Scary Thought: What Will Happen If Bush’s Salmon Recovery Plan Lives Again?

The following is reprinted in edited form, courtesy Save Our Wild Salmon and Orca Network

On October 29, salmon advocates asked a federal judge to reject the 2010 Plan for Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead. This includes chinook salmon that are essential nutrition for our Southern Resident Killer Whales.


Today, three facts are clear:

One, our orca are often very hungry.

Two, they historically dined regularly on Columbia Basin chinook – especially in the lean months of March and April.

Three, by failing endangered salmon, the 2010 Plan will also fail our endangered orcas.

The endangered Southern Resident orca community declined over 20% a decade ago and still teeters on the brink of extinction. Multiple studies tell us why: inadequate runs of Chinook salmon. For thousands of years this unique and cohesive orca clan has survived almost entirely on king salmon, especially those returning to the Columbia basin during winter and spring.

In the past few decades those Chinook runs have dwindled to a small percentage of their former numbers. NOAA notes that “Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin” (p. 95).

Regarding orcas specifically, NOAA also fails to explain the huge discrepancy between their 2010 Columbia Basin salmon plan and their 2009 California salmon plan. The CA plan says hatchery fish are no substitute for wild salmon, that orcas need viable wild salmon runs, and there are far too few today. The Columbia plan inexplicably says that hatchery fish are a reliable replacement for wild salmon, and suggests that there are plenty of salmon for orca survival. Despite repeated requests to NOAA to address and resolve this inconsistency, none has been offered.

There is no doubt in the scientific community about the ecological connection between Columbia/Snake salmon and our much-loved orcas. Canada’s DFO found “…that [orca] survival rates are strongly correlated with the availability of their principal prey species, chinook salmon.” A NOAA study concluded that “Chinook salmon, a relatively rare species, was by far the most frequent prey item.” Winter field studies have also found Southern Resident orcas near the mouth the Columbia River eating salmon headed upriver. UW’s Center for Conservation Biology conducted a multi-year orca study of hormones found in fecal material and concluded that: “Thus far, the hormone data most strongly supports the reduced prey hypothesis” and that “For now, it seems clear that mitigation efforts to increase number and quality of available prey to Southern resident killer whales will be an important first step towards assuring SRKW recovery.”

Let’s hope that the judge buries this deceptive plan in early 2011, and brings the federal government and the people of the Northwest together to craft a legal, science-based plan that serves our salmon, our communities, and our orcas.

For more information, please visit: Save Our Wild Salmon and Orca Network.

Howard Garrett
Orca Network

Orca Network – Connecting whales and people in the Pacific Northwest
Orca Network is dedicated to raising awareness about the whales of the Pacific Northwest,
and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats.

Projects include the Whale Sighting Network and Education Programs, the Free Lolita Campaign, and the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Southern Resident Orcas And Harbor Porpoises; They Just Don’t Speak The Same Language

While the Southern Resident orcas appear to co-exist with other species of dolphins and porpoises, their interactions with harbor porpoises do not always seem to be so benign. From time to time, researchers have observed members of J, K, and L pods chasing the tiny porpoises and/or pushing dead harbor porpoises around on the surface. At first glance this seems just bizarre – these orcas eat only fish and invertebrates, and even the type of orcas that do eat marine mammals are seldom known to kill what they don’t then consume. An exception to that is when the young are being taught how to hunt, but even in those cases it is often reported that the victimized seals etc are let go apparently unharmed.

Southern Resident orca with dead harbor porpose (Courtesy Orca Network, photo by Katie Jones).

Recently, as the reports came in of humpback whales swimming undisturbed among Southern Resident orcas off the shore of San Juan Island, I again wondered why it is that only harbor porpoises seem to run into trouble with these otherwise peaceful orcas.

Exploring this behavior brought several questions to mind:

Do the orcas actually kill the porpoises? From what I have been able to learn, it does look as though the porpoises can die as a result of interacting with the whales. Robin Baird, of Cascadia Research, has documented several aggressive encounters between the two species and in at least one of them the porpoise died as a result.

