New Baby Killer Whale, Just in Time for the New Year – J Pod Welcomes New Member! (12/30/14)


New calf with mom, J 16. More photos will be up soon on the BC Tours website!
New calf with mom, J 16. More photos will be up soon on the BC Whale Tours website!

A new calf was spotted among the Southern Resident orcas by BC Whale Tours  and they quickly shared the joyous news.  It looks like the mom is Slick (J 16). This is spectacular news, given the recent tragic death of pregnant Rhapsody (J 32).
The new calf has three siblings Mike (J-26), Alki (J-36) and Echo (J-42), and is born to a successful and experienced mother who is in her 40s (estimated to have been born in 1972).
The population now stands at 78, seriously endangered of collapse given the struggle to find food, and the devastation by captures for the amusement park industry.
A special cause for celebration and a great way to kick off a new year, just a bit early!
UPDATE: First to observe and record the new calf, the Center for Whale Research reports:
New calf, J 50, with her mom, J 16.  Photo courtesy the Center for Whale Research (Dave Ellifrit).
New calf, J 50, with her mom, J 16. Photo courtesy the Center for Whale Research (Dave Ellifrit).

At 1:47 PM  today (30 December 2014) Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, based on San Juan Island, Washington State, spotted a brand new baby in J pod – an Endangered family of Killer Whales in the Pacific Northwest.
This exciting discovery brings the Southern Resident Killer Whale census back up to 78 individuals at the end of 2014, and is good news for a population that has had mostly bad news for much of the year. The mother whale is J16, a 43 year old female that has had three surviving calves and two non-surviving calves in her lifetime. The new baby is designated J50, and its sex is not yet known. Babies have to roll over and show their underside to researchers before their sex can be determined, and little J50 did not do that today. Its living siblings are: J26 a 23 year old male, J36 a 16 year old female, and J42 an eight year old female.
The new baby was seen swimming alongside its mom and its eight year old sister (J42) in Swanson Channel, Canadian Gulf Islands, British Columbia, near Thieve’s Bay, South Pender Island. The pod was headed toward Active Pass between Mayne and Galiano Islands by nightfall. We hope to see it again on New Year’s Eve and many times in 2015.
Baby killer whales are about 7-8 feet in length at birth and weigh about 400 pounds. They are born after a seventeen month gestation and nurse for at least a year. It takes until their early teens for females to mature and late teens for males to mature. It is good news that J16, the mother is a proven producer of calves, though her next most recent calf (J48) was born and died in December 2011 in Puget Sound. We are hoping that her oldest daughter (J36) produces a baby in 2015, and that this population of icon whales can begin a turnaround from certain extinction if the babies do not survive.
Ken Balcomb December 30 2014

Slick and her new baby!  Photo courtesy of the Center for Whale Research.
Slick and her new baby! Photo courtesy of the Center for Whale Research.

Can SeaWorld Really Send Our Killer Whales to China? Will They?

“Ocean Kingdom is the first phase of transforming the last of the undeveloped Pearl River Delta islands into what Mr. Su describes as the “Orlando of China” which “will become the new benchmark for the theme park industry.”  The Chimelong Group.
The short answer is yes, they can send the orcas to a foreign country. It is a viable option, and there are no regulations to prevent it.
The recent shake-ups at SeaWorld show that this corporate business means business – they are replacing the CEO, restructuring the company’s Board of Directors, and in a Grinchy move they laid off over 300 employees in the middle of the holidays. They added some impressive independent consultants with marketing and business backgrounds to take the reins and reboot SeaWorld’s tired business model.
They are showing themselves to be competent, brilliant, and somewhat ruthless in their makeover – but what it means for the animals, and what anyone can do about it is a big question.

The whales can't speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.
The whales can’t speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.

