“Orca Sing” – Research, Education,and Opportunities

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Participants enjoyed the warmth and views as well as the music.

It was a comfortably warm evening, and as the crowd gathered to listen to the choir perform at the lighthouse on San Juan Island I was impressed by the deep interest and curiosity shown not just towards the orcas, but towards saving salmon and restoring the health of our inland waters as well.

It wasn’t just that so many people care so deeply about preserving the orcas and their habitat – increasingly, people seem to be asking themselves what they can do, then just go about doing it. None of us can tackle the environmental problems alone, and many of us are not in a position to make grand gestures or make large contributions, yet like individual voices in a choir we gain force and depth when we each do our part.

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Donna Sandstrom set up a display of proposed whale watching sites for the Puget Sound

The Whale Museum kicked off the event with an educational talk on the sounds that the orcas make, and played fascinating audio tapes of a vocal exchange between two members of K-pod.

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Cindy Hansen and Jason Wood of The Whale Museum gave talks In keeping with the ‘singing’ theme.

The singers had rich and powerful voices, and ended the ceremony by including everyone.

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Choir director Fred West
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Members of the City Cantabile Choir

Dr. Bob Otis, a researcher from Ripon College, was on hand earlier in the day, and never seemed to tire of the endless questions that visitors asked. He has been researching the effect that boats might have on the whales, and when the orcas showed up in full force the following day he generously answered more questions as he filmed, taped, and recorded the whales.

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While I was there, everyone seemed to have one question for Dr. Otis: “Where are the orcas?”

There is something that each of us can do to help the oceans, fish, and marine mammals recover. From picking up a hammer and helping to build displays, or picking up plastic litter on beaches, to making financial contributions to the organizations that work so hard, each of us can do something, voices in the choir.

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Photo by Elliot Whiting

And it all matters.

Orca Whale Fathers – They Often Raise Each Other’s Offspring

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K26 travels tight with new sibling K42 on the west side of San Juan Island, July 6, 2008 (Photo by Holly Fernbach)
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Young males from three pods traveling together: L78, J27 and K26 (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

Killer whales are polygamous and as far as is known the males do not have any known defined role to play in raising the calves they produce.
Instead, the adult males stay with their own mothers and help care for their siblings, nieces and nephews, who were sired by a different male. Similarly, their own calves are raised in a different maternal group, and any males in that family will help with raising the calves sired by the other males.
By all accounts, mating is a free-for-all between different pods, yet it is extremely rare for two members of the same family to mate together. Periodically the different pods hang out together, and occasionally all three of the southern resident pods – J,K,and L – meet in what the researchers call a “super pod”. Vigorous interaction and mating can occur at these gatherings, but apparently the females only select males from outside of their own family group.

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Young male J26 (Photo by Katie Jones)

It all sounds like a pretty sweet deal for the males – and it is, but it is a sweet deal for the whole clan, and may be key to why the orcas coexist so peacefully. In this situation, male rivalry could be minimized, plus they would seem to have a vested interest in insuring the well being of all calves since most likely they don’t know which ones they might have fathered.

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J1, known for his wavy dorsal fin. Photo by Emma Foster (CWR)
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L73, also wavy. (Photo by Dave Ellifrit)

Although the males in the Southern Resident orcas aren’t known to mate within their birth families, they must wind up breeding with their own progeny at some point when the females who might have been their own calves  in other pods mature. According to the Center for Research, the population shows the expected low genetic diversity that would result. Yet the lack of diversity appears to be true throughout the orcas’ range, even among populations that are robust.
To account for this, scientists speculate that the orca’s low genetic diversity might be the result of having gone through a genetic “bottleneck” about 130,000 years ago, during which time their population was drastically reduced.
However indirectly, the dads play a key role in ensuring the success of the whole southern resident clan of orcas. And although they are deemed apex predators and appear to have no natural enemies, what that really means is that there are no known successful natural predators. Doubtless the males are active and vigilant in protecting their families from harm – an orca calf would be vulnerable to large sharks, for instance – and ultimately whether they rear other males’ offspring or their own, what matters is that all the babies spend their lives in a family “cocoon”.
In the big picture, it works beautifully.

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L41 traveling north through Haro Strait, August 10, 2008 (Photo by Dave Ellifrit)

From: January 2008 II-124 NMFS
” Resident killer whales display some of the most advanced social behavior of any nonhuman mammal, as evidenced by their highly stable social groupings, complex vocalization patterns, the presence of long-lived post-reproductive females, and behaviors such as cooperative foraging, food sharing, alloparental care, matriarchal leadership, and innovative learning. Maintenance of minimal group sizes is therefore probably necessary in preserving beneficial social interactions and in raising young.”

Should Killer Whales Be Kept in Captivity?

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“Lolita the Whale”, taken from the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan

The subject of keeping orcas in captivity is a big one, fraught with emotion and embedded in huge financial investment. We plan to tackle this thorny issue in detail once the summer season of research has been completed, but given the fact that The Seattle Aquarium is hosting what promises to be a rare opportunity to learn about the situation, now seems a good time to introduce it.

