Tag Archives: center for whale research

“He had a good life” – the story of a magnificent orca, by Ken Balcomb

L41.    Photo credit: Center for Whale Research – WhaleResearch.com

By Ken Balcomb, Founder and Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research

“My first acquaintance with the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) we designated L41 was in 1977, the year after we began the annual Orca Survey of this population that continues to this day. His mother was L11, who was one of nine females to produce new babies that year following the cessation of captures in 1976. We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

L41 last seen by the Center for Whale Research on August 11, 2019 (Encounter #51). Photo by Mark Malleson, Center for Whale Research

L41, with an adoption name Mega, traveled with his mom and sisters in a subgroup of L pod that became known as the L12s, named after his presumed grandmother, who was the likely mother of L11. It should be noted that the alpha-numeric designations are not in the birth order sequence in the early years of the Orca Survey – because nobody knew the population composition prior to our study. The whales were numbered in those early years in the order that they were first seen, and it was only after we had all of them identified in 1976 that subsequent new babies received the next sequential alpha-numeric designation for identification. L41 was among the first to receive a designation that identified him as a member of the new known-age youth cohort of the SRKW population.

L41 with L124 on January 11, 2019 (Encounter #2). Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

When he reached social maturity in his early twenties around 1997, L41 began to father babies. And, he became the champion male breeder in the SRKW population with fourteen known offspring that survive to this day in all three pods. Only J1, with the fathering of eleven living offspring in the SRKW community, has done as much to increase the population. A very few other males have contributed one or two offspring in this population.

L41 with L25. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

We will greatly miss L41 as an important breeder and as a prominent indicator of the L12 subgroup that now rarely ventures into the Salish Sea. In 2019, we only saw the L12s twice – once on January 11 in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and once on August 11 off Carmanah Point Lighthouse on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. It will be extremely difficult to monitor the demographic vigor of the L12s if they do not come into the study area, and if this indicator male is not present. We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community.

He had a good life.

Unidentified orca.                                                                                                 Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours


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.”


Saving the orcas- how a five-year-old raised $2000 to help an endangered species

Meri and her parents

For months, five-year-old Meri saved her allowance until she had $12 in her bank, which she planned to give to the Center for Whale Research to help save the endangered Southern Resident orcas.
While $12 is a lot of money for a kid, Meri was more focused on the joy of being able to help the hungry whales and figured that other children would love to join her.
And so it was, with the help of her parents and local author Brenda Peterson, her fundraising event raised over $2000. It included a bake sale, time for dancing and story telling, and activities for the kids.
Author Brenda Peterson read from her book Wild Orca.

Meri made signs and decorations for the bake sale:

The family put together educational materials:

They set up an art table for children to contribute their own thoughts and artwork:

The money will go to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington. Biologists from the US and Canada are urgently focused on saving the small population of endangered Southern Resident orcas, and are doubtless buoyed by the dedication of this little girl with a big heart.
Meri and her parents have set a model for families everywhere who want to make a difference and help return the planet to a sustainable home for us all.

NOAA biologists on a previous encounter with the Southern Resident orcas.


A fundraising event for endangered orcas to be thrown by a small kid with a big heart – Update

Update: Local author Brenda Peterson will join in the fun with a book signing! Her endearing book about the Southern Resident orcas, Wild Orca, is written for young children. Saturday, 2/23/19 from 10 am to noon, book reading is at 10:30. (Direct donation link).

From Wild Orca, by Brenda Peterson

A picture book homage to Granny, the world’s oldest known orca, who lived to be 105 years old! 
For animal lovers and future environmentalists.
“Will Granny and her family come again this year?” Dark fins slice through whitecaps, heading straight toward shore.
Told from the perspective of young Mia and her family on a whale-watching excursion in the San Juan Islands, here is a moving homage to Granny, the world’s oldest known orca. This intimate and informative story celebrates the importance of respecting and protecting wildlife. It also sheds light on communication and family connections in both human and orca communities, all while answering essential questions about how these intelligent animals live.

It takes a certain kind of person to make a difference in the world, and when that person is a five-year-old who just wants to help save the endangered Southern Resident orcas, we can’t help but to be both touched and inspired. When her mom asked five-year-old Meri why she wanted to have a party to raise money for whales, she said “I want to help the orcas because they are endangered. People like parties so I thought I could tell more people about whales by getting them to come to a party.”
Meri’s mother also shared that “she has a Give Jar that she puts 25 cents in each week from her allowance. She wants to donate the $12 she has saved this past year and thought other kids might also be interested in doing the same thing.”
This little orca-lover’s fundraiser includes a bake sale, dancing, and the book reading, to benefit the Center for Whale Research’s efforts to save the whales.

