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Whale Update....

Northern Residents

New calf in the A8s (added to photo library Mar 11)
Photo Steve Grover
Northern pods were extremely elusive through December and early January with a few more sightings in February. We had some reports that the A8’s north of Campbell River in early February and the A11’s were in southeast Alaska around the beginning of January. 

There’s a new calf in the A8s so it looks like Sonora (A42) is a new mom! The new calf was seen with Sonora (A42), Surf (A66), Current (A79), and Cameleon (A88) in early January. The calf won’t be assigned a scientific number until this summer when it is seen by researchers.

Hydrophone recordings have helped fill the visual void, with members of G pod and I pod vocalizing in Johnstone Strait and Blackney Pass in mid-January. Then the A5s, which includes the A23 and A25 matrilines, and the I11 matriline showed up in the Johnstone Strait area again and have been seen a few times throughout the month of February.

Southern Residents

L pod continues to be clandestine this winter although the L12’s and L22’s were sighted off race rocks just before Christmas. The group appears to be spending some time along the coast of Washington and Oregon, occasionally dipping down to the northern California coast.
Fewer sightings of K pod have been made recently, until researchers discovered the group had been travelling with L pod. Check out the story on tracking the southern residents below to learn more about where they’ve travelled recently.

J pod is making regular use of Puget Sound as they rarely go a week without being sighted south of the border. In addition, most of the J’s and K’s were found together in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on December 30th but the meeting was short lived as the K’s headed west to the outer Washington coast by the following day. In early February J pod was seen just south of Victoria, but seemed to have made their way back south, with sightings of J pod group B, lead by J17, reported in the San Juan Islands on February 9th. More recently, J pod was seen socializing near Campbell River, at Salmon Point, after being heard earlier in the month on hydrophones near the northwest coast of San Juan Island.


Bigg's (Transients)

We’ve changed their name. Scientists have remanded the mammal eating killer whale previously known as ‘transient’ to ‘Bigg’s’, to honour the man who first identified them. Dr. Michael
Michael Bigg with microscope
Photo Vancouver Aquarium
Bigg, the pioneer of killer whale research in BC, was also the first person to recognize the difference between fish eating and mammal eating killer whales. As scientists have learned more about the mammal eating killer whales, we’ve come to realize that the name wasn’t a very good fit – the mammal eating killer whales didn’t just pass through the area, but are every bit as resident in BC, they just don’t stay in one place for long.

Bigg’s whales (transients) have been commonly sighted in the New Year, making regular appearances in the San Juan’s and Haro Strait. Specific sightings include the T137s, T036s, T10s, T26s, and T037s.

There was also a fascinating account of a small group of T’s taking the same route as group of southern residents up Colvos passage in late December with the two groups effectively ignoring one another.

Further north, the T2Cs, T123s, T20 and T21 were in Blackney Pass in late November and early December. On New Year’s Eve the T050’s were recorded via hydrophones crunching and munching on some prey just north of the Robson Bight ecological reserve. And on Jan 3rd the T18/T19’s cruised quietly south in Blackney Pass.

More recently, on February 15th, T021 and T021B were seen near Beaumont Shoals, while on the same day T002B was spotted with the T060s just south of Constance Bank. A few weeks later, T19 and T19B were seen going on long dives near Trial Island on March 3rd. Just a couple days after that, on March 9th, approximately 12 Bigg’s (transient) killer whales were observed near Penn Cove in Puget Sound with several fast-swimming harbor porpoises nearby.


Approximately 30-40 offshore killer whales were identified near Cape Mendocino, California. The surprise sighting was made by researchers participating in the southern resident satellite tracking project.

March 2013
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Field Notes
In the News
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Field Notes....

The circle of life in the North Pacific

New NR A8 calf (added to library Mar 11). Photo by Susan MacKay, SG Images.
Photo Susan MacKay, SG Images
A newborn killer whale was sighted several times near Powell River in late December. The rosy colour indicative of a very young whale was noted during vessel sightings while land-based sightings repeatedly reported a group member with a “very small” fin. Upon examination of the photos it turned out this little calf was a northern resident and the newest member of the A8 matriline. The calf won’t be issued a scientific number until the spring or summer when it is seen by researchers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

That’s because the survival rates for newborn calves is low and a fresh reminder of that came on Jan. 7th when a newborn killer whale washed ashore at Dungeness spit near Sequiem, Washington. Dr. Stephen Raverty, with support from US federal, state, and NGO’s conducted a full necropsy on January 8th and genetic testing performed by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center revealed the little killer whale was a male southern resident from J pod and preliminary tests indicate that his mother is possibly Polaris (J28).

