Freed captive orca photographed with a group of wild whales in Russia; hunting and sharing food

Freed captive orca Vasilievna is now hunting and food sharing with a group of wild whales.  She is on the far right, identifiable by her tag.

How often we wake up to good news these days is anyone’s guess, but when that news involves a project that required people to put aside political beliefs, to work with groups who opposed each other in fundamental attitudes about cherished wildlife, to find funding…this success is stunning. At least one of the freed killer whales in Russia has been accepted into a wild group.
It means that captive orcas can be released back into the wild and successfully find their families (or at least into a group that will accept them).
And hopefully, it means that there is as much public support to see these kinds of reparations to nature as there is to see the babies taken to captivity for our amusement.
A huge amount of work has gone on behind the scenes by people who may never be known; so congratulations to you too. And to those who gave financially, and to the public worldwide for caring.
The trials of adjustment aren’t over for the whales (more on that later) but whatever the final outcome, this tremendous effort has shown the world that it can be done.
From The All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO):

LOCATION OF KILLER WHALES AND BELUGA WHALES ON AUGUST 29

According to data from satellite tags installed on animals released into the Sea of ​​Okhotsk on August 27, 2 killer whales Kharya and Forest moved 50 km from the place of release and are moving towards Sakhalin.

The trajectory of their movement is very similar to the one along which the youngest female killer whale Alexander from the second release.

Locations of the released captive orcas in Russia. 29 Aug 2019  Image Credit:  VNIRO

Killer whale Alexandra reached the Shantar Islands, where now there are other animals released from the Srednyaya Bay. It is 40 km from the three killer whales of Zoe, Tikhon and Gadget, which hunt in the region of Udskaya Bay.
As part of a joint monitoring and exchange of information between VNIRO and the Coalition “For the freedom of killer whales and whales”, Grigory Tsidulko, a member of the Council for Marine Mammals, said that during the study of bowhead whales in the Shantar Sea, he and other members of the Council: Svetlana Artemyeva and By Stanislav Zakharov, on August 20 a tagged killer whale was discovered, one of the ones released in the summer of 2019. The killer whale was [encountered] in the bay of Constantine.
At the time of the meeting, she was in a group with other seven killer whales and participated in the hunt. In front of observers, a family of killer whales caught two seals, which were divided between the group members and eaten.
Analysis of images taken during [observation] of killer whales [taken] allow us to define the tagged killer whale as “Vasilievna” – this is a female released into the Sea of ​​Okhotsk in the first installment on June 27.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

Belugas are located 25 km from Cape Perovsky and move in the opposite direction from killer whales towards Alexandra Bay.
VNIRO Press Service

All 10 killer whales and 12 of the captive belugas have been successfully released into the wild

In an unprecedented effort, the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) orchestrated the release of ten young orcas and a dozen belugas who had been destined for a life in captivity having been illegally caught a year ago. Starting in July the orcas were trucked and barged in groups of two or three over hundreds of miles to be returned to their ocean home. (Background information can be found here). The belugas were moved in two groups of six.

Harju and Forest have been released to the wild in Russia. The orca on the right may have cream over sensitive or scarred tissue.       Photo Credit: VNIRO
The challenges were extreme for the crews as well as for the whales, from heat to nearly flood conditions. Tons of ice had to be obtained to keep the animals cool, and they had to be protected from the sun while they spent an average of 5 days in small containers.
Whale experts from around the world freely gave advice, and organizations such as Greenpeace readily participated when they had the opportunity.
Satellite tags were applied to most of the orcas and some of the belugas, which has allowed the scientists to follow at least one member in each group. The scientists plan to follow Harju and Forest for a few days and hopefully will have updates on the rest, but as of August 25th, the young Alexsandra was only about 15 miles (25 km) from the two other orcas she was released with. Orcas have been documented to swim 100 miles in a day, so she may have caught up with the others already if that was her intention.

Animals traveled 1800 km from the Srednaya Bay of Primorsky Krai to the coast of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, which lasted 5 days. Despite the difficulties associated with the difficult traffic situation in Primorye, caused by long rains, high water and rising water levels in the Amur River, the [whales] were successfully delivered to the place of release.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

The two killer whales, a female named Harju and a male named Forest, were released together from a specially designed pen on a catamaran after they were massaged to restore their muscle tone.

