Orca whales’ amazing ability to imitate people, each other, and in Luna’s case a boat motor (video)

Even though the young orca in the video above is likely being cued and rewarded for imitating people, it shows the whales’ remarkable similarity to humans in that the orcas possess the ability to copy what they observe –  in this case, the behavior of another species (humans) behind a glass barrier where the whales are not even able to use their full senses.  Their phenomenal sound perception is useless to them in this visual task.

Read more about Luna
Scientists acknowledge that this ability most likely contributes to their development of different cultures in the wild throughout the world:

Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Comparative experimental studies of imitative learning have focused mainly on primates and birds. However, cetaceans are promising candidates to display imitative learning as they have evolved in socioecological settings that have selected for large brains, complex sociality, and coordinated predatory tactics. Here we tested imitative learning in killer whales, Orcinus orca. We used a ‘do-as-other-does’ paradigm in which 3 subjects witnessed a conspecific demonstrator’s performance that included 15 familiar and 4 novel behaviours. The three subjects (1) learned the copy command signal ‘Do that’ very quickly, that is, 20 trials on average; (2) copied 100 % of the demonstrator’s familiar and novel actions; (3) achieved full matches in the first attempt for 8–13 familiar behaviours (out of 15) and for the 2 novel behaviours (out of 2) in one subject; and (4) took no longer than 8 trials to accurately copy any familiar behaviour, and no longer than 16 trials to copy any novel behaviour. This study provides experimental evidence for body imitation, including production imitation, in killer whales that is comparable to that observed in dolphins tested under similar conditions. These findings suggest that imitative learning may underpin some of the group-specific traditions reported in killer whales in the field.

But what about in captivity? Do the orcas have an opportunity to learn by observing each other? At Seaworld, San Diego, the orcas have a hobby of hunting birds by baiting them with fish – at least three different whales do this – did they learn from each other?

If the orcas do learn this hunting technique from each other, what other behaviors do they learn, unperceived by people?
Dr. Ken Norris, a pioneer in the study of marine mammals, often speculated on how whales and dolphins might use their sonar to look into each others bodies and therefore be able to observe subtle physical cues that we can’t see. (Personal communication).
Ultimately, this ability to imitate is another reason why captivity fails these whales – a young whale who learns a language of behavior and sound in one park probably finds it worthless when moved to another, perpetuating the cycle of aggression.
And who knows what they teach each other about people, other than the wild whales that are taught not to harm us.

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.

The Southern Resident killer whales lost another member – there are now only 75 left

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the absence of 23 year old L92, Crewser. He was in the prime of life.

The remaining Southern Residents have changed their use of the Salish Sea – which includes Puget Sound and extends up to the Georgia Strait in Canada – and may eventually find this region an unsuitable habitat for their needs unless we move swiftly and decisively to restore Chinook salmon populations.
From the Center for Whale Research media release:

On Monday, June 11, more than 50 Southern Resident killer whales returned to inland waters, including J pod, L87, and most but not all of L pod. It has been nearly 2 months since J pod whales and L87 have been seen in local waters, an unusually long break but not unexpected based on trends in the past decade.
In recent years, encounter data and sighting data compiled by the Center for Research show that the Southern Residents have been spending fewer days in inland waters in the April-May time frame.
This trend parallels a decline in the abundance of the Fraser River spring Chinook salmon runs. Based on data from the Albion Test Chinook Test Fishery on the Fraser River, the number of Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River has been unusually low so far in 2018.

For more details and find out how to help, please see previous article.

The orcas we know and love are finally back – will they stay all summer?

Southern Resident killer whales in search of Chinook salmon might give up and go somewhere else if they don’t find enough to eat.

Star (J46) in 2016 with her mother Polaris (J28) and brother Dipper (J54). Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

In 47 years of observation by the Center for Whale Research (CWR), this is the first year that there were no sightings of any of the Southern Resident orcas in May. Last summer they were barely in the inland waterways around the San Juan Islands in Washington State or the neighboring Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada.
The dismal and depressing realization that what CWR senior scientist Ken Balcomb has been warning everyone who would listen has come to pass;  the lack of a dependable source of Chinook salmon means that these whales will starve to extinction or just change their summer feeding strategy entirely and go elsewhere.
But there is hope, and not just for the whales – people are empowering themselves to help fix the salmon crisis. There’s been a shift in the public psyche as people give up on governments that have dragged their feet for decades, and instead ask themselves what they can do to help…then do it.
Case in point – what is missing from this video?