Unfortunately for the iconic orcas, SeaWorld doesn’t have a lot of options.  They can continue as they have for the past 50 years and hope that they can drown out the animal rights community by launching a savvy advertising campaign (doomed to fail given the power of social networks), they can follow through on their present expansion plans to increase pool size (doomed to fail given given that it doesn’t address the fundamental needs of the whales), they can open their doors to scientists and researchers from around the world, while exploring alternatives such as sea pens (the best option, it will bring in money and restore public opinion, but expensive initially), or they can decide to keep a few orcas and sell/loan the rest overseas to China and other countries (quick, dirty, and cheap).
The former CEO will now serve on the board as adviser on conservation and on their plans for “international expansion”:

[The] current CEO and President, Jim Atchison, will become Vice Chairman of the Board.
In addition, Mr. Atchison will serve as a consultant to the Company with respect to international expansion and the Company’s conservation initiatives. The Company will also nominate Mr. Atchison to serve as the chairman of the board of the not-for-profit, independent SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. (See press release).

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the "Orlando of China". (Leszoosdelemonde)
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the “Orlando of China”. (Leszoosdelemonde)

China’s new “Orlando Project” lends credence to the rumors that have been circulating that is helping China to develop theme parks along the lines of what no longer works in the US. According to Macao Magazine:

The Orlando project represents a major gamble for Chimelong, the private company based in Guangzhou, which is building the resort. Founded in 1989, the company has invested in environmental tourism, hotels and holiday resorts, with its major project a safari park, circus and tourist centre in Panyu, a southern district of Guangzhou.
Orlando, in central Florida, is the model for the Hengqin development. The city has turned sugar cane fields and citrus plantations into one of the most visited cities in the United States. This is because of Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World, which is 34 kilometres to the south. In addition, it hosts the second largest convention complex in the country.
Chimelong wants to follow the example of Orlando. It has hired major U.S. design firms  PGAV and WATG  for two major parts of the project, the Ocean World and the Ocean Hotel. Based in Honolulu, Hawaii, WATG has designed hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries across the world.

SeaWorld has already moved four orcas to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, where they produced two calves. SeaWorld, while claiming that they do not take orcas from the wild has also absorbed the wild caught orca Morgan into their stables there.
The Spanish trainer Alexis Martinez was killed at Loro Parque a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in SeaWorld Orlando, and now one of the Loro Parque trainers, Julien Forestier,  is head trainer for Chimelong, the “Orlando of China” project:

Julien Forestier:
Manager of Animal Training Guangzhou Chimelong Group Zhuhai Project April 2012 – Present (2 years 9 months)Hengqin Island, China Previously:
Senior Animal Trainer Loro Parque July 2010 – March 2012 (1 year 9 months)Tenerife, Canary Islands
Supervisor of Animal Training Dolfinarium February 2001 – June 2010 (9 years 5 months)Harderwijk, Netherlands
Marine Mammal Trainer Connyland February 2000 – November 2000 (10 months)Lipperswil, Switzerland

Also from Orlando, Florida and working for the Orlando in China project is Alan Stein, Executive Producer, Entertainment at Guangzhou Chimelong Group Zhuhai Project, previously at Busch Gardens Entertainment Corporation.

At least two orcas caught in Russia last year are headed for China. (Tumblr).
At least two orcas caught in Russia last year are headed for China. (Tumblr).

In a park that wants to be the biggest marine themed amusement facility in the world, the lack of orca superstars has left Chimelong missing the jewels in their crown. Because orcas are somewhat protected in the wild through international agreement it is hard to get them, although the Russians obtained permits to capture two (2) to be imported to China.

 Erich Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project and research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says his group discovered the orcas came from Nakhodka, near Vladivostok, and were captured as part of two operations targeting killer whales in August and October last year, in the Okhotsk Sea.On December 21, [2013] Hoyt says, his group learnt the two orcas had been transported to China via Vladivostok.
Sources told them the whales were bound for Ocean Kingdom, he adds. If that is the case, they are likely to become the first killer whales to go on show in the mainland of China.