 They circled for some time near the shore, and then together went into the northern part of the bay. Their behavior is currently being monitored by VNIRO scientists who will accompany animals in the first days of their stay in the wild.
After the killer whales moved away from the place of release to a safe distance, the preparation and release of beluga whales began.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

They were released alternately directly near the coast. First, the crane lowered the stretcher in which the animal was located on a soft mat on the shore. Here, scientists took measurements of belugas, took a blood, tissue and [breath] analysis, after which the crane lifted the stretcher and lowered it into the water near the shore to a depth of 1.5 m, where two trainers helped the animal to get out of the stretcher so as not to damage the fins.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

The belugas dove underwater and although it was impossible to see them, two of the larger whales have satellite tags and can be followed by scientists.
There are approximately 80 belugas left in the pens in Strednaya, all of which are scheduled for release before winter sets in.
The whales were captured and released in the Sea of Okhotsk, and held for a year in Srednaya Bay. Image credit: timesUK.co

Alexandra’s latest position (upper red dot) and the two others (green dot). Image Credit: VNIRO

The last 2 captive orcas are on their way to freedom in Russia, along with 6 belugas (updated)

UPDATE  23 August 2019:

Upon arrival at the port, the [whales] were given time to rest after a grueling road lasting more than 19 hours due to the difficult traffic situation in Primorye caused by long rains. In some sections of the route, the convoy was forced to move at a speed of 5-10 km per hour. Despite the long journey, veterinarians noted that killer whales and beluga whales carried it with minimal stress.
The fourth batch of animals includes 2 killer whales – an eight-year-old female named Kharya and a six-year-old male Forest. In Srednyaya Bay, they were always together in the same [enclosure]. The beluga includes 3 males and 3 females. The age of the animals is from 3 to 6 years. A balanced group was selected for the release, both from older and younger individuals.
On Monday, the ship will come to the village. Innokentyevka of the Nikolaev district, where the animals will be changed water and reloaded onto cars for further transportation to the coast of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. Veterinarians, trainers and scientists of VNIRO will monitor the state of health throughout the river stage of the journey.
VNIRO Press Service

Alexandra and other released captives are reported to be thriving in the wild.

The whales were captured by companies that used loopholes in the law to obtain permits. Because the permits did not allow capture for the purpose of display, the Russian government ordered that all of the whales be returned to the wild.  For more background information, please see Saving the lonely orca calf, Alexandra: What are her options? (Videos).
There are few details to share at this point, and there is no mention of Greenpeace observers for this final killer whale release. However, the Russian fisheries service (VNIRO) reports that all the whales were given health inspections and are strong enough to withstand the long journey to freedom. They also maintain that all eight of the previously released whales have adapted back to life in the wild, in spite of the stressful travel. Two of the orcas don’t have functioning tags but the rest have been located.
The transportation of the whales has been streamlined, the first group endured a week in small containers, but if the weather holds this trip will take about four days.
This is the second group of belugas to be released, leaving approximately 80 awaiting return to the wild.

From VNIRO:

On August 22, the fourth stage of the joint operation of VNIRO [Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography] and specialists in the release of animals from Srednyaya Bay into the natural environment began. 2 killer whales and 6 belugas were loaded onto vehicles and, as a convoy, escorted by the traffic police, went to Khabarovsk.
These are the last killer whales, male and female, which were in the adaptation center. The condition of the animals, which have a long journey, was evaluated by the veterinarians as satisfactory. Behind them, as in previous times, professional supervision by veterinarians, VNIRO scientists and trainers will be conducted throughout the entire road.
Tomorrow afternoon, the convoy will arrive in Khabarovsk and the next stage of the journey, the animals will pass on the ship along the Amur River to Nikolaevsk-on-Amur.

Capture and release sites. Image credit: timesUK.co

Freed captive orca Alexandra is thriving, as are 5 of the other young killer whales

Satellite tags on the orcas allow scientists to locate them.

According to the Russian Federal Research Institute Of  Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO),  little Alexandra is thriving. She’s hunting on her own in a biologically rich part of the Sea of Okhotsk, although she occasionally snacks on the buffet offered by fishing nets.

The youngest female Alexandra, released on July 16, has come a long way across the Sea of Okhotsk and is now in the North Okhotsk Sea subzone, about 600 km north of the Shantar Islands.
During her free life, she has eaten fish in fixed nets near Chkalov island, hunted near the Northern shores of Sakhalin, then spent more than a week in the open sea north of Sakhalin, prowling on the migration routes of Pacific salmon.
Then she, at high speed, overcoming more than 100 km per day, which indicates its good physical shape, crossed the Sea of Okhotsk from east to west, and now has come to the fishing areas in the North Okhotsk Sea Subzone.

