Home » Blog posts » Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

The death of Mega, L41, is the only change for the 2020 census of southern resident orcas. // Photo: Candice Emmons, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, taken under federal permit

Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

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This year’s official census for the endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound will record one new orca death but no births from mid-2019 to mid-2020.

Because the census accounts for the southern resident orca population as of July 1 each year, this year’s report will not include the much-welcomed birth of J57, born on or around Sept. 4 to Tahlequah, or J35, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who compiles the annual census documents.

The head of the new calf, J57, can be seen alongside its mother, Tahlequah, or J35.
Photo: Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

Ken and his associates were able to complete the census and confirm the birth of the new orca calf after all three southern resident pods gathered together in widely dispersed groups on Sept. 5. After reviewing photos from that day, Ken has informed federal officials that this year’s census count will be 72 southern resident orcas. A formal report with photos and data about each whale is expected to be submitted by Oct. 1, as required by a federal contract for the census work.

In years past, all the whales were generally seen in and around the San Juan Islands by mid-June, so the census could be completed right after July 1. But in recent years, the whales have been coming back late and staying around for shorter visits — probably because of declines in Chinook salmon, their primary food source.

For the census, we have 22 orcas in J pod, 17 in K pod and 33 in L pod, for a total of 72. That does not count the new calf, born after this year’s census period, nor Lolita (Tokitae), the only southern resident whale still alive in captivity. For a list, see births and deaths by Orca Network or “Meet the Whales” by The Whale Museum. Last year’s census report listed four deaths and two births for the year (Water Ways, Aug. 6, 2019).

It is disappointing not to have any births to report for the annual census. The one death on the list is a male orca named Mega, or L41, said to be the prolific father of at least 20 offspring. Check out Water Ways, Jan. 30, or read the note of reflection that Ken wrote when confirming the death. Also of interest is an article from NOAA researchers discussing the breeding patterns of killer whales and what it means to lose a whale like Mega.

Even though the newest calf was not born soon enough to be counted with this year’s census, the news of the birth was happily received and widely reported. (See news release from CWR.) It was a great story, especially considering that Tahlequah is the same mom that mourned the loss of her previous calf in the summer of 2018, when she carried her dead offspring on her head for 17 days. During that time, Tahlequah, then 20 years old, traveled an estimated 1,000 miles throughout the Salish Sea in what was called the “Tour of Grief” by staffers at the Center for Whale Research.

The new calf is energetic and appears to be healthy, unlike some of the calves born in recent years, Ken told me. As many as 40 percent of young orcas in this group fail to survive their first year of life, and many more are believed to die in the womb.

Two other females appear to be pregnant at this time, based on recent aerial photos taken from a drone. Those whales are J41, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, and L72, a 34-year-old female named Racer, who also has one surviving offspring.

Sept. 5, the day the new calf was confirmed by orca researchers, was notable not just for the introduction of a young animal into the population but also for the fact that all three pods were essentially together for the first time this year.

Lodie Gilbert Budwill, community relations coordinator for CWR, posted a blog entry this morning about her personal experience on the water with Ken and the whales. She also posted a video, which I’ve shared on this page.

“Upon our arrival,” Lodie wrote, “the whales were spread across the border in social groups: some on the U.S. side, some still in Canadian waters. Ken spotted J35 and her calf from a distance and took photos with his telephoto lens. He commented while photographing, ‘Looks like a healthy and precocious baby.’ The calf was swimming next to J35’s side. It was a beautiful sight, mother and baby, both swimming…

“The female whale in the lead started vocalizing above water,” Lodie continued in her blog. “This made Ken giggle, and I couldn’t hold back an ‘Awwww!’ They stayed next to the boat positioned at the surface like this for several minutes. Ken photographed while I took video. I felt like I was witnessing a greeting ceremony between the whales and Ken!!!”

When it was time to go, the whales decided to follow Ken’s boat, according to Lodie’s vivid description. The whales were even porpoising through the water as they tried to keep up with the speeding boat.

“After several miles of breathtaking travel with escorts off both sides, Ken stopped the boat,” she said. “The whales stopped too. They moved in front of Chimo, just a short distance off the bow, and then engaged in a roly-poly, cuddle puddle.

“At this point, I was taking video with my jaw dropped to the floor! There are no words to fully describe this experience. It was like a love-fest of tactile behaviors at the surface of the water. We witnessed whales spy-hopping in unison, three and four at a time while cheek to cheek, rolling and twirling, pec-slapping, tail-lobbing. I felt like I was dreaming!”

Lodie ends her lively blog post with a very nice tribute to Ken, who is indeed a living legend.

A few final notes:

Smoke and killer whales: If the smoke from wildfires is not good for humans, then it’s not good for killer whales either. While one could hope that the whales would swim to an area with fresh air, the truth is that they are likely to stay in an area if they are finding fish to eat, Ken told me. In Alaska, a group of whales stayed in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, he said, despite the ongoing presence of irritating — and toxic — fumes coming off the oil.

Wildfire smoke can affect the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems in various ways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is likely to do the same for air-breathing marine mammals, including killer whales.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Traveling whales: The southern residents should be venturing farther south into Puget Sound anytime now, as chum salmon begin to head back to their spawning streams. That’s the typical pattern of the orcas when the earlier Chinook runs decline. How long the whales remain in Central and South Puget Sound often depends on the size of the chum run.

Based on preseason forecasts by state and tribal biologists, we can expect to see one of the lowest chum runs in years. (See graph on this page.) Whether it will be enough to sustain the orcas for a while is yet to be seen.

Listen to orcas: Even when people can’t see the whales for the smoke, they can hear their calls with the help of underwater hydrophones in various places in Puget Sound. Such was the case last week, when dozens of scientists and other interested folks tuned in to Orcasound, according to a blog post by Scott Veirs, who coordinates the network. Thanks to Scott, here is a 30-second sample of what was heard near the San Juan Islands last week.


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