So far we have only begun to share with you how orcas live their lives – we talked about their family bonds, the challenges they face, and what it might mean to us to lose them. We have yet to talk about how they communicate, how intelligent they may be, or what their ocean environment is like.

In review, then:

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CWR 2009 Photo by Ken Balcomb

They have strong, lifelong family bonds.

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J45 traveling with big brother J30. Photo by Erin Heydenreich, May 15 2009

They almost never stop moving, and apparently the calves must stay in motion, in a term called ‘obligate swimming’.

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J34 does an aerial scan off Hannah Heights. (CWR 2008 photo by Ken Balcomb)

They seem to be curious about us, and never harm us.

In light of that, plus the fact that although the Orcas have a global range, they are not abundant anywhere, we need to think long and hard about why we need to see them like this:

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Creative Commons Photo

When this is what it takes to capture them:

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Photo Courtesy OrcaNetwork

And when we can see them like this:

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Sprouting male L89 off Mitchell Bay (Photo by Basil von Ah)

Orcas are bred in captivity, so capture is not always necessary, but their lives are far from ideal. Continued captivity is rationalized by those who love the whales as well as those who just profit from them – but when you distill the arguments what remains is a question of compassion, and how we treat the creatures that share our planet.

J-pod update

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J45. Photo by Erin Heydenreich, May 15 2009

Baby J45 and his family have disappeared for a while, most likely in search of food:

“The last encounter we had with J45 was on the 15th of May. He seemed just fine, and was acting like any normal young calf. He was last seen going by the Center on May 25th he was traveling with his mom J14 and his sister J37. He may have been seen from a whale watch boat since then. J pod left the area shortly after they were seen on the 25th by us, and there have been no reports of them since then.”

Erin Heydenreich
Staff Assistant, Center for Whale Research

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J45 traveling next to J30 with j2 in the back. Photo by Erin Heydenreich, May 15 2009

Although J-pod seems to have left the area for a while, members of the other southern resident killer whale pods have been seen more recently. It is not unusual for the pods to mix up from time to time, and two whales for K-pod have joined up with a family from L pod.

There has been concern expressed though, about what appears to be unusual behavior from the whales this year. Many people who know the whales and their typical movement patterns are worried by the changes, so over the coming weeks we will try to sort out for you what is happening. Please keep in mind though that the data won’t be complete for a long time, maybe even years – but we will share what we know, and look at other populations of wildlife as a comparison.

Baby J-45, You Might Be One Lucky Orca Calf!

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Baby J-45 May 4th, 2009 (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

In previous posts we have touched a bit on the challenges that face our resident orca whales, specially the calves. About a third to a half of them don’t survive their first year, and those who do carry a toxic burden and face dire salmon shortages. So, in light of that, what could possibly be good news for this newest member of J-pod? He has some really good things going for him, but before discussing that I would like to digress a little.

As noted in an earlier post, the whales are named according to their ‘pod’, or group identity, followed by when they were first seen. So the baby Orca J-45 belongs to J-pod, and is the 45th member identified since records have been kept. The researchers find this a straightforward and logical way to keep track of the families and for the scientists these numbers are the most practical way to refer to the animals. Once the babies are a year old, The Whale Museum also gives them a name.

All of that can get a little bewildering because you will hear the same whales referred to by a variety of names in different media sources- so to help you to keep the relationships sorted out and keep track of this special baby, I’ll refer to the family members as they relate to the calf, but will follow the scientific method. J-45 will be noted as “Baby J-45”, etc.

So what makes little Baby J-45 a lucky calf?

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J-2 Matriline (CWR)

The first factor is his birth order. The lion’s share of a mother whale’s toxic load is transferred to her first calf, and fortunately Baby J-45 is the sixth calf born to his mother J-14. Also, there is evidence that older mothers are slightly more successful in raising a calf through it’s first year, although the researchers have not determined why this is so. It may be linked to experience, the reduced toxic load to the calf, the presence of siblings, or a combination of factors. His mother J-14 is 35 years old, has four surviving offspring and only lost one calf.

This brings us to the next thing that makes Baby J-45 lucky: he was born into a great extended family, known as the successful and long-lived “J-2 Matriline”. (A matriline is like a family tree where only the mother’s lineage is considered). Young Orcas stay with their moms throughout their lives.

Baby J-45 and his mother J-14 are surrounded, supported, and protected by a network of family members, and when he was born into the wintry cold Pacific water this year, Baby J-45 most likely would have been helped to the surface by one or more of his three siblings; five year old sister J-40, eight year old sister J-37, and fourteen year old brother J-30. Also present might have been his 98 year old Great-grandmother J-2 and his Great-uncle J-1, two of our more well known and beloved whales. There is no evidence as yet to support the idea that calf survivorship is related to the presence of older family members, but there is a link to the survivorship of the older siblings.

The final bit of luck? Baby J-45 along with the other new calves had the good fortune to have been born in a time and place where people treasure and seek to protect, rather than capture or harm, the resident Orcas.

Next we’ll report on how BabyJ-45 is doing, and where you might be able to see him, last I heard he is healthy, robust, and trying to catch fish!