Monday, November 06, 2006
(Hugo / L71)
Hugo and three other southern resident killer whales are missing and presumed dead. Hugo (male 20yrs old) was last seen on July 15, 2006 by the Center for Whale Research. Jellyroll / L43 (female 34yrs old) was photoidentified last on September 9, 2006, by the CWR team. Raven / K28 (female 12yrs old) was last seen on September 19, 2006, leaving her calf K39 orphaned at 4 months of age and went missing shortly thereafter. The loss of these whales brings the endangered population down to 87 individuals.
Three Young Orcas Missing From Pod Are Presumed Dead
Puget Sound's killer whales begin their annual trek into nearby waters.
By Christopher Dunagan, firstname.lastname@example.org
October 19, 2006
As Puget Sound’s killer whales begin their fall excursions into Central Puget Sound, researchers have announced the apparent deaths of three young adult orcas since mid-July.
The apparent deaths follow three births earlier this year, bringing the total population back to 87. But the most disturbing aspect of the deaths is that all three animals were in their prime reproductive years, said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.
Deaths of reproductive females are not normal, and they have implications for the long-term survival of the population, he said. The Puget Sound whales are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of killer whales was spotted off the south end of Vashon Island going into Tacoma Narrows, according to Susan Berta of Orca Network, which tracks whale movements via shoreside observers. The whales were believed to be all or part of L Pod, one of the three major Puget Sound groups.
The typical pattern is for the orcas to spend a good part of their summers in the San Juan Islands, feasting on chinook salmon. They tend to move south in the fall and early winter when chinook runs decline and chum runs increase along the Kitsap Peninsula and areas farther south. Last year, the orcas were seen near Bainbridge Island and South Kitsap the second week of October.
The cause of the three deaths is unknown, Balcomb-Bartok said. Researchers who observed the whales through the summer noticed each animal missing at a different time. Orcas hardly ever stay alone for long, which is why the missing animals are presumed dead.
One of the two females that died had a 4-month-old calf that probably was still nursing, and there is serious doubt that the baby can survive through the winter without its mother, he added. The missing orcas are:
K-28, a 12-year-old female known as Raven: The orca was photographed by researchers on Sept. 19. The photo shows a clear sign of "peanut head," a condition characterized by a depression behind the blow hole caused by a loss of blubber. That suggests that the orca was sick or malnourished. After K-28 went missing, her calf has been seen swimming with its aunt and other relatives.
L-43, a 34-year-old mother of three known as Jellyroll: Jellyroll was last seen Sept. 2. She leaves behind a 2-year-old son, L-104, which was named Domino in August following a public vote on the name. The youngster is expected to survive without his mother. She also is survived by a 10-year-old son, a 20-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old granddaughter.
L-71, a 20-year-old male known as Hugo: The orca was last seen July 15. Hugo leaves behind his mother and a 13-year-old sister. Hugo is the third child that his mother has lost.
Although there is speculation that the whales may have starved to death, another scenario relates to decreased immunity caused by high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies. Puget Sound orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. A lowered immunity can lead to disease, which can affect their ability to obtain food.
Jay Zischke, a fisheries biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said it does not appear that chinook salmon were in short supply in the San Juan Islands this year. Now that the whales are moving into Central and South Puget Sound, they should find abundant runs of chum on which to feed.
Perhaps coincidentally, dead harbor porpoises have washed up on Puget Sound shores this year in numbers larger than usual.
At-risk orca calf is now presumed dead
Another Puget Sound orca is missing.
One of the calves born this summer whose mother was recently discovered to have vanished has disappeared, scientists said Friday. That brings the number of missing and presumed dead orcas to four and the total population to 86.
Orcas have tightly knit families, and researchers had hoped that the baby's aunt, who also had a calf, would be able to nurse and take care of the orphaned animal.
But when the rest of the orca's family was recently spotted, the baby was gone, said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, based on San Juan Island.
"We assume that it didn't make it," he said. Whale watchers are urged to contact the Orca Network (866-ORCANET) if they see a baby orca on its own.
The local orca population is at risk of extinction and is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Key factors threatening orcas' survival include exposure to toxic chemicals that can weaken their immune system and reduce their reproductive ability; a shortage of their staple food, chinook salmon; the potential for a major oil spill; and boat traffic, which can impede their hunting ability.