Southern Resident Orcas And Dolphins Interact Together In The Wild: Is It Play?

Even from a distance the orcas’ exuberance was unmistakable, the splashes created as they breached and cartwheeled out of the water were bright against the gray/blue backdrop of Haro Strait (off the west side of Washington’s San Juan Island).

Whale after whale jumped, leaped, spun, cartwheeled and did flips, and two came up in near perfect unison, side by side in a double breach. Even the calves were participating, their often incomplete breaches amusing to watch.

But the real surprise appeared in the form of several small dorsal fins cutting through the melee; dolphins were swimming among the orcas.

From shore it was impossible to see what kind of dolphins were involved or how close they really were to the orcas, or to get a handle on what the ruckus was all about. Thankfully though, several whale watch boats were out closer to the action and later reported the scene in their blogs.

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Pacific white-sided dolphins (Photo by Jim Maya)

In his email blog Captain Jim (of Maya’s Westside Charters), identified the dolphins as Pacific white-sided dolphins (often called ‘Lags’, an abbreviated version of their scientific name) and generously shared his photos. He noted how rarely these dolphins have been seen in the inland waters of the Salish Sea, and commented on how the dolphins seemed to be playing with or harassing the orcas – behavior he has also witnessed in the past from the more locally common Dall’s porpoises.

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The tiny Dall’s porpoise is dwarfed by the orca (Photo by Jim Maya)

As if on cue, a few days later he encountered the tiny Dall’s porpoises cavorting around the orcas.

These particular orcas, the Southern Residents (given that name because they live in the southern part of the Salish Sea through much of the spring, summer, and fall) don’t eat dolphins, they primarily eat fish. They never consume other marine mammals…but to the untrained human eye they look just like the orcas (called ‘Transients’) that do dine on dolphins and seals. Can dolphins tell the difference? If not, why would they risk making what could turn out to be a really bad choice?

We know that harbor seals can tell the two types of orcas apart by the different sounds the two types of whales make – and the seals adjust their behavior accordingly (see previous post). The theory is that since the harbor seals inhabit the same area all year, they can’t afford to leave the water or hide in the kelp every time they hear an orca, and because the Transients tend to hunt silently, the seals really have to rely more heavily on visual cues.

Unlike the harbor seals, these dolphins are not known to come into the area often, hence would not be expected to discern the calls of the two types of orcas. According to Rain Coast Research, the presence of Pacific white-sided dolphins in this region is tied to the periodic influx of certain forage fishes (mostly smelt and capelin), and the dolphins just have not been in the area often since the early 1900’s. So if the dolphins have learned the difference between Resident and Transient orcas, logically they would have had to do so out in the ocean, or perhaps this knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.

In general, researchers believe that different species, such as the dolphins and the orcas, aggregate together most often when finding food or avoiding predators:

Mixed Species Groups in Mammals
“Mixed species groups have long been noted in birds, but they also occur among different species of mammals ranging from closely related species to species from different orders. Mixed species groups of mammals occur in many different habitats, e.g. ungulates on the savannah, primates in various types of forests and cetaceans in the oceans.

Mixed species groups are very different in their duration, frequency, predominant activity and structure depending on the species interacting and the habitat they occur in.

Functional explanations for mixed species groups usually fall within two categories: foraging advantages and predator avoidance. However, there could also be other social and reproductive advantages of mixed species groups that could contribute to their formation and stability. The advantages do not have to be equally distributed between the participating species and can also vary according to season and the presence of predators.”

Logical enough, but what explains the crazy looking kamikaze behavior of the dolphins as they swim over and around the orcas?

If the association was based on predator avoidance, it implies that there was something even scarier around; think Jaws, or Transient dolphin-eating orcas. Even so, why would the dolphins appear to harass their presumed protectors?

A better guess is that this behavior is somehow related to foraging, and either the dolphins located the orcas feeding on fish (sea lions have been demonstrated to follow dolphins, presumably because of the dolphins’ superior ability to locate fish schools California Sea Lions Use Dolphins to Locate Food) or, more likely, given the behavior of the dolphins, they might have been harassing the orcas to try to get them to change direction or leave the area, and therefore, the fish, behind – even though orcas prefer larger salmon, there are often smaller forage fishes present as well.

The Pacific white-sided dolphin is a fast and free-ranging species that often approaches boats:

It is also possible that the more free-ranging dolphins and porpoises can’t identify which orcas might eat them, and like crows mobbing an owl they are just trying to drive the orcas out of the area to protect young or injured individuals- but even the little I have seen of the Transient orcas tells me that it would be ineffective and somewhat suicidal for a dolphin to approach them. Not surprising: I found no reports of them having done so.

Behavioral theory does allow for the possibility that the dolphins can quickly learn the difference between types of orcas however, even with no prior experience:

In contrast, selective habituation predicts that prey animals start out with a rather general predator image from which certain harmless cues are removed by habituation.
This initially generates costs from false alarms but not from missed detections. It does not require experience with the predator, since any unusual cue that falls within a certain predator class elicits a response. By selective habituation (learning what not to fear)
harbour seals pursue the more conservative, and thus more advantageous, strategy. (Previous post).