But two orcas (there are now rumored to be three who may wind up there) is hardly enough for a country that hopes to have the most, the biggest, the most entertaining marine parks in the world, and with wild captures difficult to come by the orcas now “owned”  by SeaWorld (before 1994 the whales could not be owned by theme parks, but after lobbying Congress the amusement parks changed this) would be welcome to their pools.
SeaWorld, for their part, would finally be able to infuse the inbred population of killer whales with wild genes from the orcas caught by Russia.
They can also take their dog and pony show to foreign countries where the presence of animal rights hovers between none and very little. From Wikipedia:
images china

  • The 2010 documentary San Hua by Guo Ke is the first to depict China’s cat-meat industry. In one scene, Guo and fellow activists stop a transport truck and find “more than 300 cats crammed into cramped wooden cages, unable to move”—some missing tails and others “crushed into unconsciousness.” In another scene at Fa’s Cat Restaurant, Guo used a hidden camera to film cooks beating cats with a wooden stick, dumping them into a fur-removal machine, and then boiling them.
  • Pictures have also circulated featuring two dogs in boiling water in China. It’s claimed this is because some Chinese prefer the taste of adrenaline-soaked meat. In some areas, dogs are beaten to death in order to release blood into the meat.
  • Yin Yang fish involves deep-frying fish while it’s still alive. The practice has been condemned by animal-rights activists. Many chefs in Taiwan are no longer willing to prepare it, but it’s popular in mainland China.
  • Some chefs cook a carp’s body while keeping its head wrapped in a cloth so that it can keep breathing. In 2009, a video of Chinese diners prodding and eating alive a fried fish went viral on YouTube and provoked an outcry from PETA.
  • On streets in China, live scorpions are “scooped up alive and wriggling, skewered on a kebab, and deep-fried in oil.”
  •  China is the biggest fur-producing nation. Some fur animals are skinned alive, and others may be beaten to death with sticks.
  • Live-animal key rings. In Beijing, vendors sell fish, turtles, and amphibians as key rings and mobile-phone decorations. Animal-rights activists condemn the practice because the animals may run out of air and die quickly, and they may also pose hazards to human health. An Avaaz petition against these keychains had 980,000 signatures as of July 2014
  • According to Prof. Peter J. Li, a few Chinese zoos are improving their welfare practices, but many remain “outdated”, have poor conditions, use live feeding, and employ animals for performances. Safari parks may feed live sheep and poultry to lions as a spectacle for crowds.

SeaWorld also will not have to be bothered by pesky reporters and bloggers keeping an eye on them, since China has been rated the second highest nation for imprisoning reporters (Iran is first) – so verifiable claims of poor treatment of the animals will not be known.

 China’s use of anti-state charges and Iran’s revolving door policy in imprisoning reporters, bloggers, editors, and photographers earned the two countries the dubious distinction of being the world’s worst and second worst jailers of journalists, respectively. Together, China and Iran are holding a third of journalists jailed globally—despite speculation that new leaders who took the reins in each country in 2013 might implement liberal reforms.

Because the “Orlando in China” is located on the mainland, visas are required in order for foreigners to visit Chimelong.  That means China can keep out any individuals active in animal rights that they choose.
How can SeaWorld just move the orcas to China or other foreign countries?
Those same revisions that gave them ownership of the whales (previously the theme parks were only allowed to display the orcas in trust) gave them blanket permission to ship the orcas anywhere without a permit and just 15 days notice* as long as the destination meets the feeble standards provided by the Animal Welfare Act*, standards that were set in part by the amusement parks themselves.  (*The items marked with an asterisk are corrections from the original).
Here is the relevant part in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as amended:

B) A permit under this paragraph shall grant to the person to which it is issued the right, without obtaining any additional permit or authorization under this Act, to—
(i) take, import, purchase, offer to purchase, possess, or transport the marine mammal that is the subject of the permit; and
(ii) sell, export, or otherwise transfer possession of the marine mammal, or offer to sell, export, or otherwise transfer possession of the marine mammal—
(I) for the purpose of public display, to a person that meets the requirements of clauses (i), (ii), and (iii) of subparagraph (A);
(II) for the purpose of scientific research, to a person that meets the requirements of paragraph (3); or
(III) for the purpose of enhancing the survival or recovery of a species or stock, to a person that meets the requirements of paragraph (4).
(C) Any progeny of a marine mammal born in captivity before the date of the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act Amendments of 1994 [April 30, 1994] and held in captivity for the purpose of public display shall be treated as though born after that date of enactment.

