Through understanding marine mammals in their natural habitat, we are
better equipped to protect them for future generations.
ORCAS IN THE WILD
Along the coast of British Columbia, there are three different types of
orcas (killer whales). While they are all considered the same species,
each group behaves differently. Best known are the northern resident orcas
who are fairly predictable and therefore the most thoroughly researched.
Residents have been photo documented, identified and researched extensively
over the past 25 years. During the summer, they are regularly seen throughout
the small islands off Vancouver Island. The second group is named transients
because you never know when or where these orcas might turn up. Because
I work in the winter when transients are often here, I have studied this
elusive population. Offshore orcas were just recently discovered and so
the least is known about them. As their name implies, they live in the
open waters of the Pacific Ocean which makes them difficult to locate
I have never seen an "offshore" orca, but I have worked with
the northern resident and transient orcas for l4 years in and around Johnstone
Strait on the northeastern edge of Vancouver Island. Out of a total population
of 450 orcas ranging from Washington state to southeast Alaska, the majority
I have observed that resident and transient orcas exhibit many traits
that are nearly opposite in nature.
- Eat fish
- Hunt warm-blooded prey
- Very vocal
- Generally silent
- Swim from 1 point to
- Swim close to shore, the next; never entering entering many small bays
Interestingly, the orcas recognize their differences and do not seek out
each other's company. Orcas are very social creatures and seem to enjoy
the company of friends and relatives. Orca families stay together for
life and consist of mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and
siblings. However, on occasions when I have seen residents and transients
meet,they go out of their way to avoid each other. Generally, the residents
don't seem to know that transients are near them, because the transients
are quiet. In cases where transients are close to residents, transients
sometimes choose to turn around and depart or "sneak" silently
by. On one occasion 30 resident orcas swimming together detected 3 transients
approaching them in a narrow channel. The residents entered a bay, lined
up abreast and made a deep grunting call I've never heard before (or since)
until the transients had passed. It seemed odd to me that so many resident
orcas moved aside to allow the small group of transients to pass. Were
the residents afraid and if so why? Have they been attacked by transients
or do they simply avoid "strangers?" Would the transients have
entered a bay with residents if there had been one on their side of the
Both kinds of orcas engage in boisterous play behavior when they are in
large mixed pod (family) groups, apparently enjoying themselves. So, why
don't these two groups mingle? Genetically, it would seem in their best
interest to interbreed. However, because they look slightly different,
we believe they are maintaining themselves as two separate populations.
Individual orcas are identified by the two parts of their bodies that
are most prominent when they surface to breathe: the dorsal fin and the
grey marking just behind called the saddle patch. The dorsal fins of transients
are generally more pointed than those of residents, although there are
exceptions. None of the transients have what is called an open saddle.
A saddle is the grey patch behind their dorsal fin. An open saddle has
a black swirl entering from the top. In addition, transient saddles tend
to extend further forward, past the midpoint of the base of the dorsal
fin. These physical differences tell us that transients and residents
have probably not bred in a long time. The existence of residents and
transients is one of the many killer whale mysteries. One thing I know
for certain is that nothing I have learned from them is written in stone.
They have moods, and each one has a distinct personality and a slightly
different history. For these reasons, they are never fully predictable,
as is the case with most large-brained creatures. My research will never
By Alexandra Morton
Director, Raincoast Research
Member, Save The Whales Scientific Advisory Committee
ORCA POPULATION INCREASES - PUGET SOUND AREA - WASHINGTON
The orca population, living in the waters off the state of Washington,
is increasing. Four new calves have been identified during June. The three
resident pods, identified as J, K and L, are part of a continuing study
by the Center For Whale Research (CFWR), based on San Juan Island off
the Washington coast. The four new orcas brings the total population of
the three pods to 97.
Since 1976, when CFWR began identifying individual orcas, only 68 were
present. Between 1967 and 1973, 48 whales were captured by marine parks.
All of these whales, with one exception, are deceased. The sole survivor
of this annihilation is a female orca named "Lolita" who performs
daily at the Miami Seaquarium. A campaign has been underway to return
Lolita to her family in the waters surrounding the San Juans for many
years. (No orca has been released from captivity, and ongoing negotiations
for the release of Corky from Sea World, San Diego, California, have been
The new calves have been designated:
L91, discovered with its mother L47 and a sibling;
L83, born in 1990; discovered with its mother L60, who is also the mother
of a four-year old;
L93, born to L26, a 30-year old who has given birth to three previous
calves, one of whom died in 1993; and
L94, born to L11, about 38 years old, and the mother of four other calves,
two of whom are deceased.
All of the calves, now several months old, appear to be healthy.
HARBOR PORPOISE RESEARCH - SAN JUAN ISLANDS, WASHINGTON
Habitat Utilization, Distribution, and Behavior
The harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), with an average size of 1.5-1.6
m and weight of 45 to 60 kg, is one of the smallest cetaceans in the world.