As an example, the dolphins might have a predator image of a shark, then learn the difference between that and an orca, and finally between the different types of orcas.

But from their end, why do the Resident orcas put up with the frisky dolphins and porpoises? Is it possible that these peaceful, fish-eating orcas actually enjoy the presence of their smaller cousins? Maybe it takes more energy than it is worth to drive them off, or they know that the dolphins and porpoises will soon lose interest and take off on their own. Possibly the orcas do get annoyed and change their direction of travel – just think for a minute what the presence of a tiny bee can do to your own choices. Or maybe the orcas’ nature is just gentle and easygoing. Of course we can’t really see what is going on underwater at those times, and unless we happen to have a hydrophone in the water we can’t hear it either. It is a mystery.

In the final analysis, there are more questions than there are answers at this point, and given the level of intelligence these animals possess, they may relate in ways we have not even begun to explore. Studies all over the world are turning our notions upside down – for instance researchers have discovered that tooth rake marks on some species of dolphins are sometimes caused by interactions with a different, and perhaps more aggressive species, and are not solely a result of conspecific rivalry, as was the long-held assumption.

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Risso’s dolphins show extensive scarring. (Creative Commons photo)

There is always the possibility that it could just be plain old fun for them all at times, though scientists shy away from applying such concepts to animals. Known to ride the bow waves of the great whales as well as the bow waves of boats, sometimes dolphins will hitch a ride in the direction they were headed anyway…yet other times they seem to go out of their way to cavort in the waves.

No matter how or why they do it, the dolphins seem to have figured out that like us, they are safe around the gentle Southern Resident orcas.

Keeping It Real: Tim Zimmerman Writes About Injuries To Orcas At SeaWorld

The article by Tim Zimmerman, Do Orcas At Marine Parks Injure One Another? is powerful, and includes a very graphic and horrifying photo of a mortally injured orca, the result of an aggressive encounter between two whales.

I hope you will read the original article in full, but I wanted to add one thing about the video Zimmermann includes which shows a SeaWorld trainer trying to explain away a less severe encounter: what the trainers are doing when they “let the orcas have some time” is in reality punishing the animals. The whales have to perform to get their fish, and when they don’t follow a command and refuse to work, the trainers remove themselves and the food. It is a powerful signal to the animals, and not the benign opportunity to be social that the trainer describes.

A portion of Zimmermann’s account and video (again, please do go read the entire article!):

For example, this year at SeaWorld I have been told two killer whales named Kalina and Kayla have not been getting along. From what I have been told, it was these two killer whales, in fact, that shut down the Believe Show on February 24, just before Dawn Brancheau was killed. It is not necessarily surprising that SeaWorld has to cope with conflict between its killer whales, given that they are brought together in a pretty random way (aggression between members of a family pod in the wild is almost nonexistent). But, again, you get a critical level of understanding when you get an actual first-hand report, and some pictures.

Here is an account (with pics) of what happened between Kalina and Kayla at the Believe Show at SeaWorld Orlando in June this summer:

The show commenced as it usually does with the opening show. Then, Kalina came out for the first major breach, the start of the show.

Moments later, Kayla raced into the pool. I could instantly sense this was not part of the show, as Kalina suddenly seemed very skittish. Moments later, Kayla collided with Kalina in the centre of the pool, causing a scuffle that went on for several seconds, water thrashing about and squeals from the orcas.

Straight after, Kayla left and raced into the back pool, leaving Kalina to swim laps about the pool on her own, disobeying and refusing to listen to trainers orders, as one of the trainers came out to talk to the crowd, the show halting at this point.

The trainers attempted to place Kalina into the back pool, the same as the others (at this point it housed Katina, Kayla, Trua, Nalani and Malia), which Kalina flatly refused, opting to swim laps about the pool instead. The show continued, ignoring Kalina who ignored all instructions and just swam laps.

Anytime Kayla entered the pool, Kalina would approach the gate to the opposite back pool and cower there, as if trying to get away. The gate was never opened, despite Kalina flatly refusing to co-operate throughout the show, despite several times approaching trainers.

In the finale of the show, Kalina finally decided to start obeying orders. This was fine, but what disturbed me at the end, was that Kalina was again, sent to the same back pool as Kayla.

My sense is that this sort of fracas is not that unusual. But it’s hard to know, because they only become public when they occur during shows and are documented. Anyhow, here is the result. When Kayla initially rammed Kalina, she put a gash right above her eye (luckily she did not take out the eye):

So how did SeaWorld address the incident, and the lack off cooperation from the whales that resulted? Happily, my source filmed that, so we can listen to the trainer trying to explain it to the audience.

“There are just days that they just want to play with one another and be extremely social,” he says. I think that qualifies as stretching the definition of “play” and “extremely social.” Anyhow, watch for yourself, and observe one of the talents required to be a SeaWorld trainer:

UFO? Scientists Go To Great Heights To Study Orcas

When the Google alert about a UFO came to my mailbox, I naturally assumed that it was going to be a joke about orcas – what other ‘cigar shaped objects’ would have shown up in a search for references to Haro Strait? I supposed it could have been a boat, a submarine, or fish, but naturally my mind just naturally turns to whales. Who knew it would turn out to be a sincere sighting, but one that had been quickly resolved by a response from the researchers aboard the ‘space craft’.

