An unprecedented effort is underway to return illegally caught whales to the wild in the far northwest Pacific Ocean, but what about the one who just won’t leave? While the four other orcas released into the ocean seem to have adapted to life in the wild, Alexandra has chosen to hang out with the fishermen who provide her with salmon.
[Video originally posted on the Russian Orcas Facebook page.]
Why the whales are being freed
The heartbreaking photos of nearly 100 whales suffering in iced-over pens off the southern coast of Russia changed the trajectory of their lives and set them on a path to freedom.
It was public knowledge that 12 orca calves and around 90 belugas had been illegally captured and were being warehoused in marginal conditions, but it never really hit home until the world saw the pictures. The sight of frostbitten calves huddled together for warmth in their nearly frozen-over pool galvanized a response, even from those who approve of the captive display of whales and dolphins.
The public outcry that resulted from the images, teamed with the expense of maintaining the whales and the illegality of the captures, tipped the balance in favor of releasing the orcas and belugas. It was a momentous decision, never before attempted.
Five of the ten orcas (two others mysteriously disappeared while in captivity) have been returned to the ocean, with mixed results. At this point, all are believed to have survived. The first two, released at the end of June, seem to have adapted back to life in the wild. Of the last three, the two older calves have been tracked about 100 miles away from the release site.
Alexandra, only two or three years old, has found friends among the fishermen where she was released. And that could be a problem when winter sets in.
Alexandra and the other calves are often referred to as the “Srednyaya orcas” because they were held captive there, in the Sea of Japan, but they originated far to the north in the Sea of Okhotsk. Their release site is in the Gulf of Sakhalin (in the Sea of Okhotsk).
Genetic tests show that Alexandra is a type of orca that normally hunts marine mammals (variously known as transients, Biggs, or T-type). From Russian Orcas:
Orcas in Srednyaya Bay are mammal-eaters!
We confirm that all 10 orcas kept in Srednyaya Bay belong to the North Pacific mammal-eating ecotype, also called ‘transients’ or ‘Bigg’s killer whales’ in Canada and the US, and T-type killer whales in Russia.
This was determined by FEROP experts through sequencing their mitochondrial DNA control region haplotype.
Alexandra is trained to accept fish even though it’s not her normal diet. If she continues to be fed she will have a chance of surviving long enough to be reunited with her family.
What should happen now to assure Alexandra’s successful assimilation into the natural world?
Probably the best option is to follow the recommendations of scientists for her to continue to be fed until the next group of orca calves is transported to that area for release. The whole group will need time to bond with each other before being freed. It’s likely that the older calves know how to hunt the prey they evolved to eat, and together the group may successfully readapt to the wild.
A second option is that by using genetic tests and recorded vocalizations scientists can manage to identify and locate her family. This is not a simple task, but it has been done before – a lost orca was matched using those methods in the Netherlands – although that case is still tied up in the courts and she has remained in captivity in Loro Parque, Spain.
[hdnfactbox title=”Orcas: Black and White Gold”] The orcas were captured to be sold to aquariums and amusement parks in China and other countries.
Each orca calf has a market value of 5 – 6 million dollars US.
The whales were caught illegally – the permits were for education and research, not display.
Over 20 biologists, philanthropists, and conservationists signed a letter to President Putin requesting the release of the whales, and an online petition garnered over a million signatures.
It is political will, driven largely by popular opinion, that can make a difference for Alexandra.
The expense of even attempting to locate Alexandra’s family may be prohibitive but the knowledge gained about the local orca populations would justify the effort even if no match is found.
There is a possibility that she was taken so young that she will still prefer to hang out and get fed, but that can be dangerous for her as well.
In 2001 L 98 (Luna), a lost calf from the Southern Resident orcas won the hearts of everyone who knew his story ( This enchantingly adorable wild killer whale calf befriended and pranked people for years. (Video) ), but the politics of the time meant that no effort was mounted to return him to his family before his untimely death.
This charming film was made about Luna’s life and the people who loved the merry prankster:
There’s hope for a better outcome for Alexandra, as more is learned with each release. Also, because unlike Luna she is trained to accept food as a reward for her behavior she may be able to live free and friendly.
One way or the other, we’ll watch her story unfold.
[hdnfactbox title=”Beluga Whales; Canaries of the Sea”]
Belugas are known as the “canaries of the sea” because they produce many different sounds, including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks. They rely on their hearing and ability to echolocate, using sound to navigate and hunt for prey. Belugas also have sharp vision both in and out of water.
Beluga whales have a varied diet consisting of octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, snails, and sandworms. They also eat a variety of fishes, including salmon, cod, sole, herring, smelt, and flounder. (NOAA)[/hdnfactbox]
Beluga whale. Photo Credit: NOAA