Unlike the more gregarious Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli), which
can be seen riding the bow wakes of boats, harbor porpoises often avoid
oncoming vessels. Harbor porpoises were once common throughout the San
Juan Islands, Washington, but over the past 20-30 years, their numbers
have been declining. Some theories suggest the decline may be due to increased
development pollution within the main sound, increased boat traffic, or
incidental catch of porpoise in gill net operations. Although there have
been a few studies of the west coast harbor porpoise population, little
research has been done on harbor porpoises of the Pacific Northwest. I
feel there is a need to know what type of environment is important to
harbor porpoises in order to help sustain their population.
Therefore the objectives of my study are to: locate areas of concentration
of harbor porpoise in the San Juan Islands; determine if their distribution
is correlated with certain environmental variables such as water depth,
bathymetry, tidal rips, water temperature, turbidity, boat traffic, associated
bird and mammal species, presence of prey species, etc.; and to record
respiration rates and behaviors of individuals and groups.
Harbor porpoises are observed from both boat transects and shore-based
operations. Each boat transect is 8 km long and is run at approximately
11 km/hr. Transects are located in waters surrounding the northwestern
San Juan Islands. Due to the difficulty in observing this small cetacean,
transects are only run when the visibility is good and wind speed is less
than four knots.
During the summer 1991 field season, harbor porpoise were located on 70%
of the 33 surveys completed, with a group size ranging from one to three
animals. Behaviors observed included traveling, milling, porpoising, and
pop-splashing (porpoise belly flops). Porpoise were most often observed
traveling (72% of the time), were found at an average depth of 130 m and
at an average surface temperature of 12 .7 Celsius.
From shore-based observations, milling was the most common behavior observed
(70% of the time) with as many as eight individuals in a group. Cow/calf
pairs were observed on several different occasions. Respiration data was
recorded for groups, individuals, and cow/calf pairs. By using respiration
data to determine the amount of time porpoise spend at the surface, a
correction factor will be developed to be used for aerial censuses of
harbor porpoises. Based on these aerial censuses, researchers can then
estimate the San Juan Island harbor population and better determine trends
in population size over the years.
During the summers of 1992 and 1993, I plan to continue gathering data
on harbor porpoises and would like to extend my study area to include
a greater portion of waters surrounding the San Juan Islands.
I would like to thank Save The Whales, National Marine Mammal Lab, Washington
Department of Wildlife, and The Whale Museum for their help in providing
equipment and/or financial support during the 1991 summer season.
By Kim Raum-Suryan
Kim Raum-Suryan is a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories,
U.C. Santa Cruz.
RESEARCH ON GRAY WHALE MIGRATION
Each year, gray whales travel some 12,000 miles round trip between their
summer feeding areas in the Arctic and their winter breeding and birthing
grounds in the lagoons of Baja, California. Typically, this migration
is within five miles of the mainland coast of North America. However,
as gray whales enter Southern California waters, a significant portion
of the population choose offshore routes throughout the Channel Islands
instead of a coastal route along the mainland shore.
Save The Whales and other concerned groups have provided research grants
to help define these offshore migration pathways and to determine any
changes in these pathways over time. This information is important for
effective conservation management of areas where gray whales do travel.
Two principal research efforts have taken place.
Through the Southern California Area Migration Project (SCAMP), a non
profit scientific cooperative, observers have been placed on seven of
the eight Channel Islands to record daily counts of migrating gray whales.
This research, which has been ongoing for seven years, has allowed scientists
to estimate the actual number of offshore migrators passing within sight
of key offshore observation posts.
In addition, Southwest Research Associates (SRA), a SCAMP participant
under contract to the U.S. Navy, has flown over Southern California waters
for three years counting grays whales around and in between the Channel
Islands. With these data, the actual migration pathways throughout the
Southern California Bight have been defined.
To date, these research efforts have produced some conclusions. First,
we have confirmed that many gray whales do travel offshore in the Southern
California Bight. Second, the actual southbound migration pathways and
the relative abundance of gray whales traveling each pathway have been
defined. Third, both the island-based and the airborne data confirm a
large offshore increase in the migrating southbound population during
the 1989/90 migration. This migration shift occurred during a reverse
El Niño and was not permanent.
When one does research, more questions are raised than answered. We still
do not know what factors caused the offshore shift during the 1989/90
southbound migration. In addition, we have limited knowledge about the
more important northbound migration when gray whale mothers are guiding
their calves north against he predominant California current. Research
is continuing on these questions.
However, with the help of Save The Whales, we have achieved some new basic
knowledge about gray whale offshore migration patterns in the Southern
By William Graham
Mr. Graham is the president and founder of SCAMP (Southern California
Area Migration Project).