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The Center for Whale Research Observed Orcas from a dirigible. (Photo by Candace Calloway Whiting).

From the UFO website:
…In that case it should have been moving. If it were coming right at us, or going away, it should have become larger or smaller. Actually, if we were seeing just the end of the “plane” that would have meant it was immense! None of that happened. It stayed exactly the same. After several minutes it suddenly seemed to shrink then fade away, although it did not change its position. Just as suddenly it reappeared a few seconds later in the very same place, in it’s original size, shape and again a bright white.

After a few more minutes it started to move very slowly in a southerly direction towards the Straits of Juan de Fuca. I’ve never seen a plane fly that slowly and stay in the air!

The response from one of the researchers, Erin Heydenreich:

“Hello Brian- The UFO that you report seeing on September 8th, was a zeppelin (dirigible) that was contracted through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in collaboration with the NOAA Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle and the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island to take aerial photographs of killer whales. I was aboard the vessel and we did hover over an area of Haro Strait on the west side of San Juan Island called False Bay for approximately 45 minutes between 4 and 5 p.m. I will be posting a more in-depth article about the mission this afternoon. I would be happy to send you a link to the article once it is posted. Erin Heydenreich, Center for Whale Research, Friday Harbor, Wa.”

“Brian Vike’s Note: Thank you to the person who emailed me to say it was them inside of a Zeppelin (dirigible) which was the cause for the sighting.”

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Southern Resident orcas (photo by Erin Heydenreich).

As for the other ‘cigar shaped objects’, “The whales observed were J’s, K’s and L’s. They were spread out in mixed social groups. Many whales were milling off False Bay.The whales reportedly went north later that evening”.

For more information on that encounter click here.

Mother Orca And Her Dead Calf: A Mother’s Grief?

The report that the Southern Resident orcas lost a calf came as sad news yesterday, compounding the disappointment of the losses to their fragile population this year – earlier losses included an older and well known female, two males in their prime, and another calf all of which failed to return this summer from the winter foraging. But what makes the news of this calf so heartbreaking is that the mother was observed pushing her dead baby around trying to carry it for hours, and may still be with it today.

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L72 and calf San Juan Island Sept. 10, 2010 Photo by Robin Baird, Cascadia Research

From Cascadia Research (Courtesy Orca Network)

Sept. 10, San Juan Island:

This morning we encountered L72 and L105 carrying a dead killer whale calf off the west side of San Juan Island. We followed the whales for just over 6 hours, and most of the time the calf was not visible, but on occasion L72 would lift the calf out of the water when she was surfacing. When we were able to see the calf L72 appeared to either be pushing it in front of her balanced on her rostrum or would be carrying the calf on the top of her head, but the calf was negatively buoyant, so had probably not been dead for long.

Although L105, L72’s ~6 year old son, was within 50 or 100 m for most of the time, we did not see L105 interacting with the dead calf. Based on the size of the calf (approximately 6-7′) we suspect it was near-term but no way to know whether it was stillborn or born alive and died shortly afterward. Upon surfacing L72 would frequently appear to ‘drop’ the calf and both whales would stop and dive deep to recover it. From the photos it appears the calf was a female, and the umbilical is still attached and clearly visible. When we left the whales early this evening L72 still had the calf with her.

We will be out early hoping to re-locate the group, but it would be very good for folks on the water tomorrow to be on the lookout for the dead calf, L72 and L105, or the placenta (which should float and would be of great value to collect).

Robin Baird, Cascadia Research, Olympia, WA

Scientists have yet to come up with a way to define grief in animals – it is too easy to project our own emotions onto other species – yet researchers are increasingly willing to acknowledge that many animals display behavior that looks like mourning. Chimps and gorillas are known to carry their dead infant for days and even months, and elephants stand vigil over their dead. Dolphins in captivity stay with their dead calves, and the following account of a wild dolphin is remarkably similar to that of the mother orca L72.

This event was recorded by researchers, and is compelling in that the scientists express the conflict between the rigors of their training and their actual observations:

From the Tethys Research Institute:

On the 3rd and 4th of July, 2007, one common bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus was observed interacting with a dead newborn calf in the semi-closed waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. The behaviour of the presumed mother was observed by Tethys researchers Joan Gonzalvo Villegas and Zsuzsanna Pereszlenyi and by Earthwatch volunteers for approximately 4.5 hours under an oppressive summer heat, in a dead-calm sea.

Whilst researchers must avoid being driven by their own feelings and make arbitrary interpretations, in this case it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf. She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation. The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat…

The researchers on board did not feel like taking the calf away from the mother to perform scientific investigations (e.g. a necropsy of the calf). Their decision was intended as a form of respect towards a highly-evolved animal, the deep suffering of whom was obvious enough. All the researchers did was recording behavioural information at 1-min intervals, throughout the observations, and collect a small sample of the calf’s skin for future genetic analyses. The mother is a known animal (ID: 03046) who has been observed in the Gulf since 2003.