It’s going to take all of us working together doing what we can to change the downward trajectory of these beloved whales. While it is the adults who face tough decisions and must attempt to reconcile complex issues, it is our children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences of inaction.
The kids seem to understand this, and with the support of their families and communities they just may be ones to turn back the tides of extinction.
The event will take place on Saturday, February 23rd in Seattle’s Ravenna Eckstein Community Center, not far from Greenlake and the University of Washington, with easy access from I5 (please see map below).

“It’s really inspiring to see young people display such passion for helping the orcas, said the Center’s Katie Jones. “We deeply appreciate the support to help continue our work and are grateful for Meri’s commitment to the whales. Thank you so much, Meri!”
If you can’t make the event but still wish to donate, please go to Meri’s donation page.


Missing Southern Resident killer whale J50 declared dead – she’s gone, but not forgotten

Another calf J52 (Sonic) lost to hunger in 2017.        Photo by Gary Sutton

With the loss of J50, the total number of Southern Resident killer whales now totals 74 whales.

From the Center for Whale Research on September 13, 2018:
J50 – Missing Southern Resident killer whale is presumed dead
Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7 by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J16s) during these outings.
Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction. Not only are the Southern Resident killer whales dying and unable to reproduce sufficiently, but also their scarce presence in the Salish Sea is an indication that adequate food is no longer available for them here, or along the coast. In accordance with an urgent plea by the American Fisheries Society in 2006, natural Chinook salmon runs must be restored throughout their range to avoid their extinction. We have known for twenty years that these fish, in particular, are essential to the SRKW diet. Chief Seattle was right: ‘All things are connected.’ Humans are connected, too.
In the United States, the biggest recovery of natural Chinook salmon is possible with dam-breaching of the Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD) – the Alternative 4 option in the Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of 2002 – the legal instrument for their continued operation after options 1-3 have now failed. The dams lose huge amounts of money for the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) and its rate-payers; they are now obsolete for all of their wished-for purposes; they kill millions of salmon and have driven them to near extinction; and, now we find that they have been largely responsible for the population decline of the Southern Resident killer whales, particularly in the coastal-feeding L pod. In the inland marine waters of Washington State, all of the pods have been negatively impacted by the extinction of once bountiful Chinook salmon runs in the Puget Sound region of the Salish Sea.
In Canada, the Fraser River system stocks of natural Chinook salmon have been decimated by overfishing, pollution from mine-tailing dam failures and other mishaps involving toxic chemical spills in the river, and development of industry and agriculture in the Fraser River delta region so important to the life cycle of juvenile salmon. And that is not to mention the policy of allowing fish farms in lieu of responsible management of natural populations of salmon that has been catastrophic to the SRKW food supply in Strait of Georgia region of the Salish Sea.
The message brought by J50, and by J35 and her dead calf a few weeks ago, is that the SRKW are running out of reproductive capacity and extinction of this population is looming, while the humans convene task forces and conference calls that result in nothing, or worse than nothing, diverting attention and resources from solving the underlying ecological problems that will ultimately make this once-productive region unlivable for all.

Tahlequah has been carried her dead calf for 17 days. Photo credit The Center for Whale Research

This enchantingly adorable wild killer whale calf befriended and pranked people for years. (Video)

When Fisheries tried to lure Luna into a netted pen, people watched him push the boat into the pen instead.
On its surface, Luna’s story is about an impish lost killer whale and the people who cared deeply about his welfare, yet the deeper message it delivers is that we can – and maybe should – have an entirely different relationship with the social and intelligent animals that share our world.
He was a whale who showed us that he ‘got’ us, who found eye contact with us invaluable and refused the dead fish (along with some snacks and fruit) offered to him:

Was Luna fed by humans when he lived in Nootka Sound?

People sure tried to give him goodies. They threw him chocolate and oranges. Even vegetables. He spit out anything he couldn’t play with.
Fisherman would sometimes toss Luna dead fish from their fishing lines, and he’d carry them around, sticking out the side of his mouth like cigars. But he didn’t seem to eat them. He was wild, and he clearly preferred hunting for live fish.
That’s what made his efforts to make contact with us so unusual. It wasn’t for food, so why did he do it? The only answer that seems to make sense is that without his family around he was, in some way different but perhaps in some way the same as us, lonely. Somehow maybe he thought we could be friends. And a lot of people thought the same thing. The Whale

Groups and individuals clashed or coalesced in an effort to do the right thing for the lost young whale, and government officials tried their best to do what they thought was right as they weighed risks for everyone.
The more Luna was ignored the more he amused himself with boats and seaplanes or whatever else caught his attention, and by time the government decided to net him and transport him back to his home waters he seemed to think it was a game.