Is it intentional? At this point, there is no way to know, for several reasons. First, figuring out what an animal intends is difficult. When an animal behaviorist talks about “intent” in describing an animal’s actions, they are referring to a set of behaviors with a predictable outcome – for instance, think of a lion stalking its prey, crouched, focused and ready to pounce. In that case you can safely say that the lion “intended” to catch what it was hunting. But even in that case, you can’t say that the lion “intended” to kill the prey – the lion’s intent is to catch a meal (resulting in the death), but its intent was not to kill, the prey just has to die in order to be eaten. It is a subtle, but important distinction.

In the case of the orcas and porpoises, the researchers describe behavior that shows the orcas were intent on chasing the porpoises, resulting in the occasional death of a harbor porpoise, but there is no way to know if the orcas were intent on killing them. The lack of broken bones and tooth marks on the dead animals argues against that idea, and in an article in the Vancouver Sun, it was reported that:

John Ford, a whale expert with the federal fisheries department, said from Nanaimo that because it is female killer whales that tend to engage in the behaviour, it is possible they are trying to prop up the porpoises as they might their own young. The porpoises can ultimately succumb to shock, exhaustion, injury or drowning.

“It could be a maternal-driven behaviour that is misdirected towards another species,” said Ford, noting southern residents seem more likely to exhibit the behaviour than northern resident killer whales.

“These animals [porpoises] are often sort of carried about on their backs or heads, pushed around. It’s almost like a behaviour you’d see with a distressed or dead calf of a killer whale. We’ve seen a still-born calf pushed along or carried along by the mother.”

Ford said biologists observe killer whales kill porpoises locally about twice a year, but confirms what they see must be only a portion of the total number of porpoises killed this way.

Why harbor porpoises?
The other local species of dolphins and porpoises that are known to harass, or be harassed by, the Southern Resident orcas are similar in size to the harbor porpoise, but they tend to aggregate in larger communities and are more wide-ranging. The harbor porpoise tends to be more localized and solitary, leaving it more vulnerable. It is possible that the harbor porpoises are more susceptible and succumb to the same treatment that leaves the other species unharmed.

There may be other things about the harbor porpoise that cause it to elicit aggression from other dolphins (orcas are the largest dolphin species, even though because of their size they are referred to as whales). Bottlenose dolphins are known to kill harbor porpoises, and it is thought that the porpoises compete for increasingly scarce food in those cases. Another theory is that the dolphins mistake the porpoises for young bottlenose dolphins, and accidentally kill the porpoises instead of babies of their own species. (The dolphins are thought to kill the babies of their own species, though no one knows for sure why this occurs. You can find more information on this phenomenon here. This seems unlikely, given the fact that dolphins have sophisticated sonar that allows them to even tell different types of fish apart. And given the dolphins’ promiscuous lifestyle, how would the males know they are not killing their own offspring?).

Harbor porpoises are also known to interbreed with Dall’s porpoises, at least locally, and these hybrid animals are occasionally seen swimming with groups of Dall’s. The fact that these hybrids have not been seen with harbor porpoise females implies that it is the male harbor porpoises which mate with the female Dall’s, and not the other way around, although we can’t be certain of that at this point. At any rate, these two species, with divergent lifestyles, clearly mingle, and it may be the case that at least the male harbor porpoise’s behavior may be tied into the aggression with some dolphin species.

Black and white Dall’s porpoise with gray hybrid (Photo by Jim Maya)

Perhaps it is lack of communication. Going back to the recent discovery that various different species may be able to communicate on some level with each other (earlier post) it may turn out that there is just a communication breakdown somewhere along the line. Harbor porpoises don’t communicate with whistles like most other dolphins and porpoises, but instead use only echolocation clicks:

Our results provide strong evidence that porpoises communicate acoustically using specific patterns of clicks with source properties comparable to normal echolocation clicks, and
that they employ stereotyped aggressive click patterns, exposing conspecifics to received levels of up to 180 dB re 1 Pa (pp). The measured source properties render estimated active spaces of less than 1000 meters for porpoises’ communication sounds. Compared to other cetaceans, porpoises must therefore remain much closer to be able to
communicate acoustically.