Recent scientific discoveries show that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have special cells associated with emotions, called spindle cells, previously found only in humans and the great apes. (More here, from and earlier post)

We see the behavior of grief in the mother orca L72 as she tries to hang onto her infant’s corpse. We know she has the biological structure to feel emotion as we do, and that she experiences strong lifelong bonds to her family.

Nature, and life, can be hard, but there is no reason to harden our hearts or choose to believe that what we see in this mother whale is not an expression of loss. Instead we can choose the compassionate point of view, and by so doing, understand that cetaceans are bright and sentient beings, currently in need of our help as they struggle to survive the damage done to them in the past.

Orca ‘Toys’ With Kayakers

Orcas can be very interested in us!  The first event took place just north of Vancouver, Canada off the Sunshine Coast:

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It may look like Andy Hoppenrath was heading towards this orca, but he was actually trying to get some distance from it. It’s the orca who kept coming to him. Margot Williams

By Martha Perkins – Bowen Island Undercurrent
Published: September 09, 2010 2:00 PM
Updated: September 09, 2010 3:01 PM
When Bruce McTaggart and Andy Hoppenrath went out in their kayaks to ride the waves for a little Saturday afternoon fun, they had no idea that an orca would decide to play along.
The two Bowen Island paddlers were about to discover what is was like to be treated like a whale toy. Exhilarating? Yes. Scary? Most definitely. One of those moments you will never, ever forget? Absolutely.
It started around noon on September 4. Northwesterly winds had created havoc for some boats that lost their moorings but to these experienced kayakers, the winds also created some fun metre-high waves to surf.
Planning on getting a little speed, they were in their lightest kayaks – McTaggart’s was a 21-foot Rapier, only 17 inches wide, and Hoppenrath’s was a sit-on-top 21-foot Kevlar surf ski.
They were on the northwest side of Worlcombe Island, just off Tunstall Bay, enjoying some “washing machine” waves. “It was really messy and soupy,” says McTaggart, who’s logged about 1,200 km of paddling this year alone. He looked out and saw some “weird wave action.” Seconds later he heard Hoppenrath shout, “Holy $@#!, there’s a killer whale.”
In December 2007, McTaggart had come upon a pod of orcas in very calm waters. There was a young calf and the whales were obviously having a lot of fun jumping in and out of the water. Those orcas had a “totally different energy” than the orca the two friends could see now a couple of metres from their kayaks.
“As soon as it found us, it decided to have fun,” McTaggart says. “He was like a sheepdog herding us.”
Thinking that they had disturbed the whale feeding on a group of nearby seals, the men decided to paddle away from the seals but the orca didn’t want them to go. The whale, which they estimate was 20 to 25 feet, dove underneath them again and again, sometimes riding alongside them, its outline clearly visible under the surface until it breached and sprayed them with water.
“I could see him swimming at high speed underneath me,” McTaggart says. “It was bizarre.”
“It was the number of times it surfaced and blew – it was like five seconds apart,” says Hoppenrath, who could feel the whale’s breath as it came out the blow hole. “He’s looking at you, then poosh! I didn’t know if he was mad or being a whale.”
“If he had nudged us, our boats are so small and lightweight we’d be in the water,” McTaggart says. However, although the orca came within a metre or two of the kayaks, it never touched them. “It was amazing how accurate he was.”
The orca separated the two kayaks by repeatedly breaching between them and then concentrated on McTaggart, who soon realized that he needed an exit strategy that didn’t include tipping over. What had started out as a bit of fun was now getting a bit more serious, especially since the waves were so high. “I was wondering how close will he play the game. I’ve seen orcas flip seals in the air. It had to be playing games but at the time we didn’t know that.”
It was the unknown that created such nervous excitement. McTaggart was reveling in the experience but at the same time aware of the precarious situation he was in. “A whale showing such energy and intensity was something I’d never experienced before.”
McTaggart started heading for Pasley Island but the whale kept heading him off.
Meanwhile, Hoppenrath was also trying to create distance between his kayak and the orca while keeping a close eye on his friend.
“I’m watching Bruce get harassed and then [the orca] came towards me,” Hoppenrath says. He saw nothing for about 40 seconds. (Cue the theme music from Jaws here.) “My big moment was when I was going down this wave and I saw him underneath me. The dorsal fin pops in front of me and then goes down.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to crash into this whale.’ Then the tail comes up and splashes and I’m being hit by some orca wave. It was all I could do to brace to avoid being knocked down. The whale did this a couple of times, all the while I’m travelling full speed.”
The whale was so close that at times Hoppenrath could look it in the eye; at other times, he could see scratches on the fin. And yet, Hoppenrath was strangely calm. “Although it got to a point where enough’s enough, I realized he wasn’t going to hit me,” he says. “I felt like I’d won a lottery.”
Watching the excitement unfold were Margot Williams of Richmond, her eight-year-old son Jack and her brother David Williams and his two kids from Toronto. They’d been walking on Pasley island when they heard that three whales – two adults and either a baby or a juvenile – had just swum through North Bay. They got in their boat and spotted the orcas between Hermit and the Pophams but then the orcas disappeared. The Williamses floated leisurely in the water until they saw one of the orcas “swimming like a porpoise” as it quickly headed towards Worlcombe Island. They followed at a safe distance and then slowed when they came across the kayakers.
“At first it seemed they were enjoying the encounter but then it looked like the whale was getting too close and was actually herding them,” Williams says in an email. “As one kayaker tried to turn away from it, it circled around the kayaker and made him turn back. This happened quite a few times and we actually thought the whale had bumped against the kayak on a few passes.
“One kayak eventually got away and the whale was working the other one when we slowly put the boat between them. The kayaker was then able to paddle safely around the back of a small island and join his friend.”
The orca circled the boat at least six times before swimming off. “My son Jack loves animals could not believe it as he watched the whale swim under the boat and come up the other side,” Williams says.
Everyone agrees that the incident lasted about 10 minutes.
The Undercurrent contacted Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s interesting behaviour,” says Cottrell, who also uses the word “unusual” to describe the orca’s behaviour.