Where are the hordes of boats? Even when more boats accompanied these whales later there was little to no detectable underwater engine noise reported on hydrophones. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has self-imposed voluntary reductions in speed and distance from the whales and spend more time with the other local orcas – the Transients, which are dynamic and interesting orcas in their own light.
While the boats are dedicated to making it easier for the orcas to capture salmon by reducing engine noise, that is only part of the problem. Salmon have been scarce, and lack of food is affecting both birth rates and maternal deaths.
Two thirds of the pregnancies fail, often in the last months of the 17 month gestation.
From the Center for Whale Research:

The females are getting pregnant; however, two thirds to three quarters of the conceptions apparently result in miscarriage, although this statistic may in part be due to a natural predator response to a limiting carrying capacity of prey.
It is the late-term miscarriages that are most risky to the mother’s survival, and we have seen an increase of these mortalities in recent years with necropsies evidencing birth complications and prolapsed uterus as contributing to death.
This grisly observation argues for a year-round versus episodic sufficient supply of suitable prey to feed these large iconic mammals through a pregnancy cycle – an eight thousand pound pregnant female whale requires about 4-5% of her body weight per day (320-400 pounds!) of suitable prey.

In the summer and fall of 2016 researchers and naturalists saw this happen as a dedicated orca mother and her dependent calf slowly died, leaving only her older calf, Star (J46) alive.
When her mother and last brother (a previous brother had been found dead, having barely survived birth) were losing their struggle against hunger and disease, Star did her best. She brought them whatever salmon she could find and supported them until they took their last breaths.
Read this compelling story on the Stranding Network.

Graphic by Haze Summer

It’s clear – if we don’t restore the salmon we’ll lose the whales along with the dependable spring salmon that characterizes life in the Pacific Northwest.

How to help (more suggestions can be found following at the bottom of the page here):

Sign the petition to remove obsolete dams

If the lower Snake River dams were breached, it would double or triple survival rates, restoring many millions of fish to the Columbia Basin.
• Give the orcas a fighting chance to recover by increasing their food supply.
• Breaching costs the state nothing. The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion

Save Our Wild Salmon

With its historic productivity, low human population, and remaining pockets of large, high, pristine and well protected habitat, the Columbia and Snake River Basin represents our nation’s best opportunity to restore the large numbers of Chinook salmon that endangered, hungry orcas need to survive and recover.

David Suzuki Foundation

The fate of the Salish Sea orcas hangs in the balance.
These 76 orcas — also known as the southern resident killer whales — are Canada’s most endangered marine mammal. Immediate actions are needed to set up refuges, reduce acoustic noise, address pollution and protect chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey. Climate change and a projected seven-fold increase in tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion make immediate action more urgent than ever.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation

The Pacific Salmon Foundation was established in 1987 as an independent, nongovernmental, charitable organization to protect, conserve and restore wild Pacific salmon populations in British Columbia and the Yukon. Today, the Foundation galvanizes the breadth of vested stakeholders to support Pacific salmon from stream to estuary to ocean.
The Foundation: 
Raises money and makes grants to volunteer community groups that conserve and restore streams across the province.Manages watershed initiatives in British Columbia that catalyze industry, First Nations, provincial and federal governments, and other non-profits.
Advances science to improve the understanding of factors that limit the abundance of Pacific salmon.
Works with government to prioritize and facilitate strategic salmon conservation in the province.

Killer whales need protected space – lawsuit looms against the current administration’s failure to act

Trump Administration Stalls Protections as Southern Resident Killer Whale Population Drops to 76

Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours

SEATTLE— “The Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal notice today pressing the Trump administration to protect ocean habitat off California, Oregon and Washington to save the last remaining Southern Resident killer whales.
Today’s notice points out that the administration has unlawfully delayed critical habitat designations sought by the Center in a 2014 petition under the Endangered Species Act.
Endangered Southern Residents live along the Pacific Coast and are starving for lack of their preferred prey, spring chinook salmon. Other threats to these orcas’ survival include oil spills, water pollution and vessel noise.
“These iconic orcas are going extinct, but the Trump administration has proposed oil leases rather than protections for their habitat,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney and marine scientist at the Center. “The Southern Residents desperately need protected foraging areas full of salmon to feed them through the winter. Without swift federal action, these whales will continue their steep slide to extinction.”
Courtesy of the Center for Whale Conservation

The threat of legal action comes just a week after the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission met in Seattle. Experts there warned of the crisis facing Southern Residents with a steep population decline to only 76 whales and few calves born. There were calls for urgent action, including habitat protections, to prevent their extinction.
Responding to the Center’s petition in 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it would expand habitat protections in 2017 to safeguard key foraging and migration areas off the West Coast. Yet the Trump administration has failed to act, despite broad public support.
“These incredible orcas should not become victims of the Trump administration’s policy of blocking science-based protections for the environment,” said Kilduff. “With extinction right around the corner, Southern Residents can’t afford to wait for help.”
Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

Photo credit: Center for Whale Research
While spending their summers in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, areas protected as critical habitat in 2006, these killer whales travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. The Center petitioned in 2014 to protect areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat (see map).
The death of the two-year-old male orca known as “J52” in 2017 came as the population dipped from 83 in 2016 to only 76 individuals today, the biggest year-to-year decline ever recorded. The death was confirmed by the Center for Whale Research, which reported malnutrition was likely the cause.
Today’s notice, which typically precedes the filing of a lawsuit, outlines how the Fisheries Service’s failure to act on the Center’s 2014 petition violates federal law. The letter asks the agency to propose habitat protections by August 6.”  Media Release.