A disparate selection of toothed whales (Odontoceti) share striking features of their acoustic repertoires including the absence of whistles and high frequency but weak (low peak-to-peak source level) clicks that have a relatively long duration and a narrow bandwidth. The non-whistling, high frequency click species include members of the family Phocoenidae, members of one genus of delphinids, Cephalorhynchus, the pygmy sperm whale, Kogia breviceps, and apparently the sole member of the family Pontoporiidae. Our review supports the ‘acoustic crypsis’ hypothesis that killer whale predation risk was the primary selective factor favouring an echolocation and communication system in cephalorhynchids, phocoenids and possibly Pontoporiidae and Kogiidae restricted to sounds that killer whales hear poorly or not at all (< 2 and > 100 kHz).

What this all means is that harbor porpoises use relatively intense sound, they have to be fairly close when they communicate, and they use sound aggressively. They can use sound that the orcas can hear, or outside the orcas’ hearing range, and that this evolved specifically as a response to predation by the orcas.

Given that the harbor porpoises don’t use the whistles that identify orcas and most other dolphins and porpoises to each other, chances are they can’t tell the fish-eating Southern Resident orcas from the porpoise-eating Transient orcas. If that is so, the porpoises may occasionally be taken by surprise when the Resident orcas are nearby, and launch themselves into a defense strategy designed to distract what they perceive to be a predator (and one that is thought to have shaped the evolutionary biology of the porpoise at that) at close range…with unfortunate consequences.

The problem may be that, coupled with the harbor porpoises’ basic biology, they just don’t understand the language.

Another New Calf For The Southern Resident Orcas!

New calf L116 with mother, L82 Photo by Erin Heydenreich)

The Center for Whale Research has announced that a new calf was born to L-pod, and the mother is 21 year old L82, known as “Kasatka”. This is her first documented calf.

The calf’s grandmother is 33 year old L55, called “Nugget”, and this is her first ‘grand-calf’, great news all the way around for the L4 matriline orcas!

The new baby safely tucked in with its family (Photo by Erin Heydenreich).

A New Orca Calf For SeaWorld, Born To The Mother Who Lost Her Grown Daughter Last Week

The thirty-four year old Katina gave birth to a calf that seems healthy on Saturday night, just a few days after her daughter, Kalina, unexpectedly died (see previous post). (Update: The father is Tilikum, so both parents originated in Iceland and the calf is not related to the Southern Resident orcas).

Here is a video of the birth, provided by NECN/Seaworld: Orlando, Florida. There is an annoying ad at the beginning, and the audio may not play, but seeing a birth is worth the inconvenience:

The life that the new calf has to look forward to:

Katina and deceased Kalina (photo by Moon Tides, courtesy Orca Home).

More Tragedy For SeaWorld This Week – A Visitor Drowns And Another Orca Dies (Update 10/7/10)

Although completely unrelated, the death of a visitor on the amusement park’s water ride and the sudden death of an orca in her prime must have SeaWorld reeling, following as they do on the heels of the trainer’s death in February and the loss of two other orcas this year. (At the time of this writing, no information has been released about the drowning victim, other than that the 68 year old man died while on a river rapid ride at the amusement park.) [UPDATE: The following information has been released.

Former police inspector Ivan Henson, 68, served 36 years with the old Isle of Ely Constabulary and later Cambridgeshire police. After Mr Henson retired he took up a ‘second’ career at Ridgeons where he worked for ten years as a security officer. He was on holiday when he was knocked unconscious on the Roa’s Rapids ride at Seaworld Orlando’s Aquatics. Emergency services at the scene report that Mr Henson was unresponsive after they reached him at 11.12am on Monday and that he was pronounced dead at the hospital just before noon. A Cambs police spokesman said today:”Ivan was one of life’s gentlemen. He was a fine policeman and very well known. He will be much missed.” Read the full story about Mr. Henson’s life.

Kalina performing (Creative Commons photo)

The orca, named ‘Kalina’, was the first captive born orca to survive to adulthood, and her death at the age of 25 just underscores how wrong it is to keep these animals in captivity, where their lives are unnatural and shortened.