And this warmhearted story from blogger Jeanne Hyde also shows an orca’s interest, near San Juan Island:

Blackberry J-27 surfaced right in the middle of a bunch of boats……there were two sail boats, each with a small dingy behind…one of the boats had a couple kids on board…and they were definitely excited…Blackberry was foraging…he moved ‘this way and that’……after several minutes Blackberry seemed to ‘pick a direction’…he looked like he was starting to cross over toward Turn Pt. lighthouse……the sail boat with the kids on board began to move away from Blackberry because he had picked them to move toward...it became rather comical to watch as Blackberry kept following the boat…and the kids began to yell that the whale was going to get the dingy…the boat continued to slowly move away…the kids kept yelling…Blackberry kept following!…

…then the boat, still moving away, made a turn in the attempts to move further away from Blackberry…Blackberry turned in their direction surfacing, in a line behind the boat!!!
…he surfaced twice before changing his direction and moving off in the southerly direction the rest of the whales were taking…

Encounters like these are only possible because people can, and do, get out on the water with the orcas. Risky to ourselves or not, we do get a glimmer of the intelligence of the whales, and gain an appreciation for their interest in us when they choose to swim close to our boats.

Another Orca Dies: Get A Clue, SeaWorld!

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Sumar performing (L A Times)

At 12, this young orca was just becoming mature when he died, and SeaWorld held hopes that he would become a sperm donor for their breeding program as well as continue to bring in revenue from the circus acts he was forced to perform.

Now SeaWorld can add his death to their list of woes – the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, the fines slapped on them by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for putting employees in danger, lawsuits stemming from the trainer’s death, and the loss of the 20 year old female Taima who died while giving birth in June – plus they are now dealing with a concerned public that is not going to let them sweep this death under the rug as they have done 58 times in the past. It is time that amusement parks give up on keeping orcas captive. It is past time.

Here is the article from the L. A. Times:

Sumar, a 12-year-old killer whale, died mysteriously Tuesday at SeaWorld in San Diego, forcing cancellation of the orca shows at Shamu Stadium, officials at the park said.

The male orca began acting lethargic on Monday and was given antibiotics by park veterinarians. But his condition worsened and he died at about 1:45 p.m. A necropsy is planned.

The show will resume Wednesday.

Sumar, approximately 15 feet long and 5,300 pounds, had been at the San Diego park since 1999. He was born at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, Fla., on May 14, 1998, and spent some months at the SeaWorld park in Ohio before being transferred to San Diego.

While still a calf, Sumar’s mother, Taima, attacked him during a show at the Orlando park. The two were separated permanently, and other female orcas acted as Sumar’s surrogate mother.

In San Diego, Sumar was a star of the orca shows and was considered a possible candidate for breeding. Six orcas remain at the park.

— Tony Perry in San Diego

Does that report not sound eerily like this one from 2007?

Taku Passed Away-October 19,2007

Taku, a male killer whale at Sea World died unexpectedly Wednesday. Taku was one of Sea World San Antonio’s six killer whales. He was 14 years old, measuring about 22 ft and weighing about 7,250 pounds.
According to a Sea World spokesperson the team was alerted that something was wrong with Taku late Wednesday night and he died shortly thereafter. The Zoological Operations team have not yet determined a cause of death. A full report should be available in about six weeks.
In a statement, a Sea World spokesperson said, “While we recognize that death is part of the life cycle, we are saddened over the unexpected loss of this animal.”

Source: WOAI (NBC affiliate)

Or the one that followed in 2008?

From the Houston Chronicle–

A 2½-year-old killer whale died Sunday night at SeaWorld San Antonio, becoming the second orca to die at the theme park in the past eight months. Early Monday, Sea World officials said the female killer whale named Halyn died unexpectedly.

But Sea World spokeswoman Fran Stephenson said Monday evening that the whale had been under a 24-hour watch and was on two courses of treatment after her behavior changed earlier in the weekend. She said she didn’t know what those changes were.

Tissue samples from the whale will be examined to establish a cause of death, she said, but that will take about six weeks. “While we recognize that death is part of the life cycle, we are saddened over the unexpected loss of this animal,” a SeaWorld press release said.

