Thursday, May 28, 2009

Their milk, and ours, is it safe to drink?

The milk that Orca mothers provide their babies is incredibly rich, up to 43% fat, which is a higher fat content than pure whipping cream. Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food™ ice cream is only about 42% fat, including the caramel and chocolate fishes!
In contrast, human milk contains, on average, just 4.2 % fat, or about 1/10th of the fat that mother whales must provide to nourish their calves.

The mother whales utilize their own fat deposits, especially in lean times, to provide the nutrition needed to make the ice cream-rich milk need to keep their babies alive.

Yet the mother’s milk may have long term detrimental effects.

Along with all the good nutrition, high levels of toxins are transferred to the mother’s milk. This has the effect of reducing the mom’s toxic load but at a price that no mother would choose.
A first born calf receives most of the mother’s lifetime stores of organochlorines for example, which the calf will continue to add to over the course of it’s own lifetime as it dines on contaminated prey. Our residential pods prefer Chinook salmon and the Chinook from Puget Sound may contain the highest levels of certain contaminants that have been measured on the west coast.

And unfortunately, we are in the same boat. Human breastmilk also shows significant levels of those pollutants, and the Washington State Department of Health has made this handy chart to help us avoid a toxic overload:

Healthy Fish Guide Eat Fish, Be Smart, Choose Wisely
This guide is for everyone - especially women who might become pregnant, are pregnant, are nursing, or young children. The fish in the green column are great choices so enjoy! If you choose fish from the yellow column enjoy and eat only once a week and do not eat any other fish meals that week. The red column are fish that should be avoided by women who might become pregnant, are pregnant, are nursing, or young children. Our toxicologists have created the Healthy Fish Guide and a checklist to keep your exposure to contaminants like mercury and PCBs low and to help you gain the health benefits that you get from eating fish.

If only whales could read...

What does all this mean for the new calves? It's not all bad news, which we will examine soon!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Don't Forget the Cetaceans that have Served Us!

In memory of Ahab and Ishmael, two Orcas utilized by the navy in the early 70's. They served us too.

Click here for more information on the role of marine mammals in the navy.

Photo by Dave Ellifrit.
J27 while horsing around with J30 and J34 (just beneath the surface) south of Enterprise Reef near Active Pass.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

One of these Killer Whales is Almost 100 years Old...

CWR 2009 Photo by Erin Heydenreich

...and the other is in his fifties!

These two whales were the first of their pod to be identified by Ken Balcomb back in the late 70s when scientists realized that every Orca has a
distinct pattern of markings. J1 is the impressive male with the characteristically tall dorsal fin, and J2 is tucked in behind him. Because of their relative ages and the fact that the pair is together so often, most likely they are mother and son.
J1 is 58 years old, and his mom is almost 100.

The concept that Orcas can live so long in the wild is just amazing -- we can only imagine the changes that J2 has witnessed over the course of her lifetime, and what remarkable adaptations she has had to make.

This photo of Pike Place Market was taken in 1911, about the time that J2 was born -- and shows more horses and buggies than cars!
Pike Place Market circa 1911 (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington). Salmon were abundant then and the water less polluted. She was born before TV and not long after the first flight by the Wright brothers. Before scuba tanks or sonar, antibiotics or bandaids, and even before
sliced bread!

It is remarkable that she has led her family and navigated so much change, and we can only hope that the Orcas have enough resilience to withstand the current dismal salmon situation. Our resident Orca pods were seen off California periodically this winter, which prompted me to ask Ken if he thought the whales would permanently move out of our area. He replied that they will probably stay here, but that they will have to go where they can find fish or starve.

So - you might want to take advantage of this great weather we're having and take a trip up to look for our venerable matriarch, she was spotted last Wednesday right off shore at San Juan Island. There is a shuttle you can catch when you disembark from the ferry in Friday Harbor that will take you to the whale watching park, so you can leave your car at the ferry terminal in Anacortes and walk on. It is a fun and easy day trip even if the whales don't show up (but be sure to check
schedules and bring munchies and sunscreen, you may wind up staying longer than you planned!).

Although the
Center for Whale Research is not involved with public tours you can check our links page for other recommendations. Lisa Moorby has redesigned our website, it is very user friendly and helpful, plus she has selected beautiful photos of the whales to enjoy.

