Endangered Species Spotlight: Southern Resident Killer Whales

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Princess Angeline (J17) with her new baby (J53) first seen in Oct 2015. J17 was born in 1977. Photo by Centre for Whale Research
Princess Angeline (J17) with her new baby (J53) first seen in Oct 2015. J17 was born in 1977. Photo by Centre for Whale Research

SPECIES: Southern Resident Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

CURRENT RANGE: Pacific North East, around Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Southern Georgia Strait

CURRENT THREATS: Decreased prey availability, boat interactions, environmental contamination


WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM: Washington and British Columbia

What Are Southern Resident Killer Whales?

Killer whales (a.k.a. orca) are the largest dolphins in the world. They’re also the most dispersed of all dolphin species, being found from Arctic and Antarctic waters to more tropical climes. They were originally called killer whales, as some do actually kill whales. For years orca had a fearsome reputation, falsely believed by many to be man-hunters. Over time, it was seen that orcas are specialist feeders.

Around the west coast of Canada there are three different types of orcas. One type are called Transients (or Bigg’s killer whales), which feed almost exclusively on marine mammals. They are very quiet so as to not scare away potential prey, and tend to have loose family bonds. Offshore orcas travel in large groups and feed far offshore, where they prey upon sleeper sharks (and experience tooth wear due to the sharks’ sandpaper-like skin). Resident orcas feed primarily on fish and squid. They are very vocal and live in tight-knit family units called pods. Pods which share similar dialects belong to the same clan.

One population of resident orcas is called the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). The other, called Northern Residents, are found around Johnstone Strait and Northern British Columbia. Even though Residents and Transients travel through the same areas, they studiously avoid each other. They also have different dialects, hunting techniques, prey and family units. Some scientists believe these orcas may need to be reclassified as separate species or subspecies.

Of all the Resident clans that frequent these waters, the SRKW’s are the most endangered, with just 82 individuals remaining. They have only one clan consisting of 3 pods– named J, K and L pod– which have 28, 19 and 35 members, respectively. Each of these pods is made up of matrilines, comprised of at least one female, her sons and daughters, and the offspring of her daughters.

Adult male orca, Blueberry
Adult male orca, Blueberry

Why are Southern Resident Killer Whales Endangered?

The SRKW’s are the only orca population listed as endangered by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. They suffered heavy losses between 1965-1975, when many members of their families were captured for exhibition in marine parks.

Of all the orcas that were captured during that time, 13 were killed and 45 were sent to various marine parks around the world. Only one of these orcas, Lolita (Tokitae), remains alive today. She currently resides in the Miami Seaquarium. The oldest member of the J pod, “Granny,” is estimated to be 104 years old. She was captured in 1967 along with the rest of her pod, but was considered too old for the marine parks and was eventually released.

Other issues these orcas face include reduced prey availability, boat interactions and environmental pollution. Southern Resident Killer Whales feed mainly on salmon, and numbers are being reduced due to overfishing and diseases from farmed fish affecting wild salmon stocks.

Boat activity from both commercial and recreational vessels can detrimentally affect these orcas as well. Boats travelling at speed through the whales’ paths have occasionally struck and injured them, sometimes fatally. Noise and disturbance from boats can also alter orca behaviour, reducing their ability to communicate and locate prey.

Increased pollution from industrial and domestic contaminants entering the orcas’ environment has caused a toxic overload in their tissue and body fat. DDT (an insecticide) and PCB’s have been found in such high levels in dead orcas that their bodies have had to be disposed at hazardous waste sites. This lethal contaminant load causes reduced fertility, high mortality and genetic alterations.

Adult orcas breaching. Photo credit: Robert Pittman/NOAA
Adult orcas breaching. Photo credit: Robert Pittman/NOAA

What’s being done to save Southern Resident Killer Whales?

The SRKW’s were designated by the IUCN as Endangered in 2005, and critical habitat was assigned for them in 2006. Despite these protective measures, more habitat is being earmarked for future protection. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued a petition to add more critical habitat, which includes Pacific ocean waters along the West Coast of the United States. This area includes crucial foraging and wintering habitat for the SRKW’s.