Because she is hunting in areas of high fish abundance, the scientists believe she may have been misidentified as a mammal-eating type:

In general, the nature of Alexandra’s movements after her release indicates that she consistently checks the main areas of summer fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk. This behavior of Alexandra casts doubt on her belonging to the so-called “carnivorous” ecotype, previously determined on the basis of DNA marker analysis.

Please note, however, that she may be hunting for what she is accustomed to having been fed in captivity. Also, while seals and sea lions are present in the region they are difficult to catch so the possibility that she is genetically a mammal-eating type can’t be ruled out. What we may be witnessing here is an adaptation by an intelligent and sentient species.

 Press Service:

According to the latest data from satellite tags, three orcas – Zoya, Tikhon, and Gayka, released on August 6, are moving towards the Shantar Islands. Being close to the place of release for about a week, the animals actively moved, adapting to the natural habitat conditions, ate fish, which now go to spawn in large shoals in this area. Now the killer whales have left the Sakhalin Gulf and are approaching the Academy Bay.
Two large females from the first and second release groups are located at a distance of 30 km from each other in the Shantar Sea. These are the traditional habitats of wild killer whales. Their families were discovered by VNIRO scientists, who monitored these places from August 8 to 12.

At this time the locations and condition of the other two freed killer whales has not been released. They may have lost their tags or the tags may have failed so it is premature to assume that they have died. For background information, please read “3 more young orcas are on their way to freedom from captivity in Russia, bringing the total freed to 8“.
Sea of Okhotsk Photo Credit: https://vbpr.no/

3 Southern Resident orcas are reported dead, the rest are spending the summer away

The Southern Resident Killer Whale population has dropped to 73 as of July 1, 2019

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019. These whales are from the extremely endangered Southern Resident killer whale population, that historically frequent the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable Chinook salmon prey, this population of whales now rarely visit the core waters of its designated Critical Habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait, and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The missing whales are J17, K25, and L84.
J 17 Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research

J17 is a 42-two-year-old J pod matriarch and mother of Tahlequah (J35), who carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days last year. We reported that J17 was not in good body condition last winter, perhaps from stress. She is survived by two daughters and a son, J35, J53, and J44, respectively.

K 25 Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research

Also missing is 28-year-old, K25, an adult male in the prime of his life who was not in good body condition last winter. He is survived by two sisters and a brother, K20, K27, and K34, respectively.

 

L 84 Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research

And, lastly, 29-year-old male, L84, has been missing all summer in encounters conducted by our Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans colleagues along the west coast of Vancouver Island. L pod has not come into the Salish Sea yet this summer. L84 was the last of a matriline of eleven whales, ten of whom died previously.”

 

The trio of captive orcas have been released into the wild

Update 13 Aug 2019:  Freed orca Alexandra is thriving, as are 5 of the other young killer whales
Update 7 Aug 2019 – video has been released (please see below).

Photo Credit: Greenpeace

After five days in containers aboard trucks and a barge in weather that ranged from blazing heat to a downpour, Tikhon, Zoya, and Gadget were released into the Sea of Okhostsk. According to Greenpeace, once the three young killer whales were released they swam together for a couple of hours then headed out to sea.
Like the other released captive whales, satellite tags were bolted through their dorsal fins in order to keep track of them.
DNA samples were taken, which will help identify them – hopefully the tags are designed to fall off after a certain time period, and a good guess is that if any of the whales don’t make the adjustment to life in the wild and their body is found (big ifs) the authorities will know which orca it is. And who knows, the whales may one day have offspring of their own who can be traced through genetic samples.
Tikhon, Gadget and Zoya as they swim to freedom.
Photo Credit: Greenpeace

In case the hunters are allowed to capture orcas for the captivity trade in the future the genetic tests may even protect these from recapture. Because of the time they spent in captivity they are accustomed to people and so it is likely that they will be easily approached – or may even approach boats and docks as did Alexandra. It would be a travesty if they were recaptured in the future.
There should be an update soon on Alexandra and the other released whales (there are eight total). The Russian Federal Research Institute Of  Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) plans to visually monitor all eight of the freed orcas in the coming days.
And hopefully, in the near future the last two killer whales and 80 plus belugas will soon be freed.
 

