Monday, August 19, 2013

Whale Pages from the San Juan Journal

Every August we do a special informational page in the local paper, the San Juan Journal, all about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.  This year, Director Ken Baclomb is the author. We thought we would share them with all of you who don't have access to the San Juan Journal!

Keeping an eye on local Orca whales 

            Whales of any species can be individually recognized by their natural shapes and color patterns using a technique called “photo-identification” that was pioneered in the 1960’s and 70’s by biologists at San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research. The local “killer whales”, now affectionately known as Orca, are among the most distinctively appearing whales in the world, and many individuals can be easily recognized by naturalists and admirers of wildlife. To assist with this recognition, a photo-identification catalogue of every individual orca whale common to the Pacific Northwest has been maintained by biologists at the Center since 1976, and it is updated every year.
Above, L54 and her three offspring are shown as a family tree. 
The matriarch, L54, is at the top, with her descendants below, eldest to 
youngest from left to right. L117, who’s sex is unknown, is the youngest of 
L54’s calves, born in 2010. New born calves often have a grey and mottled 
looking saddle patch. Because calves stay close to their mothers for the first 
year or so of their life, they are often identified by their association with
their mother rather than their saddle patch. To identify older individual whales, 
look closely at the details of the saddle patch of each animal in the subgroup. 
Every orca whale has a distinct and unique saddle patch, 
much like a human fingerprint,  unlike any other whale in the world.


As a result of this cataloguing some very remarkable facts have been uncovered about the local Orca whales and about their species worldwide. For example, their natural lifespan is long (comparable to human lifespan to eighty or more years) and they travel in family groups (known as “pods”) swimming 75 miles per day on average. Three of these family groups, designated J,K, and L pods, are frequently seen travelling back and forth around the San Juan Islands from May to October; and, they have been termed “resident”. Other family groups and individuals are typically less frequently seen around the San Juan Islands; and, they have been termed “transient”. From long-term observation and genetic studies it has been learned that the “residents” and “transients” do not mix and interbreed – they are very, very distant relatives, somewhat analogous to Humans and Neanterthals but both living at the same time, and in the same general area.
            In fact, when we extend these individual and genetic studies we find that there are probably ten or more distantly related large branches of the Orca family tree worldwide that do not naturally mix or interbreed, and they have been on this planet much longer than we Humans have. Scientists are just now trying to determine whether this arrangement constitutes a complex of many species, and why. Nonetheless, we have a very precious “resident” population here in the San Juans, and they have been recently affirmed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act and Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
            The questions are out there, from deep pondering about the roles that species play in the web of life on Earth, to what time will the whales be seen at Lime Kiln whale-watch park. We do not yet have all of the answers, but if we keep our eye on the welfare of our precious local Orca whales we may just have a chance to find out how “our” world works, and maybe we will be smart enough to keep it working.
Eyepatches are important too!
Orca eyepatches are also an important marking
used for identification. Eyepatches, the white
patch above the eye, are unique to individuals just like
saddle patches. Sometimes we can’t get a good look at
the saddle patch, say when a whale spyhops, but we
can use the eyepatch instead to identify the individual.
This eyepatch photo is of the newest calf in L pod L119.

            In future editions of these Whale Pages, we will provide additional information about our famous Orca whales.

Ken Balcomb
Center for Whale Research

Don't forget!  Membership Helps!  
To become a member of the Center for Whale Research and learn more about our local killer whale populations go to our website:


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