Halyn was one of five killer whales at SeaWorld San Antonio’s Shamu Theater, but Stephenson said Halyn didn’t perform regularly because she was young.The whale was, however, featured in educational presentations and behind-the-scenes tours.

The death comes almost eight months after Taku, a 14-year-old male orca, died Oct. 17 at the park. Officials said that death was unexpected as well. Tests showed Taku died of pneumonia, a respiratory infection.

And then there is SeaWorld’s track record with humans in just the last 11 years (from USA Today):

2000 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego A dolphin entangled a trainer in a net, spun her around and held her underwater during a dolphin capture exercise. The trainer suffered three fractures and torn ligaments in her right arm. California’s OSHA investigated and fined the park $375. SeaWorld changed its procedures for such exercises.

2002 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego Killer whale Orkid pulled a trainer into the pool by her foot. The trainer broke her arm before being rescued. OSHA did not investigate because the injury was not serious enough to meet the threshold for triggering an inspection.

2002 Injury Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay, Fla. A zookeeper was giving her family a private tour when a 350-pound, male African lion attacked and ripped off her arm. She was hospitalized and the remainder of her arm was amputated. OSHA investigated the incident at Busch Gardens, which is now owned by SeaWorld. OSHA records do not specify whether the park was fined.

2004 Injury SeaWorld, San Antonio Killer whale Kyuqet slammed trainer Steve Aibel underwater repeatedly. Aibel had minor injuries. OSHA did not investigate.

2005 Injury SeaWorld, Orlando A killer whale swam rapidly by a trainer, circled back and bumped him during the Shamu show. The trainer was taken to a local hospital for unspecified minor injuries and released that day, according to SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides, Orlando Sentinel reported. OSHA did not investigate.

2006 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego The 5,900-pound killer whale Orkid grabbed trainer Brian Rokeach’s left ankle. The trainer was rolled and pushed to the bottom of the pool where the whale held him for about 26 seconds. The trainer suffered a torn ligament. OSHA did not investigate.

2006 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego The 7,000-pound killer whale Kasatka grabbed trainer Ken Peters’ feet and repeatedly pulled and held him underwater. Peters was hospitalized. The whale had attempted to bite a trainer twice before, in 1993 and 1999. California’s OSHA investigated and found no fault. Separately, it fined SeaWorld $240 for unrelated violations.

2006 Two injuries SeaWorld, Orlando A dolphin bit a boy celebrating his 7th birthday with a sleepover at SeaWorld Orlando. The boy, under the supervision of a SeaWorld employee, was petting the dolphin at the Dolphin Cove, a petting attraction. The boy’s mother, Hollie Bethany, told the Orlando Sentinel two adults had to pry the dolphin’s mouth open to free the boy’s hand. The bite bruised the boy’s thumb but did not break the skin. SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides told the paper no changes are being planned for the attraction. A dolphin at the same attraction had bitten a 6-year-old Georgia boy on the arm three weeks earlier, the Sentinel reported. Bides said the dolphin in that incident might be sent to a “behavior modification” program. OSHA did not investigate either incident, because no employees were harmed.

2007 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego Orkid, a 5,900-pound killer whale, butted her trainer off of a low wall during a sonogram for artificial insemination. The trainer, who fell backward and hit her head, suffered “very minor” injuries, SeaWorld Vice President Mike Scarpuzzi told the San Diego Union-Tribune. She was taken to the hospital, treated and released the same day. OSHA did not investigate.

2009 Injury SeaWorld, San Diego A sea lion bit a trainer on the leg during a performance. The trainer was taken to the hospital where her wound was cleaned. OSHA did not investigate.

2010 Death SeaWorld, Orlando Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was grabbed by a killer whale, pulled into the water and held there. The trainer died of traumatic injuries and drowning. OSHA is investigating

SeaWorld has taken an ostrich-like approach to the changing sentiment of the public, hiding their heads in the financial success of the past. No one wants to go to an amusement park and feel sorry for the animals, or worry about the risks to the trainers, let alone spend the money to do so once they understand the situation. SeaWorld needs to face this reality before they find themselves in a financial quagmire because no matter what, SeaWorld is responsible for the welfare of the orcas that they have bred in captivity, and as public attendance drops, so will their income.

Then what will become of the whales?

Why These Orcas Need The Whale Watching Boats

Given that the effort to save the Southern Resident orcas is sort of a ‘darned if you do, darned if you don’t’ situation on levels that are tough to resolve – do we leave Chinook salmon for the whales and impact fisheries? Do we prohibit naval sonar tests to protect the whales’ hearing and risk diminished security? – the issue of whether, or how close, to allow whale watch boats to approach the orcas seems pretty straightforward. The question boils down to whether or not the whales’ behavior changes when the whale watching boats are present, and if so, how? In answering this for myself, I was in for a big surprise, and have wound up reversing my opinion on the subject.