And sadly we’ve also lost one of the matriarchs too. Yakat’s (A11) body was found washed up on a beach near Ketchican, Alaska in early January. It is rare to find the body of a deceased killer whale and a full necropsy was performed in mid January by Dr. Stephen Raverty and we hope results from the necropsy will give us some idea about A11’s cause of death. A11 was an older female, 55 years in age, and had 9 descendants in her family. Adult females usually carry on and do well after the death of their mother and we have no reason to think that Skagit (A35) and her family will not continue to do well. The A35s were often seen travelling apart from A11. The bigger question is whether Nahwitti (A56), her offspring Kalect (A97) and Springer (A73), who all traveled with Yakat (A11), will travel alone or join up with the A35s. But we won’t know until this summer when researchers are on the water again.

In the News....

Tracking the southern residents

From US Northwest Fisheries Science Centre:
“As a continuation of a project began last year to help us understand where Southern resident killer whales go in the winter, and thus their winter habitat use, NWFSC researchers tagged an adult male, K25, in Puget Sound on December 29, 2012 with a satellite-linked tag. The information gathered from this tag will address the data gap in winter distribution identified in the Recovery Plan as well as provide information for improving Critical Habitat designation”.

In the nearly 3 months since the tag was deployed in the waters north of Seattle, K25 (and presumably most of K Pod) left Puget Sound for an extended trip down the west coast of the continental US. The group travelled as far south as Point Reyes (north of San Francisco, California) in a fairly direct fashion, only taking 3 days to swim past the entire state of Oregon. Since then the whales made their way back to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, arriving in late January, but turned south again and have been recorded off of the Washington, Oregon, and northern Californian coasts since.

The NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to use K25’s tag to intercept the whales at Cape Blanco, Oregon, and has been travelling withK pod since early March. Much to their delight, researchers identified whales from L pod travelling with K pod as well.

Interestingly, on March 8, the research group deployed an additional satellite-linked tag to another southern resident killer whale, L88. The Bell M. Shimada continued to observe K25, L88, and their respective pods (although it is now back in port), and was also awarded a rare treat when a group of 30-40 whales identified as offshores inadvertently swam close to the vessel. Researchers were able to photo ID some of those whales and collect other valuable data during the surprising encounter. Updated movements of K25 and additional project information can be found online here.


Killer whales trapped in ice

The story of a group of killer whales trapped in an ice hole in eastern Hudson Bay attracted international attention early in the New Year. Roughly a dozen whales were found frantically surfacing within a small patch of open water 30 km from the community of Inukjuak in northern Quebec on January 8th. Residents filmed the whales as they spy-hoped and surfaced rapidly then posted the videos to You-Tube in order to get the attention of Canadian officials. News of the event and the accompanying video spread quickly and soon major news outlets across the Canada and US were carrying the story.

Fortunately, calls for ice-breakers to be dispatched to the region weren’t necessary as changing winds shifted the ice on the bay. By the morning of January 10th, the small hole had opened into an ice-free corridor that developed along the coast and the whales had left. Presumably the animals were swimming towards Davis Strait and the open waters of North Atlantic.

When most people in Canada hear the word killer whales they tend to think of the resident and Bigg’s (Transients) killer whales that reside off the west coast of British Columbia. The killer whales that found themselves trapped in the ice in Hudson’s Bay are from a poorly known group of whales from the Eastern Canadian Arctic. A sightings network has been established as a collaborative whale-monitoring project between scientists, students at the University of Manitoba and local Inuit communities to try and learn more about the number of whales, where they are traveling, what they are hunting, etc.

Many questions remain about the chance observation and the outcome for the whales. Killer whale sightings in the eastern arctic appear to be more common now than they were previously, which may mean they are expanding their use of the area. One hypothesis is that longer periods of open water in the spring and fall from receding ice packs due to climate change have allowed killer whales to expand their range and exploit feeding opportunities that could be considered marginal when ice was present during more of the year. The danger of course with exploring these icy areas, as this particular group of whales discovered, is that freeze-ups still occur and killer whales, with their prominent dorsal fins, are poorly suited to breaking ice.

Whales trapped in ice in northern Quebec, winter 2012/2013.

Photo TheKayuk via YouTube