We hired a private charter last Sunday to go whale watching with Cork Whale Watch. We lucked out with incredible weather, warm sun, calm seas and excellent visibility. Within minutes of leaving shore, a huge dark fin was evident in the water, a basking shark, and the first one most of us have ever seen.
These gentle giants can reach up to 40 feet but feed on krill and small fish. They sift the soupy water to extract their food and drink a swimming pools worth of water in a day! Over the next half hour we saw 7 more of these magnificent fish, hard to imagine that they really are. One cruised past the boat and its body kept on going and going, it was larger than our trusty steed. They disappear like submarines, gently lowering themselves down out of sight. Sometimes we could see the gaping chasm of their huge white mouth as they skimmed their dinners with grace.
As we headed to more open water an energetic pod of common dolphins sped towards us. They leaped around the bow and jostled for space at the front to surf the waves our boat provided. All the while gannets dove around us at breakneck speed, hitting the water with the accuracy of a master archer.
Then the minke whales arrived. These are the 2nd smallest baleen whale in the world. They feed on much the same food as their cartilaginous compadre, the basking shark. They are solo travellers generally and are more interested in food than us. We watched them bolt through the water after their quarry and after a time we were definitely surrounded.
Over the course of the charter we saw at least 20 minkes (we even experienced minke breath which has a pretty gnarly stench).
More common dolphins came back to bow ride and all round as far as the eye could see, were hundreds more dolphins, many more whales and birds skimming the ocean. Just glorious.
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
CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered
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.
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.
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.
The storms of last Saturday left a much flooded Ireland and some surging seas. Our trip was booked for the following day and we were mad excited to get out there and see what was about.
We lucked out with calm descending on Sunday and giving us a much welcome reprieve from the maelstrom.
The sea had been amply churned out by torrential rains and was murky and foamy, yet incredibly beautiful. The sun was valiantly trying to show itself and kept on peering at us from behind the clouds.
Our charter for the day was the Holly Joe, skippered by the excellent Colin Barnes of Cork Whale Watch. He steered us through the waves with ease and grace and guided us towards the rocky promonotories to see the seals and ancient ruins.
A few porpoises snuck past us but they eluded most of us by the time we realised. On our way back to port a lone dolphin cruised by. We watched it as it sped through the water.
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’.
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.
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.
‘A virtual feast for your eyeballs!’ is what Captain Wayne exclaimed today and boy was it?!
Our resident orcas and humpbacks provided us with mind blowing experiences on both our morning and afternoon trips. Clear weather gave us lovely views of the orcas this morning. A30’s and A42’S babies were playing in Johnstone Strait . The excited whales spy hopped and tail slapped to our delight. The A23’s and A25’s were also seen transiting the area.
The weather and the animals changed as we approached Bold Head. The mist rolled in and we began to see some bait balls ahead of us. Humpbacks could be seen in the gloom lunge feeding. A couple of the whales hit the bait ball simultaneously. We recognized two of them as Ripple feeding with her calf. In the distance we could hear another whale trumpeting and the thunder clap of a breaching whale.
The charismatic Steller sea lions were seen swimming in the kelp. Six of them eyed us as we passed by and gave us a gruff salutation as we continued on our way. It was great to see so many different species of babies this morning and we were lucky to see a Dall’s porpoise with her wee one as we went towards Telegraph Cove.
This afternoon we cruised out to Blackfish Sound. A couple of humpbacks swam off to our port side and descended rapidly to their watery lair. As we passed through Blackfish Sound the A30’s reappeared ahead of us. Whether they were fishing or simply goofing around, we spent the next half hour enthralled with this phenomenal family. The whales sped through the water, tail lobbing and spy hopping. Occasionally they would rest in a line before something would fire them up again and more high jInks would occur.
We were sated from our encounters with the orca but thought it would be even more fun to go and see if some more humpbacks were about. Our wish came true faster than anticipated with six humpbacks surrounding us on all sides! Ripple and her calf were feeding in a bait ball and in the distance there were signs of more activity. A large flock of birds drew us further along and in the milieu we realized a feeding frenzy was rapidly unfolding. Not one, not two, but five humpbacks were vying for space in this glut of food. The whales lunged at the fish and over each other in their attempts to gulp down as much fishy goodness as possible.
The whales appeared to be frustrated with their neighbours and some trumpeted and exhaled forcefully while pushing past. One whale made an even stranger sound which almost was akin to a snarl. We were ecstatic to see these gargantuan gluttons feasting on the fish.
We left the whales to their banquet and started towards home. In the distance a lone humpback was doing some spectacular tail lobbing in rapid succession. The whale did vertical tail lobs over 20 times and smashed the water forcefully on each attempt. We watched awestruck as it made mincemeat of the water around it. This forceful fluker was identified as Yahtsee by our staff and guests together.