In the years since Luna came to live and play among the people in Nootka Sound, his whole clan – the Southern Resident orcas – has struggled to survive. Recently Crewser (L 92) disappeared, and the Center for Whale Research now reports that four-year-old Scarlet (J 50) is very thin and may not survive. Their situation is growing desperate.
We’re running out of time to help these precious whales, and if they abandon the region or go extinct they will take their culture with them, a culture that includes an interest in the humans that share their waterways.
The video below recounts Luna’s adventures, and was made by The Whale filmmakers prior to the final version. (25 minutes).


[hdnfactbox title=”More About Luna”]
September 19, 1999: Luna is first seen with his mother, Splash (L 67) only hours after being born and is given the number L 98.
In a highly unusual situation, Luna is then seen with Kiska (K 18) who had recently given birth to a stillborn, and for a period of weeks alternates between the two females, possibly nursed by both. It is unknown if this situation is related to his eventually becoming lost, since K pod and L pod don’t always forage together. (Center for Whale Research).
 In 2001: Luna failed to return with his family and is thought to have died. A lone orca calf is discovered in Nootka Sound, and is identified as Luna, although this isn’t publicly announced.

Breach the dams or we’ll lose these whales, say the experts

The critically endangered population of Southern Resident orcas lost eight members this year.

“The Columbia River Basin once produced more salmon than any other river system in the world. It remains the gateway to millions of acres of pristine, high-elevation spawning habitat. But today, wild Columbia Basin spring chinook are returning to their natal streams at roughly 1 percent of their historic numbers.
There are those who say it’s too late to turn this march toward extinction around. If you know these fish and these whales, like we do, then you understand that they are two of nature’s savviest and most resourceful species. We must not give up on them now.”  

The Center for Whale Research and DamSense have created an advertising campaign to urge action before it is too late to save both the salmon and the whales that depend upon them. The ads are scheduled to begin on Sunday, January 7th, and they want you to spread the word:

Port Angeles, Wa. —
We, the undersigned, have prepared an ad campaign due to begin running in the
Jan. 7, 2018 Seattle Times Sunday edition. We are informing our elected officials of the crisis situation surrounding the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. More than 50% of this species’ diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which are produced in the Snake River system. These beloved orcas are starving and malnourished because their primary prey, Chinook, areendangered. The solution is in plain sight. The facts are not being discussed.
For more than forty years, the dams in the Snake River have been destroying salmon runs that are a critical food source for the Southern Resident orcas. We are concerned that said elected officials do not possess the vital information they need in order to take immediate action to recover endangered species in our home State of Washington.
More than 50% of this whale species’ diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which are produced in the Snake River system. These beloved orcas are starving and malnourished because their primary prey, Chinook, are endangered.
Breaching the four lower Snake River dams can move forward immediately utilizing the 2002 Lower Snake River EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. This can be accomplished without the need for Congressional authority or new appropriations.
We, the 23,000+ signees of the petition found here hope that our advertising campaign will generate more urgency and honesty among our elected officials.
We hope that more of the public will join in with tens of thousands of others whom have contacted offices of Washington State’s Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray.
The character of the Pacific Northwest is at stake in this issue.


Another orca calf is dead – these killer whales are in the sunset of their existence

Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours

By Kenneth C. Balcomb, Founder /Principal Investigator – Center for Whale Research

No southern resident killer whales from any of the pods have been born alive and survived thus far in 2017 – the baby boom is over…and the adults are alarmingly thin.

As of 19 September, another Southern Resident Killer Whale, J52 – a two and a half year old male born during the so-called Baby Boom of 2015/2016 – is deceased, presumably from malnutrition.

His obligatory nursing ended more than a year ago, and his life was dependent upon salmon that have become in short supply this summer.

He was last seen alive near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on 15 September 2017, and photographs taken at the time reveal severe “peanut-head” syndrome associated with impending death.

J52 Sonic by Gary Sutton

This population cannot survive without food year-round – individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies.

All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable.

We know that the SRKW population-sustaining prey species is Chinook salmon, but resource managers hope that they find something else to eat for survival.

Our government systems, steeped in short-term competing financial motives, are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction.

If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future.

Most PVA’s (population viability analyses) with current predator/prey trajectories show functional extinction as a result of no viable reproduction within decades to a century.

Young J52 was accompanied by his mother (seventeen and a half year old, J36) and an adult male (twenty-six year old L85, potentially his father) at least five miles away from the other members of J and L pods that were foraging within a mile or two of the coastline from Camper Creek to Bonilla Point west of Port Renfrew, British Columbia.

Photo credit – Zuma Press

The observation of this sad event was at sunset, and the young whale appeared very lethargic while barely surfacing as the two adults were swimming around in circles and not feeding while attentive to the young whale.