How likely is SeaWorld to chose this course of action? It is impossible to say at this point, but they will do what it takes to stop the financial hemorrhaging before a hostile takeover by another company can happen. They may dump the brand, dump the animals, lick their wounds and become something else entirely, if that is the only course that they see.
It is up to you to let them know that you would again love SeaWorld and what it stands for if they re-invent themselves as a company that wants to preserve the oceans and marine life for future generations. Contact them at SeaWorld Cares.
What else you can do:
Contact your Congress representatives and ask them to put stricter controls on the captive industry.
Sign petitions that come your way, it just takes a few seconds.
*Review MMPA – Introduce/Enforce Ban on Dolphin/Whale Exportation
Free Morgan
End the Captive Breeding Program
Release Tilikum
Force SeaWorld to Pay for Decimating the Southern Resident Orca Population

“Blackfish”, the Film That Exposed SeaWorld, Airs Again Tonight on CNN

Blackfish, the film that centers around the death of SeaWorld trainers and the amusement park’s treatment of orcas, will be shown at 7 pm EST on Saturday, December 20th.  If you miss it, the film is also available on Netflix and can be watched at any time during a free trial.
This film lifts the veils of secrecy and illusion and shines a light on the stark reality of SeaWorld’s circus-like entertainment, and is credited with bringing the amusement park to its financial knees. Lowered attendance, tumbling stock value, and negative public opinion can be traced back to the first opening of Blackfish, and CNN’s decision to promote it widely.  (SunSentinel)
The good news is that SeaWorld’s management is undergoing a massive transformation, and now they have a chance to redeem themselves in the court of public opinion. There are some indications that they are going to become what we would all like to see and experience – an open, accessible park built on helping the marine mammals that are sorely in need, so please watch for opportunities to answer polls and encourage SeaWorld’s board of directors in that direction.
Your opinion really does matter.

Navy Training Along the Pacific Coast – Public Meeting Schedule and Comment Period

December 19, 2014
Release # 14-021Supplement to the Northwest Training and Testing Draft EIS is available for public review and comment.
  • The purpose of the Proposed Action is to ensure that the Navy accomplishes its mission to maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.
  • This mission is achieved in part by training and testing within the NWTT Study Area.
  • The NWTT EIS/OEIS also supports the renewal of federal regulatory permits and authorizations for current training and testing activities and future activities requiring environmental analysis.

SILVERDALE, Wash. – The U.S. Navy has prepared a Supplement to the Northwest Training and Testing (NWTT) Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement (EIS/OEIS), which is available for public review and comment. Following publication of the Draft EIS/OEIS on Jan. 24, 2014, the Navy determined that updated training requirements would result in changes to the Proposed Action. This Supplement presents these changes and significant new information relevant to environmental concerns. The Navy invites you to comment on the Supplement to the Draft EIS/OEIS.