Kalina’s father (‘Winston’) was one of the Southern Resident orcas that were caught in the devastating Penn Cove capture in 1970, a tragic event that resulted in the death of many whales. Her mother, ‘Katina’, is an Icelandic orca.

Kalina was only six years old when first impregnated, still a juvenile (births before the age of 12 are extremely rare in the wild). She had four calves in her lifetime, and was apparently a gentle and loving mother – and since orcas stay with their families for life, it must have been hard to have her calves taken away.

She was moved from Florida, to Ohio, to California, to Texas, then back to Florida.

She had at least thirty different tank mates.

As far as I could determine, Kalina was living with her mother and at least some of her siblings when she died. I hope this is true, and that it means that SeaWorld is becoming more compassionate in their management of these sensitive and kind animals, allowing them to remain together in family groups.

For a photo essay of Kalina’s life in captivity, please visit OrcaHome’s webpage

The news report of her death:

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. (WOFL, FOX 35) – Kalina a killer whale at SeaWorld died suddenly late Monday night.

According to a statement from the park the 25 year old whale showed no signs of illness as recently as Friday and had a good appetite on Sunday, October 3. She began exhibiting signs of discomfort Monday afternoon and died suddenly in the early evening.

A necropsy will be performed, but the cause of her unexpected death won’t be known for up to six weeks.

Kalina was born at the park in September 1985.

The following information is from Ocean Depths:


Date of Birth 26 September 1985

Place of Birth Seaworld Florida

Mother Katina

Father Winston

Family Siblings: Katerina, Unna, Nalani, Taku, Ikaika
Nieces and Nephews: Nalani, Trua
Offspring: Skyla, Keto, Keet, Tuar
Granddaughters: Kalia, Halyn

Meaning and origin of name

“flower” in Slavic,
“rowan tree” in Bulgarian.
“wild rose” Bulgarian

First Orcas to meet Kona 2

Blood Type 50% Icelandic, 50% Southern Resident




Eye Color
Transfers Seaworld Florida (September 26 1985 – February 12 1990)
Seaworld Ohio (February 12 1990 – October 1990)
Seaworld California (October 1990 – May 30 1991)
Seaworld Texas (May 30 1991 – October 1994)

Reproductive Mates
Kotar | Tilikum

Tank Mates

Kona 2 September 26 1985 – October 1987
Kotar September 26 1985 – February 1988 | May 30 1991 – October 1994
Katina September 26 1985 – February 12 1990 | October 1994 – Present
Kasatka Winters 85, 86, October 1990 – May 30 1991
Kahana Winters 85, 86
Kanduke January 1987 – February 12 1990
Gudrun November 1987 – February 12 1990 | October 1994 – February 25 1996
Katerina November 4 1998 – February 12 1990
Taima July 11 1989 – February 12 1990 | October 1994 – Present
Corky 2 October 1990 – May 30 1991
Orkid October 1990 – May 30 1991
Samoa February 12 1990 – October 1990 | May 30 1991 – March 14 1992
Haida 2 January 1993 – October 1994
Kyuquot January 1993 – October 1994
Keet February 2 1993 – October 1994
Tilikum October 1994 – Present
Taku October 1994 – November 17 2006
Nyar October 1994 – April 1, 1996
Keto June 17, 1995 – March 8, 1999
Unna December 27, 1996 – December 2002
Sumar May 15 1998 – March 8 1999
Tuar June 22 1999 – April 24 2004
Tekoa November 8 2000 – April 24 2004
Takara April 25 2004 – February 6 2009
Kohana April 25 2004 – February 13 2006
Skyla February 9 2004 – February 13 2006
Trua November 25 2005 – Present
Nalani September 18 2006 – Present
Kayla November 17 2006 – Present
Malia March 12 2007 – Present

Random Facts

* Was the first ever calf to be born successfully and survive to maturity
* She has conceived four calves; Keet, Tuar, Keto and Skyla
* became the first grand mother in captivity.
* She had her first calf at the age of 8, being impregnated with Kotar at SWT.
* She teaches her calves to independent and is a loving, caring mother.
* She is a very careful orca when it comes to humans, she never shows any signs of aggression
* She loves to perform.