A century old whale is something to see, and who knows, you may even see her with the new calf, her great-grandson J45!
Photograph by Ken Balcomb, Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research

- Candace Calloway Whiting
Volunteer, Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor

The Largest Dolphin

Photo by Kelley Balcomb-Bartok. The new young calf surfaces between K14 (background, born 1977) and her second offspring K36 (foreground, born 2003). K14's oldest offspring, K26 (male, born 1993) was also playful and tactile with the new calf.

Are Killer Whales true whales?
Yes - and no.
Killer Whales are actually dolphins. Very, very large dolphins...but technically speaking, they are dolphins. The nomenclature can get confusing and may seem counter-intuitive, and like Alice in Wonderland's experience when she tumbled down the rabbit hole, you might get a little dizzy trying to sort it out.
Biologists and taxonomists are meticulous and logical in the definitions, but most of us want simpler distinctions and to that end you might hear things like 'all dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins' or 'anything over nine feet long is a whale'.
Throw porpoises into the mix, and you'll hear that 'if it has a beak, it is a dolphin, if it doesn't it is a porpoise'-- except not all dolphins have "beaks". So where do the Killer Whales fit?
Here is the simple answer: essentially, the Killer Whale has more in common with even the tiny
Hector's Dolphin than it does with other whales such as the similarly sized Pygmy Right Whale. So they are considered dolphins - but because they are large cetaceans, we refer to them as whales.
It has taken over thirty years of careful research to dispel the myths that surround these alarmingly named animals. Given the unfortunate and potentially frightening moniker of 'Killer Whale', they have had a lot to overcome in the public eye, and it helps that the research shows that they are intelligent animals that remain with their families for life.
But that doesn't mean that Killer Whales are giant black and white versions of Flipper either. They are less friendly to us than Bottlenose Dolphins, and are unlikely to come to your aid if you are drowning (and if they did you would probably die of a heart attack instead of drowning!), or to save you from sharks as other dolphin species are reputed to do. Even though the whales don't harm us intentionally, it is easy to get into trouble in the marine environment, and any animal will take measures to defend itself when it feels threatened. Just the backwash of their hasty retreat in trying to avoid us could send a diver tumbling.
Our local Killer Whales deserve our respect, but not our fear or hatred. Call them what you will, they are remarkable and somewhat mysterious animals that increasingly require protection from us.

- Candace Calloway Whiting
Volunteer, Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor

Our Iconic Killer Whales

Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken.
J40 catches a salmon off False Bay.

When tourists visit our region, it doesn't take them long to notice that our local Killer Whales are important to us. Whale images adorn everything from thimbles to sides of buildings, and figure prominently in local indigenous culture. We keep hopeful eyes out for them on our ferry crossings and go on whale watching excursions. The Killer Whales may be wild, but they swim and live along side of us, we boat and kayak in their habitat and hope that they will grace us with their presence. Those of us who live in the region love our local whales, and we love that they are unique to this area.
Many of our visitors, though, are familiar with orcas only from marine parks or from televised nature shows – and while there may be merits to those experiences, neither fully encompasses the range of adaptation and behavior shown by the species. The marine parks teach us how smart the killer whales are, and explain that the tricks they perform are variations of natural behavior. The nature shows tend to focus on dramatic footage of Orcas chasing, toying with, and killing seals, penguins, dolphins, big whales or their calves. Frightening stuff for most of us. But that is only part of the picture.
In contrast, our familiar resident Killer Whales just eat fish, invertebrates, and who knows, maybe the hapless sea bird or bit of kelp…but no seals, no sea lions, no dolphins or whales. And there is no record of them ever harming a human being, in spite of the treatment they have received at our hands.
There are other groups of Killer Whales that visit our region that do eat seals and other marine mammals, but they tend to come and go, and our local whales do not associate with them.
It is a really important distinction – the mammal eating whales are referred to as "transients", and will have names that begin with "T". Our familiar Killer Whales, on the other hand, are "residents". They live in the Puget Sound and the surrounding inland water (called the Salish Sea) during the spring and summer months, and can be seen infrequently the rest of the year. As a group they are referred to as "Southern Resident Killer Whales" (SRKW) and their individual family groups, or pods, start with the letters "J","K", or "L". (The naming system began with a Canadian researcher, Dr. Michael Bigg). Each one is given a number, according to when it was first identified.
So when you hear that J, K or L pod is around, those are the Orcas that live here. The ones that love fish and can pick out a Chinook salmon in a school of Sockeye with their eyes closed (they use sonar and can tell by the size of the fish's swim bladder!). They are the ones that swim up and down the west side of San Juan Island, in what the researchers call "The Westside Shuffle". The ones that come so close to the shore that it feels like you could reach out and touch them, the ones that love to drape kelp over their backs and tails and drag it along. The ones that poke their heads up and watch us watch them, and surface gently or spectacularly next to our boats.
Those are our Orcas, as unique to us as the "sandals and socks" guy on local ads. Entrenched in our culture, Killer Whales are icons of the Pacific Northwest, and with enough clean healthy fish to sustain them our new baby Killer Whales may chose to stay and live their lives here, joining in the Westside Shuffle, watching us watch them. Of course, not only are Killer Whales not killers, they are not whales either.
- Candace Calloway Whiting
Volunteer, Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor

Friday, May 22, 2009

Orca Whale Mothers and Calves

New calf L112 traveling with adult female L86 (CWR 2009 photo by Ken Balcomb)

New moms have all been there: Crying infants and sleep deprivation. Managing the needs of older siblings. Keeping social contacts going. Relying on family to help out. Those familiar problems are shared by Orca* whale mothers, and as it turns out, the lives of Orcas turn out to parallel ours several surprising ways.
Decades of research by Dr. Kenneth Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research (CWR) and others has unlocked some of the mystery of how the Orcas live, and the Center has been following the same individual whales for over thirty years. We thought it would be fun to kick off this blog by bringing you information on the mothers and their calves, in honor of Mother's Day, since three new babies were born this winter, and at least two of them were re- sighted earlier this week after a prolonged absence. This is exciting news, since mortality is high -- as many as 40% of the calves don't survive the first year of life.
Although scientists don't entirely know why the death rate is so high for baby whales, we do know that the environment into which they are born can be harsh. Humans swaddle our babies in blankets and crank up the thermostats to keep them warm - Orca babies on the other hand go from a cozy 97.5 degree environment to 45 - 55 degree water in seconds, temperatures that adult humans can survive for about two to four hours. A calf born in captivity will swim continuously, and scientists speculate that this is because the babies have thinner blubber and therefore need to generate body heat by moving in order to keep warm. They are also less buoyant and need to surface to breathe more often than their mothers. The CWR confirms that our local Orcas are rarely motionless, even during rest periods.
And just as our babies first babble, then begin to shape words and sentences, Orca calves need to learn to communicate with their families. Scientists at Sea World report that Orca calves can vocalize soon following birth, and characterize the sounds the babies make as "loud and high pitched, resembling screams". After about two months the babies begin to make sounds like their moms, and will continue to add to their vocal repertoire as they get older.
Research shows that mother dolphins and Orcas in captivity show a significant change in sleep pattern for weeks or months following the birth of their calves, no surprise there when you think about having to keep up with the babies! The wild Orcas may have an edge over their captive counterparts however, in that they have an extended network of family to help out, and the older siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins are all known to babysit and entertain the calves and thereby giving the mother whale a chance to feed and maybe catch a nap.
Over the coming weeks we'll follow the new baby Orcas of our local J, K and L pods, and explore the lives of our resident Killer Whales in detail, from the new calves to the old grandmother (thought to be in her late nineties). We'll bring you insight into the individuals, and explain what is known (or what the biologists are currently researching) about the population as a whole, and what problems they may be facing in the future.

- Candace Calloway Whiting
Volunteer, Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Welcome to the Center for Whale Research's new blog. We are just getting started so please check back again.

About the Center for Whale Research:
In 1976, "Orca Survey" was launched as a census to determine the status of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Orca Survey is a long-term photo-identification study of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the San Juan Island area of the Pacific Northwest. It was initiated by Principal Investigator Ken Balcomb in 1976 (under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ascertain the size of the population of Killer whales in the Greater Puget Sound environs of Washington State. For over three decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been conducting annual photo-identification studies of the Southern Resident Killer whale (SRKW) population that frequent the inland waters of Washington State and lower British Columbia.These studies have provided unprecedented baseline information on population dynamics and demography, social structure, and individual life histories.

This detailed understanding of population status and trends has supported management decisions in both Canada and the United States. Most recently, data derived from CWR’s long-term studies have been used to support listing decisions in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and in Canada under the Species At Risk Act, with SRKWs now listed as Endangered in both countries.CWR researchers have pioneered the development of innovative research techniques for the study of free-ranging cetaceans.

Candace Calloway Whiting