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Exuberance! (Photo by Candace Whiting)

All summer, whenever I could, I watched the orcas. I watched the boats. I trudged around the shores of San Juan Island with binoculars, camera, handycam, tide tables, and a current atlas. I watched from shore and from boats. I stayed in the background as much as possible and I talked to tourists about their opinions. I took my friends and relatives with me until they couldn’t take another hour of sitting on rocks, as inconceivable as that may be. And I noticed some fascinating things that altered not just my opinion, but the way I see the the orcas themselves.

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Canada’s Strait Watch helps inform boaters of the whale watching guidelines (Photo by Candace Whiting)

The apparent answer for me to the question ‘does the presence of boats negatively affect the whales behavior’ did turn out to be straightforward: the answer is seldom – given the efforts of the whale watching industry to stay within voluntary guidelines (and the presence of Sound Watch and Strait Watch vessels). I never saw the orcas go into a rest pattern when there were hoards of boats around them, although I did see the whales in that pattern when they were inshore and the boats stayed 1/4 mile off…but that was about it. As a matter of fact, time and again the orcas would charge over to largest fast moving vessels (usually commercial fishing boats) in the area.
There is a phenomenon often referred to as ‘evaporating whales’, when whatever orcas are nearby just disappear. One minute they are swimming all around, the next they are just gone. There is nothing gradual about it, it happens in the blink of an eye – sometimes you will see them surface far away, but usually they disappear without a trace. Amazingly, on two different occasions I watched from shore as these wily beasties pulled this stunt – only to reappear just as suddenly once the whale watching boats left. It would seem that the orcas know how to ditch the boats when they have had enough.

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At times the orcas are spread out over miles (photo by Candace Whiting)

Sometimes the orcas will stretch themselves out for miles along the shoreline in small groups or the occasional solitary individual, and at times they pepper themselves out not just along the shoreline, but for miles offshore as well. If the water is at all rough it becomes a needle in the haystack effort to locate them. In those cases the whale watch boats naturally gravitate to the whales which are breaching and splashing – always a crowd pleaser – leaving the remaining groups in peace. Several times in the early summer adult/calf pairs would hang out quietly near shore with no boats nearby, and I could see other orcas breaching not far down island surrounded by boats. It looked like the calves were learning how to catch fish, but that is just a guess.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place for me just recently. It was a gorgeous, warm day, the seas were calm, and the whales were active. The boats were thick on the orcas, and the ‘watch’ vessels had their hands full keeping the small pleasure boats informed as to the guidelines of safe whale watching. I was perched on a boulder video taping the scene when a commercial fishing boat cut between the whale watching boats and the shore, right through the group of whales. I was a bit worried about the whales…until I watched in surprise as the orcas regrouped then headed for that big, loud, fast moving vessel. I had seen them do this before, but usually farther offshore where it was harder to tell what was going on. There was no mistaking it this time – the whales swam over, and started to slap the water with their flukes (tails). They rolled around and just seemed to enjoy the turbulent water generated by the boat, and didn’t seem to attempt to ride the boat’s wake.

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Victoria Clipper (photo by Candace Whiting)

Watching that made me wonder if the orcas take advantage of ship generated turbulence to help drive salmon, and I wondered about that again yesterday as I bobbed in a small boat and witnessed similar behavior when the huge Victoria Clipper came on the scene.
Maybe the orcas have figured out that when they are ‘putting on a show’, boats will often slow down. Or perhaps it is just exciting for them to be in any kind of turbulent water, the captain of the yesterday’s boat voiced this thought, saying that he noticed that the whales seem to be more active in tidal rips (where the incoming tide collides with slow moving water).

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Double tail lobbing (photo by Candace Whiting)

Researchers know that the orcas are in communication over a mile or more, and it is conceivable that the whales may have figured out that they can distract the boats away when they want. The whales were known to do this during the captures that took place for amusement parks back in the 1960s and 70s, when the females and calves would dive and the males would swim off on the surface, luring the captors away.
The only way to find out what is going on with the orcas is to spend more time watching them, which is why it is so important to continue to permit the whale watching boats to get close enough to the orcas to really observe them. Those men and women are out there every single day, all day long, and their only agenda is to bring people out to see the whales – but they notice things that might otherwise be overlooked. Scientists don’t have the budget or the staff to be out there all day, every day; the funding just isn’t there – also scientists tend to have very specific, narrow questions they ask when they do go out on the water with the orcas.
The whale watch boats are able to police each other, and keep an eye out for uninformed boaters. They watch for new calves, note the condition of the orcas, and report back to researchers if there are problems. The vessels with naturalists on board can, and do, keep notes on which individual whales are there, which whales hang out with which, and where they are.
NOAA is in the final stages of deciding how to protect this small population of endangered whales, and I hope they can find a good balance point without cutting off the whale watching boats, and with them the ability to watch over the orcas.
If it turns out to be true that the whales have ways of ditching the boats when they need to, that they are smart enough to distract us with their antics so that the vulnerable members can forage and rest, and that they have found ways to take advantage of the effect some of the vessels have in their environment, I can see no reason to further limit the whale watchers among this population of orcas.

As I write this, warm and toasty by my computer, those boats are out in the cold, blustery rain on the west side of San Juan Island. Watching, and watching over, the orcas.
Please take our poll on whale watching: The Center for Whale Research

A Special Report From The Center For Whale Research

Baby Killer Whales, Their ID Numbers, Their Names, And Their Parentage

Written by K.C. Balcomb

22 August 2010

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The Center for Whale Research Director, Ken Balcomb

The Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population underwent a genetic bottleneck sometime between one and two-and-a-half whale generations ago that has resulted in a very small and fragile effective population size – only about 25 whales currently parent any offspring, while the remaining 60 or so whales are either too old or too young to contribute to population growth. That fact alone makes every baby whale precious, or at least it should be precious, to everyone on this planet that cares about the survival of these charismatic icons of the Pacific Northwest. Being born is one thing, surviving in the modern world is another.

My goal is to encourage our human society to make it possible for the effective population size of SRKW’s to grow during the current generation, and for the foreseeable future. Too often, for too long, and too recently we have seen it decline. In order to see increase we must give priority to allowing the whales sufficient food = salmon to survive, year-round, and that amounts to a lot of fish.

At the risk of designating a baby whale an ID number or a name when there is a good chance that it will not survive, and thereby perhaps offending some and wasting numbers, I am going to exercise my prerogative and name a few:

In J pod, there was a new calf born in November 2009 to a sixteen-year old new mother designated J28. I earlier designated the new female calf J46 and called her “Star” for the starring role I hoped she would play in inspiring the public interested in conserving the fish resources needed for the entire SRKW population (and for humans).

Also born into J pod in January 2010 was another new calf, this time a young male whose very young mother is twelve-year old J35. I designated this new male calf J47, and now call it “Looker” because it frequently (and delightfully) raises its head high above the water as if looking around when swimming alongside its mother.

In K pod, there was a new calf first seen in February 2010 with an experienced mother K12, who is also a grandmother. Virtually every time we see and photograph this new rambunctious baby whale it is racing alongside its mother, so I have called it “Speedy” and have designated it K43 – the newest member of slow-growing K pod.

In L pod, a new calf appeared in the summer of 2010, itself an unusual event because most new SRKW’s are born in winter months. The births typically occur in mid-winter seventeen months after the party times of historically abundant summer salmon migrations to these inland marine waters.

Conception of this new calf, designated L115, must have occurred around January or February 2009 when all three pods made an unprecedented mid-winter appearance off Victoria (see Encounter 3, 2009 CWR webpage). The mother is L47, who has lost her previous four consecutive babies (L99,L102,L107,L111) since giving birth to her two successful daughters (L83 and L91), in 1990 and 1995. Without yet knowing the sex of L115 the newest calf of L47, I am going to call it “Hope”, for obvious reasons. “Toast” was submitted, but it is not very optimistic for a whale name when we hope it survives.

Another new calf in L pod, L114 born to L 77, first appeared in February 2010, but it did not survive to summer. No name, but only a number for its tombstone in our records. (see Matriline guide on our website).

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Playing with mom! (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

L113 was born in the autumn of 2009 to fourteen-year old first time mother L94, and she is healthy and doing well as of this writing in late summer 2010. This year has been a relatively good year for salmon in the local waters, so we are wishing all is well for her. I am going to call her “Molly” after a very good friend whose ashes were spread as L113 and her extended family swam nearby in Haro Strait this summer.

Two other recent L pod calves are worthy of mention: L112 born to L86, probably in January 2009 and first documented in the afore-mentioned Encounter 3 of 2009 when she was less than a month old; I am going to call her “Victoria” for the beautiful city waterfront where she was first seen. [Hold your nose until the sewage issue is resolved! Maybe we should call her “Stinker”?]

And, last but not least, we have L110, a very rambunctious young male born to a young mother, L83 first daughter of L47. We first saw him in August 2007, still showing evidence of fetal folds from recent birth; but, by October he had clear evidence of a mark that will no doubt remain with him for the rest of his life: a large flap of his upper right lip had been torn askew and was protruding awkwardly from the starboard side of his face, perhaps from an encounter with the steel leader of a fishing line. He also now has evidence of a bulbous tooth abscess just in front of the flap. I am going to call him “Flapper”, in anticipation that a bit of Aussie humor will be good for him. He probably does not mind his easily remembered name, though others might.

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“Flapper”

My apologies to those who may be offended by the names and numbers I have given these whales. I’ve given the subject a fair amount of thought over three decades, and have refrained from giving them meaningless, stupid, or unpronounceable names. You may call them anything you wish, but I have been keeping the official records of these whales from the beginning of their study, and these names and numbers are what we will write in our books. The paternity paper is in preparation and due out soon; and it is likely to be at least as interesting reading, if not downright scandalous. Here’s a little teaser: the whales apparently live up to the motto: “Old Guys Rule” and you can guess what that is about.

We will discuss the reasons for the SRKW population bottleneck in another writing. Meanwhile, do whatever you can to promote healthy wild salmon populations, particularly Chinook salmon, in the Pacific Northwest if you would like these babies and the SRKW population to survive.

By Ken Balcomb

For pictures of all the newly named calves, please go to the Center for Whale Research blog.