Update on the Russian orcas via Greenpeace – tomorrow the whales will be free

Photo Credit: Greenpeace Russia
  • Rain brought relief from the heat as the three orcas were prepared for the last leg of their trip to freedom.
  • Once again, the water was changed in each container, and the whales were massaged where it was needed to counter the effects of the cramped space in their containers. In the wild, orcas rarely rest motionless and travel as much as a hundred miles in a day, and this is the fifth day that they have been in those small tanks.
  • When needed, they have had their skin covered with protective ointments and have been provided with shade during the hot portions of the trip.
  • Two tons of ice were used in cooling their water.
  • The final part of the trip will be by trucks again.
  • Tomorrow (6 Aug 19) they will be released into the Sea of Okhostk.
  • Once these three are released, plans are in place to locate and visually assess all 8 of the freed killer whales.

 

The 3 killer whales are stressed by shipping but are monitored by Greenpeace

Photo Credit: Greenpeace Russia

“The cold reception [received] by Greenpeace in the Khabarovsk heat is nothing compared to the stress experienced by killer whales. As one of our team members said later in the evening: “In the creak of doors…I now hear screams of killer whales.” Greenpeace Russia
It was a long, hot, loud trip, in which the orcas vocalized “almost constantly” – and it’s not over yet.
As they were driven from Stredanaya Bay on their journey to freedom in the Sea of Okhotsk, the sweltering heat raised the water temperature inside their containers to 68 degrees (20 C) before the three young orcas finally got some relief; fresh salt water and ice brought the water temperatures down to 54 degrees (12 C) to prepare for the next leg of their trip from captivity.
From the afernoon to midnight they waited, until finally they were loaded on a barge for what will be a two day trip down the Amur River to Innokentyevka. From there they will again be loaded onto trucks.
Photo Credit: Greenpeace Russia
These details have been made available by Greenpeace volunteers who are monitoring the care and health of the whales, even though their presence is only grudgingly tolerated and their access is strictly limited by the companies that hunted the killer whales originally.
“It turns out that secrecy around the operation and the prevention of independent observers are needed so that no one can steal and repeat the technology of loading and transporting killer whales,” wrote one observer. “Traders are sure that current events are temporary difficulties, and after them they will continue their business. They are convinced that the catch ban will not be accepted.”
In other words, the hunters plan to continue the nefarious captures of orca calves to sell to amusement parks in China.
We’ll see about that…

Please send donations to Greenpeace, they are the people who actually have boots on the ground and who are working hard to help these whales survive their arduous journey. Here is the USA Greenpeace donation page, from there you can navigate to their organizations around the world.

3 more young orcas are on their way to freedom from captivity in Russia, bringing the total freed to 8

Homeward bound – their journey may be arduous, but just imagine their joy as the young killer whales swim far and deep to once again hunt their prey in the bays and fjords of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Orca being loaded for journey to freedom
Heading for freedom (Greenpeace photo)

This is the third group to go, and each time improvements are made in transporting and freeing the whales. This time
Greenpeace Russia has been granted limited access to observe and record the process, although they are forced to observe from a distance of 300 meters (328 yards).
Officials from the Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) has apparently allowed a single media representative to observe as well.
The whales were initially captured by companies that used loopholes to obtain permits to capture a dozen orcas and around 90 beluga whales which they planned to sell to amusement parks in China. However the permits did not grant the captures for the purpose of display, and now the whales are in various stages of being returned to the wild.
According to representatives of VNIRO, the three orcas – two males and one female – were housed together and range in age from around six to 10 years old. It is hoped that they are a well-bonded group who will stay together, unlike the situation that left a young orca, Alexandra, alone and unable to hunt on her own.
Once again the orcas will face a challenging 5 to 6-day road and barge trip in modified tanks, and this time through heat in the 90’s. Greenpeace reports that adequate measures have been taken to prevent the whales from overheating:

“On the day of issue, the temperature on the Nakhodka-Vladivostok road reached +35 [95 F], on the coast it was +30 [86 F]. VNIRO is stocked with ice and good insulating bath materials. On the barge, in which orcas swim on the Amur there will be three tons of ice.
We very much hope that orcas will survive this adversity and safely dive into the waters of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, forgetting the past year like a bad dream, ”said Oganes Targulyan, leading expert of the project on the release of killer whales and beluga.

There are two remaining orcas and over 80 beluga whales at the holding facility, although 7 belugas have been released. VNIRO and Greenpeace Russia collaborated in putting together this video of the belugas’ return to the sea (in June):