  • The changes presented in the Supplement include an updated requirement for increased use of sonobuoys during training in the Northwest Training Range Complex.
  • The Supplement also addresses additional analysis related to assessing impacts of ongoing maritime security operations.
  • The types of activities that were evaluated include maritime security escorts for Navy vessels such as Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines [SSBNs].
  • Unless specifically included in the Supplement, the activities and analyses of effects to resources described in the original Draft EIS/OEIS remain valid and are included by reference in the Supplement to the Draft EIS/OEIS.
Availability of the Supplement and Public Comment Period:
The Navy is seeking public input on the accuracy and adequacy of the Supplement to the Draft EIS/OEIS. The Supplement is available for public review online at and at the following locations:Washington:
.       Everett Main Library
.       Gig Harbor Library
.       Jefferson County Library – Port Hadlock
.       Kitsap Regional Library – Poulsbo
.       Kitsap Regional Library – Sylvan Way (Bremerton)
.       Oak Harbor Public Library
.       Port Angeles Main Library
.       Port Townsend Public Library
.       Timberland Regional Library – Aberdeen
.       Timberland Regional Library – Hoquiam
.       Astoria Public Library
.       Driftwood Public Library
.       Newport Public Library
.       Tillamook Main Library
.       Hatfield Marine Science Center
Northern California:
.       Fort Bragg Branch Library
.       Humboldt County Public Library,  Arcata Main Library
.       Humboldt County Public Library, Eureka Main Library
.       Redwood Coast Senior Center
Southeastern Alaska:
.       Juneau Public Library, Downtown Branch
.       Ketchikan Public Library
The Navy is accepting comments throughout the 45-day public comment period, from Dec. 19, 2014, toFeb. 2, 2015. All comments must be postmarked or received online by Feb. 2, 2015, in order to be considered in the Final EIS/OEIS.
Written comments may be submitted via the project website, in person at a public meeting, or by mail to:
Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest
Attention: Ms. Kimberly Kler – NWTT EIS/OEIS Project Manager
1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203
Silverdale, WA 98315-1101All public comments received during the original Draft EIS comment period (Jan. 24 -April 15, 2014) are still valid and are being considered in the development of the Final EIS.
Public Meetings:
  • Four open-house meetings will be held to inform the public about the Navy’s findings in the Supplement to the Draft EIS/OEIS, to answer questions, and to solicit public comments on the Supplement.
  • Each public meeting will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. 
  • Comments will be accepted throughout each meeting. The public meetings will be held at the following locations and times:
Monday, Jan. 12, 2015
Poulsbo Fire Station Conference Room
911 NE Liberty Road
Poulsbo, WATuesday, Jan. 13, 2015
Grays Harbor College, Hillier Union Building
1620 Edward P. Smith Drive
Aberdeen, WA
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015
Isaac Newton Magnet School Commons
825 NE Seventh St.
Newport, OR
Friday, Jan. 16, 2015
Eureka Public Marina, Wharfinger Building Great Room
1 Marina Way
Eureka, CA
Individuals requiring reasonable accommodations, please contact Liane Nakahara, Navy Region Northwest Public Affairs Specialist, at 360-396-1630 or
In the NWTT Draft EIS/OEIS that was previously released, the Navy evaluated the potential environmental effects from military readiness training and testing activities conducted primarily within existing range complexes and testing ranges in the NWTT Study Area.
The purpose of the Proposed Action is to ensure that the Navy accomplishes its mission to maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas. This mission is achieved in part by training and testing within the NWTT Study Area. The NWTT EIS/OEIS also supports the renewal of federal regulatory permits and authorizations for current training and testing activities and future activities requiring environmental analysis.
The NWTT Study Area is composed of Navy training and testing range complexes, operating areas, testing facilities, and select Navy pierside locations in the Pacific Northwest.  Aircraft training and testing activities that take place on or within established Navy airfields at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., or Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman, Ore., are not included in this NWTT EIS/OEIS.
Visit the project website at to learn more about the project.

SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison is Stepping Down


The whales can't speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.
The whales can’t speak, they are relying on you to see past the hype and recognize their plight.

Press Release:

Jim Atchison Becomes Vice Chairman; Board Launches Search for Permanent CEO –
– Two New Independent Directors Appointed to Board –