Physical Features

* Her dorsal leans to the left
* Freckles on her chin
* Narrow eye patches
* Freckled flukes
* Notch at base of dorsal fin

Rest in peace, Kalina.

Cetacean Esperanto: New Finding Indicates That Dolphins And Orcas Might Be Able To Communicate With Each Other

In a recently published study Laura J. May-Collado hypothesizes that two distantly related species of dolphins may be able to communicate with each other under certain circumstances. If this does turn out to be the case, it is an easy leap to think that the Southern Resident orcas may have developed a similar ability; a dolphin Esperanto of sorts that bridges the difference between them and the various dolphin species that share their environment. And it will go a heck of a long way towards explaining the how and why small porpoises and dolphins know they are safe with the fish-eating resident orcas. (Southern Resident Orcas And Dolphins Interact Together In The Wild: Is It Play?)

Dolphins and porpoises are occasionally seen swimming unharmed with Southern Resident orcas (Photo by Jim Maya).

But here is the caution: this is all highly speculative at the moment, a fact that the study’s author addresses. Due to the limitations at that time, it wasn’t possible to determine which animals made which sounds, nor to be sure of the context under which the behavior occurred. This is to be expected of initial findings, or any time there is what is called a “pilot study” in which researchers first try to get a handle on what is going on. More controlled and detailed studies will no doubt follow on the heels of this one, to substantiate or refute these findings:

Abstract (Changes in Whistle Structure of Two Dolphin Species During Interspecific Associations)

Dolphin communicative signals show great plasticity. Dolphins modify signal structure to cope with their environment, in response to stress, and in some species to mimic group members. Hence, whistle structure variations may offer insights to interspecific associations among dolphin species, which although temporal and opportunistic are common.

In this study, I test the hypothesis that interspecific interactions influence dolphin whistle structure, particularly during social events. The study took place in the Southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where interspecific associations of the distantly related Guyana and Bottlenose dolphins occur on daily basis.

The results indicate that interspecific groups emit whistles that show intermediate whistle structure compared to whistles emitted in intraspecific groups. This pattern is seen during social interactions between species, but not when interspecific groups are traveling.

Social events in interspecific groups were of antagonistic nature, where Bottlenose dolphins isolated and harassed one or two Guyana dolphins. Contour data suggest that the most vocal species during these encounters was the Guyana dolphin. Therefore, the observed modifications in whistles structure likely reflect a stress response by the Guyana dolphins. Another alternative explanation includes signal convergence between interacting species. However, to understand the nature of these potential modifications, future studies should combine acoustic tags and directional recording systems to follow the vocalizing animals.

Despite the shortcomings of this study, it provides some of the first insights into dolphin interspecific communication, providing evidence of overall signal change during interspecific interactions.

That cetaceans may have this ability comes to no surprise – think of what parrots can do – but what makes this such an important finding is that it may open a door to understanding the mysterious communication of the bright and social whales and dolphins.

Captive Orca “Lolita” And Pacific White-sided Dolphin Show: A Missed Opportunity

In a previous post, we took a look at how Resident (fish-eating) orcas interact with dolphins and porpoises in the wild. By contrast, here is a video of how the captive Southern Resident orca “Lolita” is portrayed at the Miami Seaquarium, in the company of captive white-sided dolphins.

I didn’t really count them, but it looks like there are more trainers pirouetting on the stage than there are dolphins in the water, and unfortunately the spiel given by one of the trainers is very misleading. In an attempt to be dramatic, the handler says ‘only wild orcas eat dolphins, but Lolita has shared her tank with them for 20 years!”. The show is wrong on so many levels, but deliberately missing the opportunity to explain that Lolita is from a type of orca that never eats marine mammals is just irresponsible.

What it will cost you to go to be misinformed and depressed by the conditions there:

Daily Rates
General Admission $37.95
Children (3 to 9) $27.95
Plus 7% Florida sales tax
Parking $8.00

For a family of two adults and two kids, it comes out to $149.03, plus whatever it cost to get to the facility.

In comparison, here again is the video clip of Lolita’s wild brethren swimming peacefully together with dolphins: