Monday, September 26, 2011

L90 Update: September 11, 2011

L90 in Haro Strait, September 11- Photo by Dave Ellifrit

We have been episodically monitoring L90 - taking respiration rates, surfacing/ 
dive intervals/traveling speed, and videotaping , as well as taking good-quality close-up photos of her melon, etc. 

She continues to consistently trail the other whales and  is breathing at frequent intervals ranging from 20 sec-120 sec, with  
most in 30 second range. Her dives are typically shallow (often visible underwater at about 60'), and when observed the in calm water near East Point on September 20th, she was making brief  vocalizations between breaths. At the time, she was lagging behind the other whales by about one and a half miles. Her surfacing posture  is unusual - when logging she "bobs" for each breath, and when traveling she surfaces horizontally and then dives rather  "stiffly", as if there is a problem with her spine. She has been doing this since July 6, before the alleged vessel strike. 

We recently noted her surfacing about 100 feet behind a yacht wake  and she appeared to be thrown off balance from the wake. She was also observed rolling on her side going through kelp. She does not show evidence any emaciation. The most notable aspect of all of this, and it is also notable for other ailing/trailing whales we have monitored in the past: there is little to no obvious care-giving behavior exhibited by the other whales. Presumably she is eating, otherwise she would show evidence of emaciation.  

We all have concerns for the fate of this whale, but there is very little that anyone can do but observe. This has happened before, and it will happen again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Audio slide show with Ken Balcomb:

Two Endangered Icons: Southern Resident Killer Whales and Chinook Salmon

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

L90 Update

L90 in Haro Strait on September 3rd, Photo by Dave Ellifrit
After the alleged vessel strike last week and the recent unusual behavior displayed by female killer whale, L90, the Center for Whale Research staff had an an opportunity to further observe her condition on Saturday September 3rd.  This was the first time she had been seen since the incident. The following is a summery of that encounter:

"After receiving a report of whales on the west side of San Juan Island in the early morning, Center staff cast off from Snug Harbor in vessel Orca at 8:15 a.m. and found members of J,K, and L pods heading north in Haro Strait off Limekiln lighthouse at 8:25 a.m., spread out in singles and groups. The main mission of the day was to find L90 and monitor her health and behavior, so we moved from group to group trying to locate her.
Around 9:15 a.m., we found L90’s main traveling companions, L26 and L92, in the proximity of J pod members near Kelp Reef, moving rapidly north in Haro Strait. About a half-mile to the southeast of this group at 9:33 a.m., we found L90 traveling north by herself at slow to medium speed.  She was trailing the other whales by as much as 3/4 mile and never less than 200 yards.  We collected respiration data on L90 for two periods from 9:40-10:46 a.m. and 1243-1342 a.m., during which times she was breathing regularly at intervals averaging 33.6 seconds and 29.9 seconds, respectively. Meanwhile, the rest of the whales traveled north in Haro Strait, and then northeast into Boundary Pass. During these two data recording periods, L90 only made one “long” dive of 180 seconds which was immediately followed by her shortest recorded dive of 8 seconds.  Her swimming speed was 4.4 and 4.6 knots, respectively, during the data recording periods.

When sea conditions and proximity allowed proper observations, it was apparent that L90 was not diving deeply and her surfacing motion seemed stiff – often with more of her back behind the dorsal fin exposed than a healthy whale would have exposed on a normal surfacing.  However, she showed no visible signs of emaciation and did not have foul smelling breath, two common indicators of illness. Based on our observations it is clear that her behavior is abnormal, however the cause remains unknown.

Around 2:15 p.m., as the leading whales picked up speed near East Point, L90 also increased speed and caught up to the other whales just north of East Point. She joined with L26 and L92, and the three traveled rapidly (>7 knots) NNW toward Point Roberts amidst other loosely spread, rapidly moving, mixed groups of southern residents. We ended the encounter at 2:51 p.m. approximately 3 miles north of East Point."

L90 was again encountered the following day, September 4th, and appeared to exhibit the same behavior. We will be taking every opportunity to continue to observe L90's condition and will provide subsequent reports.

Friday, August 26, 2011

L90's Alleged Vessel Strike

The Center for Whale Research received a report this morning of a potential vessel strike with a southern resident killer whale. The whale that was believed to be struck is L90, an 18 year old female. Witnesses described the whale logging, or floating at the surface, for a prolonged period after a private vessel was observed passing very close to where the whale was thought to be. L90 was then reported to remain on the surface and was breathing heavily. Once we received the report we quickly departed and found L90 with her mother, L26 just off Lime Kiln State Park. She was moving slowly and spending several minutes resting at the surface. She was taking shallow dives and barely moving north with the rest of the whales. We were able to observe her very closely and found no evidence of a vessel strike. On numerous occasions she spent several minutes hovering just below the surface of the water allowing us to get a good look at most of her body, and we did not see any wounds or scratches. We continued to follow her for a few hours and observed that she eventually began to travel at a more normal pace, although remaining behind the rest of the groups of whales. The other whales in the area were behaving normally, resting, foraging and socializing. Based on our observations and descriptions of the event from witnesses, we do not believe that L90 was struck by the vessel. Based on her age and previous behavior we have concluded that she may be pregnant. It is also possible that she may be ill or have some unknown condition.

On several encounters this summer, we have noticed L90 traveling slowly by herself in a rather “mopey” manner. L90 has always been a “whale of concern” to those of us that see her frequently. She is a noticeably a small animal compared to other females who have reached reproductive age.

Additionally, there seems to be something unusual about L90’s body condition. Her body shape is different from every other whale in the L26 matriline. She appears to have a kind of a two-lobed swelling behind the blowhole and a slight arch to her spine in front of the dorsal fin. Whether this swelling is just excess blubber or a sign of illness, we do not know. The only other whale who has been seen with a similar looking swelling behind the blowhole was L107, a calf born in 2005 who did not survive its first summer. It is certainly a different look from the emaciated “peanuthead” look that we have previously seen in several whales who subsequently died.

The slow moving and logging behavior she exhibited today and yesterday may be a sign of that she is in labor and therefore very tierd. She is a whale that we would expect to have a calf at any time since she has passed the age when most females have had their first calf ( about age 14). Although we have no concrete information to support this, we do have concerns that her small body size may make for a complicated pregnancy and birth. Labor pains or a difficult pregnancy could explain her behavior.

The other possibility, that she is ill, is supported by previous observations in other animals. In the summer of 2008 L67(deceased) was observed floating for prolonged periods at the surface before she showed any signs of the emaciated condition that proceeded her death. Therefore L90 could also be showing signs of distress due to an unknown illness.

With respect to today's event, we suspect she may have been laying on or near the surface already when the vessel passed close by, but most likely missed her. It is very difficult to determine distances between vessels or between whales and vessels from the water level. Therefore she may have appeared closer to the vessel than she was.

In any case, we will continue to observe L90 over the next few days. Our hope is that the next time we see her she is traveling with a healthy new born calf.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Southern Resident Orca Population Status (With Notes On J-1)

2010 ended well for the Southern Residents.  The total population as of December 31st was 87 individuals: 27 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 41 in L pod.  By the end of the year, 5 of the 6 calves born in 2010 were alive and healthy.  We had one edition to J pod, J47 (calf of J17); one edition to K pod, K43 (calf of K12); and 3 in L pod, L115 (calf of L47), L116 (calf of L86), and L117 (mother unknown).

So far 2011 has been full of sightings and encounters.  J’s, K’s and L87 have been seen often in Haro Strait and Puget Sound.  They were first encountered by the Center on January 3rd in Haro Strait, then again on the 7th.  J’s and K’s were also encountered in Haro Strait and San Juan Channel on the 23rd and 26th  respectively.  Residents were sighted at least once a week throughout January (eight confirmed sightings in all). February has been even better with almost daily sightings of J’s and K’s in Puget Sound (eight sightings since Feb. 20th)

There was a possible sighting of L pod on January 15th. Most likely the L12’s, but because of the distant photos we can’t say for sure.  Ken encountered L pod spread out and foraging off Monterey Bay on February 10th.  There have been several killer whale sightings on the west coast of Oregon and California this winter, but no other southern resident sightings have been confirmed. 

No new calves have yet been seen in 2011.  It is still too early in the year to have an official population estimate as not all individuals have been accounted for.  However, there have been several encounters and sightings of J pod where J1 has not been seen or photographed.  

 J1 is the oldest male in the southern resident community, estimated to be 60 years old.  He is an iconic figure for the entire population and by far the most easily identifiable whale.  His tall wavy fin has given him the name “Ruffles” and made him a favorite among visitors and local whale enthusiasts.   He was last seen on November 21st off Victoria. 

Although there have been several encounters with J’s over the past few months, the pod configuration has been spread out and all individuals were not photographed.  Although J1 is most often seen in the presence of J2, the eldest female in J pod, he is frequently sighted off on his own far away from the rest of the pod.   

 At this point all we can say is that J1 is officially missing.  We will be keeping an eye out for him as we head into spring and encounters and sightings increase.   

Posted by Erin Heydenreich

Candace Calloway Whiting