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 11, 2014 /PRNewswire/ — SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS), a leading theme park and entertainment company, today announced that, effective January 15, 2015, Chairman David F. D’Alessandro will serve as the Company’s interim CEO until the Board of Directors (the “Board”) selects a permanent successor to current CEO and President, Jim Atchison, who will become Vice Chairman of the Board. Mr. D’Alessandro, who has been Chairman of the Company’s Board since 2010, will continue in that position. He served as Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of John Hancock Financial Services from 2000 to 2004, having served as President and Chief Operating Officer of the same entity from 1996 to 2000.
In addition, Mr. Atchison will serve as a consultant to the Company with respect to international expansion and the Company’s conservation initiatives. The Company will also nominate Mr. Atchison to serve as the chairman of the board of the not-for-profit, independent SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.
“On behalf of the entire Board, I’d like to thank Jim for his contributions to the Company and express our ongoing support for our long-term strategy. Jim has helped the Company realize its vision of becoming a leader in the theme park industry, one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal care,” Mr. D’Alessandro said. “We remain committed to our growth agenda and enhancing value for our shareholders. The Board intends to complete the search process deliberately and thoughtfully to find the right individual with the experience and qualifications to lead the Company into the future.”
“It has been an honor to lead SeaWorld,” said Mr. Atchison. “I am so proud of this Company and our dedicated team members. I look forward to serving as Vice Chairman and continuing to work with the Board, David, and our exceptional team to assure a smooth transition,” said Mr. Atchison.
The Board of Directors, which expects to complete the search in six to nine months, has engaged a leading executive search firm to assist in the search for Mr. Atchison’s successor.
In addition, the Board of Directors appointed two new independent directors, The Honorable Ellen Tauscher, a strategic advisor at the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC who previously served as a Member of Congress and as an Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of State, and Mr. William Gray, the former Co-Chief Executive Officer of Ogilvy North America of Ogilvy & Mather Inc. Their appointments are effective immediately.
In announcing the Board’s appointment of Ms. Tauscher and Mr. Gray, Mr. D’Alessandro said, “We are delighted to welcome Ellen and Bill to the Board. They bring us an extraordinary breadth and depth of experience relevant to the Company’s business.”
The Company continues to advance its previously announced company-wide cost initiative, including its plan to deliver approximately $50 million of annual cost savings by the end of 2015. As part of that plan, the Company also announced today a restructuring program across its entire 11-park enterprise. This effort will centralize some operations, reduce duplication of functions and increase efficiencies and accelerate execution. The restructuring will result in the loss of some positions, and the Company will offer severance benefits to those impacted.
“In order to achieve the goals of our business realignment, we regret that some positions will necessarily be eliminated. However, our cost savings effort is part of a broader program to position us for long term growth,” Mr. Atchison said.

– See more at:

Another Endangered Southern Resident Orca Has Died, Population is Now 77.

J 32, photo by Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research).
J 32, photo by Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research).

Young adult Southern Resident female orca found dead in Georgia Strait according to the Center for Whale Research

A deceased orca was found earlier today near Courtenay, BC in northwest Georgia Strait and was identified as 18-year old J32, known as Rhapsody. Photos sent by Canada’s Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans were identified by Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research. J pod last visited Puget Sound in late November, and J32 was last identified and photographed with her family November 26 east of Victoria BC by the Center for Whale Research.
J32 was thought by many to be in the late stages of pregnancy last summer due to her wide girth when she breached, as she often did.
A necropsy Saturday led by Dr. Stephen Raverty will reveal if she was indeed pregnant and hopefully will find the cause of death. She was believed to have died in the past 24 to 48 hours.
J32’s mother was J20, who died in 1998 when Rhapsody was only 2 years old. She was raised by her aunt, J22 Oreo. She is survived by J22 and her cousins J34 Doublestuf and J38 Cookie, leaving only three survivors of the former J10 matriline, and only 77 members of the Southern Resident Community.
We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea. This loss bring the overall number of Southern Resident orcas below their number in 2005 when they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The loss of J32 marks the fourth death of a Southern Resident orca in 2014. The last surviving Southern Resident baby was born in August of 2012.

Howard Garrett
Orca Network

Humpback Whales Intervene in Orca Attack on Gray Whale Calf (2012)