We estimated J52 was within hours, if not minutes, of death at the time, and he was not present during the J pod foray into Puget Sound on 19 September, though his mother and L85 were.

The mother did not appear overly emaciated on either occasion, but she is lean and seems distressed.

Yes, these animals do exhibit emotion, and death of an offspring brings it on.

It is worthy of note that all of the SRKW observed this summer appear skinny and small compared to Bigg’s Transient killer whales in the Salish Sea that have abundant prey resources (seals and other marine mammals).

Timing of food availability is everything, especially in critical phases of growth or gestation.

 Three of the six whales born in J pod during the so-called Baby Boom, which began in December 2014 with the birth of J50, have now died; and, two mothers (J14, J28) and a great-grandmother (J2) in the pod have also died.

No fish, no blackfish.

By Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Using drones for whale research – the Center for Whale Research and Exiter University team up to help orcas

Drone photo of the Southern Resident orcas.
Drone photo of the Southern Resident orcas.

Drones will be used to discover more about the social lives of killer whales as part of new research which could help protect the species.
The research team, funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council, has so far focused on the vital social roles post-menopausal matriarchs have in the social killer whale community.
Now, The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington and Exeter researchers want to collect new data about how whales interact. Using drones will give them a birds-eye view of social behavior, allowing them to see how whales support each other, and which whales in a group share food, intervene during conflict and babysit.

This information will allow experts to understand which social behavior helps whale reproductive success, to make more accurate predictions for their health and survival.

“By coupling drone work with the way we already collect data, taking photos and behavioral observations of the whales from the side, we will be able to look at the whales in a more holistic manner and ask questions that really get at some of the reproductive questions that have been stumping us and filling some data gaps that managers in charge of recovering these whales have asking for.” said Dr. Giles, Research Director at the Center for Whale Research.

They hope the public will support their work through a crowdfunding campaign launched by the University of Exeter this week. https://exeter.hubbub.net/p/whaleresearch
Dr Dan Franks, Reader in York’s Department of Biology, said: “The killer whales that we work on are majestic and iconic animals. But they are listed as endangered and it’s thought that the population could be extinct within the next century if conditions do not improve.”
“They are an extremely social animal and family members support and help each other. Drones will provide us with a birds-eye view of interactions – such as food sharing and babysitting – allowing us to study the impact of social behavior on their health, survival and reproduction.”

Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit.
Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit.

Professor Darren Croft, of the University of Exeter, said: “The killer whales we have been working with live on a knife edge and are at risk of extinction. The population has been listed as endangered since 2003 and two critical questions have been highlighted – what is causing decreased reproduction and increased mortality?”
“The major research priority for us is to collect new data that will allow us to record behavioural interactions. With drone information we can refine our analysis of population viability and future predictions for the health and survival of these amazing animals.”
Experts from the Universities of York, Exeter and the Center for Whale Research (CWR) in Washington State, USA, believe drone footage could revolutionize our understanding of whale behavior.

Researchers have so far analysed hundreds of hours of video of killer whale family groups, observing their relationships during fleeting glimpses as the whales surface for breath. They found female killer whales who survive after menopause pass on crucial information which helps their family members to find food during hard times.
Only humans and some whales continue to live for many years after giving birth to their last offspring. Such research provides possible insights into the reasons behind this, and is the subject of a new BBC Radio 4 documentary.
(Center for Whale Research media release.)

Sixth New Calf for the Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, the Fifth This Calendar Year!

“Great news!!! A new calf was documented today in J pod! The calf, designated J53, was seen traveling with J17. This is the third calf in J pod this year! More information will be coming soon . . . .” The Center for Whale Research

The Center for Whale Research reports that J50 was born in December (so she is a 2014 calf). J51, J52 and now J53 are all 2015 calves. L121, and L122 are also 2015 calves.


Southern Resident killer whales are the only known resident population to occur in the U.S. Southern residents are comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods. The Southern Residentsare considered one “stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and one “distinct population segment” (therefore, “species”) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Southern Resident Killer Whale population is currently estimated at about 80 whales, a decline from its estimated historical level of about 200 during the late 1800s.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the live-capture fishery for oceanarium display removed an estimated 47 whales and caused an immediate decline in Southern Resident numbers. The population fell an estimated 30% to about 67 whales by 1971. By 2003, the population increased to 83 whales. Due to its small population size, we listed this segment of the population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005 and designated critical habitat in 2006.
Their range during the spring, summer, and fall includes the inland waterways of Washington state and the transboundary waters between the United States and Canada. Relatively little is known about the winter movements and range of the Southern Resident stock. However, in recent years, they have been regularly spotted as far south as central California during the winter months and as far north as Southeast Alaska, through our Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s satellite tagging work. (NOAA).
More information soon!