A recovery plan published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2014 is advocating the following measures to protect these vulnerable whales:

1. Rebuilding depleted salmon and other fish stocks to ensure adequate food is available to aid recovery of SRKW’s.

2. Reducing chemical contamination and pollution in SRKW habitat. Treatment of wastewater in Puget Sound to remove contaminants that will affect the whales.

3. Minimising disturbance of SRKW’s from vessels. In 2011 regulations increased the allowable distance from vessels to the whales in Washington State from 100 to 200 yards.

With increased understanding of their behaviour, co-operation between the United States and Canadian authorities, and additional protective measures, it is hoped that these formidable fish eaters will soon begin making a comeback.

Written by Suzanne Burns; thanks to The Center for Whale Research for population data and photos.

Source: Green Global Travel

Peanut Head

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Plumper exhaling in the setting sunlight.
Plumper exhaling in the setting sunlight.

As the two orca brothers slipped quietly past us, their enormous shiny fins cut through the water like daggers. They had been weaving their way through the Strait for the past half hour and while Kaikash moved with ease and grace, his older brother Plumper was laboured in his movements. He struggled to remain at the surface and his breathing was strained and stressed.

Word in the area was that Plumper was dying. Seeing such a magnificent, big, bold creature, wheeze and struggle in his watery abode moved us all. There was nothing anyone could do except keep an eye out for him and his brother and hope and pray that somehow he would come right.

It was obvious from Plumper’s breathing that he was in trouble, but there was another more subtle sign that most people would never have noticed. Certain scientists, conservationists and locals knew he was starving to death, but how? Poor Plumper was suffering from a condition called ‘Peanut Head’.

A healthy, well fed orca in essence doesn’t have a discernible neck. Their head runs in a smooth line to their back, giving the appearance of a streamlined, glossy surface. If this creature due to illness or lack of food begins to starve, they lose weight around their head and a groove forms in the area where a neck would be on other creatures. This shrunken head and this notch in their ‘neck’ region gives them the unusual title of ‘Peanut Head’.

Plumper exhaling in the sunset
Plumper exhaling in the sunset

Some years earlier, there had been three of these brothers, or the three amigos as they were called. Plumper, Kaikash and their other brother Cracroft were an indomitable force and regularly seen together. Their mother Sophia had died in 1997 leaving the males to fend for themselves. In orca society, males stay with their mothers till death and some don’t thrive after her passing. The alliance forged between these three after Sophia’s death endured and the brothers were always seen together. They were even adopted for a time by a matriarch called Scimitar who had lost two of her own sons. Cracroft was the oldest of the three and was last seen alive in the Spring of 2010.

In the Spring and Summer of 2014, numerous sightings of Kaikash and Plumper around Johnstone Strait indicated that Plumper’s health was faltering. One of the last evenings out on the water for the season and Plumper was swimming ahead of us, silhouetted by the brilliant sunshine casting an ethereal glow on his back. As he exhaled, the mist that emanated from his body formed golden droplets that glittered and dazzled us. I took a photo of him in this cascade of light and this was when I first saw that mortal sign on his neck. The sun perfectly illuminated the depression beneath his head, an ominous sign of his failing health.

My last sighting of Plumper
My last sighting of Plumper

This was the last time that I saw Plumper alive. Within a couple of weeks he was missing, presumed dead. He was never seen again. Around the same week that I had seen him, researchers from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Vancouver Aquarium filmed orcas using a hexacopter drone. The research aimed to determine if salmon fisheries were impacting orca populations. Their pioneering research was establishing the body condition of the orcas in the area. Ascertaining the size of an orca from a boat is problematic as it is hard to see their bodies completely. However to view an orca from the sky is a different matter. The researchers were able to see clearly if certain individuals were thriving or declining. Footage of Plumper from the drone indicated that he was very skinny.

They were also able to see if any females were pregnant. Armed with this vital information, the scientists were able to foresee population growth and decline and pinpoint problematic areas. If an orca is starving, this can potentially illustrate an issue with declining fish stocks. With knock on effects of fish declines affecting orcas, new legislation and protective measures can be brought in to help these creatures.

Suzanne Burns, 2015.

Source: World whale tales