Please share widely, I am reposting the work I did for Digital Journal here in protest of their treatment of the journalist Elizabeth Batt.  I have asked them to remove my articles but have gotten no reply, so decided to publish it here at the Seattle Post Intelligencer which doesn’t throw its contributors under the bus and who still believe in free press.
MAY 8, 2012
Monterey – In what is probably the first time such an event has been witnessed and recorded, humpback whales appeared to try to intervene when a pod of killer whales attacked a baby gray whale.
Spring is a dynamic time for whale watching in Monterey Bay, California – gray whales are migrating north with calves in tow, blue whales move into the area to feed, and humpback whales return from their winter migration. Transient orcas (killer whales) are also present, as this eco-type of orca utilizes other marine mammals as a primary food source.
Skilled at killing even large whales, they regularly take the calves of gray whales – hard as it is to witness, this is a normal predator/prey relationship. But what occurred on May 3rd, 2012 in full view of whale watchers was nothing short of remarkable.
Gray Whale Calf: this calf was completely exhausted, under attack by the orcas for at least 30 minutes. Its mother is holding it up. © Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Monterey Bay Whale Watch
Through the hazy overcast skies, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat captain John Mayer on the SeaWolf ll, spotted the whales in the distance and knew something unusual was going on. As the boat drew closer to the scene, whale watchers were stunned by what they saw. A pod of approximately nine transient orcas was in the process of trying to separate a new calf from its mother, but what amazed even the seasoned captain and crew was the presence of two large humpback whales which may have been trying to intervene.
Two humpbacks were present throughout the attack, and were joined shortly after the attack ended by five more. © Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Monterey Bay Whale Watch

The mother gray whale struggled valiantly to save her calf, lifting it out of the water to breathe, but she was no match for the coordinated attack as the orcas repeatedly grabbed the fatigued calf and flipped it upside down to prevent it from breathing. During the half hour that the first group of whale watchers observed the contest for survival, the two humpbacks splashed, ‘trumpeted’, and moved in as close as a body length from the grey whale mother and her calf.

At this point, whale researchers Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black arrived on the scene in Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat Pt. Sur Clipper, and continued to observe the unusual encounter for nearly seven hours. Shortly after their arrival the baby whale was killed, and the mother took temporary refuge by their boat before heading towards shore.
Schulman-Janiger said  that first two, then three more humpbacks joined the original pair, and the seven humpbacks “repeatedly followed the orcas, trumpet blowing, tail slashing, rolling, and head raising. They kept returning to the area of the carcass where the orcas were ripping into the blubber of the dead calf”.
A humpback whale follows a subgroup of orcas. This was the most common orientation seen: humpbacks following the orcas (rather than the reverse), sometimes at increased speeds. © Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Monterey Bay Whale Watch

Researcher Nancy Black speculated that these humpback whales may have been protecting the carcass, making it more difficult for the orcas to feed, but without underwater cameras it is difficult to be certain.

“What we do know”, said Schulman-Janiger, “is that these humpback whales seemed EXTREMELY distressed: nearly every surfacing over the entire observation period was accompanied by trumpet blows. They even put themselves into potential harm’s way by diving right next to the gray whale mom – where her calf was under attack”. She noted that humpback whales were documented to have rescued a seal from orcas in the Antarctic, and underscored the importance of continuing to protect these whales while we gain more understanding.
Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, is a renowned expert in the cognitive ability of whales and dolphins and she shared her opinion of this remarkable event:

This is apparently a case of humpback whales trying to help a member of another cetacean species. This shows that they are capable of tremendous behavioral flexibility, giving even more credence to reports of cetaceans coming to the aid of human beings. They seem to have the capacity to generalize from one situation to another and from one kind of being to another. Moreover, they seem to sympathize with members of other species and have the motivation to help.
One reason may be that humpback whales, and many other cetaceans, have specialized cells in their brains called Von Economo neurons (“spindle cells”) and these are shared with humans, great apes, and elephants. The exact function of these elongated neurons is still unknown but they are found in exactly the same locations in all mammal brains for the species that have them.
What is intriguing is that these parts of the mammal brain are thought to be responsible for social organization, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid “gut” reactions. So the presence of these cells is neurological support for the idea that cetaceans are capable of empathy and higher-order thinking and feeling.
In either case these whales are apparently demonstrating a high level of sensitivity and concern (morality, if you will) that is laudable in any species.

The seven humpbacks sometimes stayed in a very tight group, and other times broke up into subgroups. © Alisa Schulman-Janiger/Monterey Bay Whale Watch