KRILL - Food For Thought
By Karen Haberman
Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are much more than mere whale food.
These small, shrimp-like animals are incredible survivors. They may live
up to six years, a remarkable old age for such a small animal. Also, they
look delicate, but are strong for their size. They can swim against fairly
strong currents, using five pairs of small legs (called pleopods) on the
underside of their tail-like abdomen to propel themselves through the
water, and can even flip their tail for a quick direction change.
Krill are efficient at feeding on phytoplankton (small plant-like cells).
The krill sweep the water with bristled feeding legs which form a meshed
basket around their mouth. The phytoplankton get caught in the mesh when
the water is strained out. This is much the same method as baleen whales
use to feed on krill! When there is lots of phytoplankton in the water,
the krills' packed guts turn very dark green.
Phytoplankton is scarce during the winter but, luckily, the adults can
survive without eating for many months. Unlike the adults, young krill
must eat during the winter or they will die. We aren't sure where they
get their winter food, but divers sometimes see them on the underside
of ice, scraping off the ice algae which grows there. This may be the
key to their winter survival.
In the waters surrounding Antarctica, krill are abundant and are food
for many creatures. Krill often school, and their schools can include
thousands, or even millions, of individuals! Most species of birds and
mammals in the Southern Ocean, including humpback and minke whales, feed
on krill. Some of them, like Adélie penguins and crabeater seals,
dine almost exclusively on krill for at least part of the year. Clearly,
krill are important for the survival of many Southern Ocean animals.
Because of their importance, Antarctic krill have been the focus of many
studies. My graduate advisors, Dr. Robin Ross and Dr. Langdon Quetin,
have studied krill for over ten years, focusing on their survival, growth
and reproduction. Recently, our research group joined forces with several
other biologists and oceanographers in a project titled "The Antarctic
Ecosystem: An Ice-Dominated Environment," one of the National Science
Foundation's eighteen Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects.
The key study organisms are phytoplankton, ice algae, krill, Antarctic
silverfish, Adélie penguins and south polar skuas. (Skuas are hawk-like
or falcon-like sea birds who take food from gulls and terns or from the
water.) They were chosen because of their abundance and importance in the Antarctic
food web. While much has been learned by studying individual parts of
this ecosystem, we hope this joint venture will allow us to understand
how these pieces fit together.
As the title of our project suggests, we believe that ice is important
in the life cycles of Antarctic marine organisms. Sea ice extends outward
from the Antarctic continent, covering a large part of its surrounding
ocean. During winter in the southern hemisphere, the ice cover is fairly thick
and continuous. The ice melts and recedes during the spring and summer,
shrinking to about half of its winter extent. As the ice melts and the
day length increases during the spring, conditions at the ice edge become
ideal for the growth of phytoplankton. This event is important to the
krill, which feed upon phytoplankton, as well as to other creatures who
feed either on the phytoplankton or on the krill.
Not only does the ice cover change from winter to summer but the amount
of ice formed can vary greatly between years. We hypothesize that this
year-to-year difference in ice cover is an important cause of year to-year
differences we see in survival and reproduction of krill and other organisms.
For example, previous experiments in the lab suggest that the krill's
food is linked to the amount of ice present. Thus, the health and even
survival of krill may well depend on the extent of ice cover. We need
much more data to see whether this is true.
This year, I spent my first season in Antarctica. Our group spent a great
deal of time surveying the region near Palmer Station in zodiacs (small
boats). We took physical measurements such as temperature, salt concentration
and light level. We also towed a mechanical "fish" which uses
sound pulses to detect schools of krill. Thirdly, we towed nets through
the water, systematically searching for krill, fish and zooplankton.
While trawling, we saw much wildlife. A couple of times, loud blows of
humpback whales surprised us as the whales surfaced a few feet from our
zodiac. They, too, were fishing for krill. Adélie penguins were
constantly popping up around us, and I enjoyed watching them fly underwater.
We brought krill back to the lab for a variety of experiments to help
us answer questions such as "How old are they?" and "Are
they reproducing right now?" All of these are relative measures of
the health of krill. We will compare the results of our krill experiments
with studies of the physical environment and phytoplankton to help us
understand the conditions krill need to do well, and tell us when conditions
are good for them.
After we conduct this research project for several years, we will have
a much clearer idea of why there sometimes are "good years"
and "bad years" for krill, penguins and skuas. We hope to develop
the ability to predict when a population will do well, and when it will
With this knowledge, we can more clearly detect an abnormal situation,
and perhaps determine whether it is a result of a human-caused condition
such as over-fishing, ozone depletion or global warming. It is believed
that, like the ozone hole, the effects of global-scale changes will first
be seen at the north and south poles. Thus, it makes sense to study the
lives of critters such as Antarctic krill who live literally at the end
of the earth.