the ferry lanes on the Fauntleroy-Vashon Island route. From a KOMO video that day, Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research identified T87, T88, T90 & T90B, plus the T30s (which may include a mother and two adult offspring).

Since then, these same whales apparently have been spotted several times in Central Puget Sound. About halfway through the video above, it appears the orcas catch and kill a seal, evidenced by blood in the water.

Transients are orcas that eat marine mammals rather than fish — the primary food of our familiar Southern Residents of the Salish Sea. Transients usually travel in smaller groups and seem to give residents wide berth when they come within range of each other.

Transients roam widely from Alaska to California, though some stay farther north and others farther south. Because they hunt seals and sea lions, which can hear them coming, they are stealthier in their hunting than residents and appear to have a more limited vocabulary of vocalizations.

According to estimates by biologists, transients generally need to eat an average of one or two harbor seals a day to maintain their caloric needs. In that sense, transients are friends to both resident orcas and fishermen, because they eat the animals that eat the salmon.

In 2005, a group of six transients stayed in Hood Canal a remarkable 18 weeks, consuming a feast that amounted to an estimated 700 seals and sea lions. See Kitsap Sun, June 3, 2005.

With the help of Orca Network, we’ll report where these animals go over the next few days.

Transient killer whales find seals in South Puget Sound

UPDATE, Friday, Sept. 4: The transients moved into Oakland Bay this morning. Thanks to Jason Ragan for the report.
UPDATE, Monday, Sept. 8: The whales were spotted over the weekend along Whidbey Island, according to reports made to Orca Network. This morning, they were seen off Seattle. This afternoon, they were off Blake Island headed south.

A group of five seal-eating transient killer whales has been hanging out in South Puget Sound since at least Monday.

<i>One of the transient killer whales spyhops in Oakland Bay Friday morning.</i><small> Photo by Billy Vermeer</small>
One of the transient killer whales spyhops in Oakland Bay Friday morning.
Cell phone photo by Billy Vermeer

They appear to be finding plenty of seals to eat, according to observers. This reminds me of six transient killer whales that visited Hood Canal in 2005, when they stayed and stayed and stayed — a total of 18 weeks. Check out one of numerous stories I wrote that year.

Observers have reported to Orca Network that the whales were spotted at the south end of Vashon Island on Monday morning. On Tuesday, they were seen in Eld Inlet. And today they reached Budd Inlet near Olympia. They’ve also been swimming among South Sound islands.

Erin Falcone of Cascadia Research in Olympia went out in a boat with her colleague Greg Schorr. Here’s what Erin wrote to Orca Network:

“We got reports of these whales early this morning, so Greg Schorr and I just went out to get a better look. There are five individuals in the group, 3 adult female/subadult male sized and two juveniles, one fairly small. Haven’t downloaded the images yet so not sure on the IDs, but we will forward them to Ken and Brad shortly.

“We saw at least two kills — one confirmed harbor seal and one that we assume was a seal, but we were at a distance so did not see the victim. We left the whales in the middle of Budd Inlet, headed slowly south toward Olympia. A WDFW enforcement team is on the water keeping an eye on them, and they said they will be around as long as the whales remain in the area. And that’s the latest from the south sound!”

Ken would be Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Brad would be Brad Hanson of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who lives in that area, provided this report to Orca Network today:

“I assume that you are getting all the whale reports from South Sound. They were in Eld Inlet near Cooper Point about 11:45 am today, gobbling up the seals. Our bays down here are loaded with seals so the locals are cheering for the whales every step of the way.”

Only time will tell how long the whales will stick around. Anyone who encounters the whales in a boat should be aware of the Be Whale Wise guidelines and a federal proposal to double the legal distance to 200 yards for resident killer whales of Puget Sound.