Gerlache Strait

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While many people will continue, for various reasons, to call the above animals “orcas,” I prefer to use the term “killer whale.”

First, it sounds rad. These whales ARE killer, man!

Second, it’s pretty out of the norm for a species* to be referred to by the second part of its two-part name (Orcinus orca, in this case- the first half is genus and the second half is the species designator). You’d never talk about “sapiens” and expect people to understand you meant “humans;” if you referred to “musculus” and expected me to know what animal you were talking about, I’d have to guess if you meant a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), or a house mouse (Mus musculus).

Third, and most importantly, I follow the opinion of scientists that I respect greatly in thinking that there’s no way that all of the different types of killer whales across the globe (oh yeah, they’re everywhere, in every ocean, doing their killer thing) are still one species. Just in the Antarctic, there are at least five types of distinguishable killer whales, each of which has a population separate from the others, probably with their own social structure, language, and feeding habits (further study needed). In the Pacific Northwest, where I did a week or two of research with Holly Fearnbach and John Durban (NOAA scientists and generally awesome human beings), three types of killer whales co-habitate but never interact, studiously avoiding contact while passing each other in a narrow strait, consuming different food sources, speaking different languages… Maybe it hasn’t been long enough in evolutionary time (hundreds of thousands of years) for them to have genetically diverged enough to make reproduction between groups impossible, but unless they’re forced (in captivity, for example…), different types of killer whales will never interbreed. In some cases, they’d have to cross continents to do so.

Anyways, these are the “small Type Bs,” also known as “Gerlache Strait killer whales.” They feed (probably) on deep-dwelling toothfish and other large predatory fish in the Antarctic, and are significantly smaller than the “large Type Bs,” which feed on seals. You can see in the photo their yellowish tinge- type Bs and Cs both have diatom (algae) coatings on their skin, which they travel north to shed- and the “cape” of grey around their backs. They can be distinguished from the large Bs by size, and from the Cs by the orientation and shape of their eye patches, and overall can be identified by their presence in their namesake, the Gerlache Strait. Aren’t they beautiful?

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Hardly Sea Pandas

Most of the whales I saw in Haro Strait this summer were members of the Southern Resident population, fish-eaters that travel in large, social, noisy groups. 

One morning was different: we awoke to a thick fog, as usual, but the hydrophones in the main room of the Center for Whale research were silent. Whales were passing, but in complete silence and in groups of three and four, jogging along close to the rocky shore with deadly purpose. 

Even I, new to the ways of the whales of the Pacific northwest, could feel a visceral difference between this group and the playful bunch I’d seen porpoising by in the days prior. These animals, over twenty feet in length, dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water, were apex predators… and they were on the hunt. 

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Transients eat marine mammals like seals and porpoises, for the most part, but have been known to take down prey as large and diverse as moose, swimming the channels between the islands, and gray and minke whales, many times the size of the transients but vulnerable to their speed and dogged pursuance. They’ve never been known to take a human in the wild- any accounts of “killer” killer whales are invariably from aquariums- but there’s something in the way they move that pricks an evolutionary nerve. You can tell- you’d be digestible.

Right off the porch, I’d been watching a harbor seal for days. He and another, smaller female had been resident on the rocky reef a few hundred feet from shore, spending afternoons lazing on the old volcanic rock, then disappearing at high tide along with the reef itself. As three sharp fins neared the place I knew the rocks to be, they split suddenly around it. A quick splash of water and the sudden appearance of diving gulls were the only obvious signs that we probably wouldn’t be seeing that seal any longer… 

Later that day we got much closer to the scene of the carnage- out on the boat, we found a few groups of transients still hunting. They must be masters of maneuvering underwater. I was almost certain they would hit the rocks, they got so close.Image

We were rooting for this girl to get away:

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She was smart and stayed up on the rocks. Lucky this time… 

Good Morning, Whales!

This morning I woke leisurely, confident that the fog and the threatened rain would leave us on shore. That didn’t keep the whales from making another appearance, however- right off the deck of the Center we could see and hear a number of killer whales headed north along the shore. Dave, this incredible guy who works at the center, captains the tiny boat (the Orca) that we photograph from, and knows every single whale in this population by sight and by relation to its fellows (along with their life histories and general attitudes) marked which whales we were seeing. I’m still working on photo-ID’ing just a few of my favorite (and most easily-discernible) whales… I can’t imagine knowing them as well as he does. It’s like they’re all old friends to him, J2 an ancient matriarch who avoids the camera and K25 a young one he’s watched grow up into a “funny-looking little guy” with a smallish dorsal for a male. K20, his big sister, presumably “sucked all the growth” out of their mother, K13, because she’s as robust as any whale he’s seen. They take on so much more life and character when seen through his eyes- I’m still trying to get past the strange combination of awe and incomprehension that are always present when I see these massive animals break the surface of the water. 

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I’m sure these kayakers didn’t MEAN to get so close… after all, they were putting themselves directly in the paths of not only endangered animals, but apex predators on the hunt. Who would possibly do that on purpose? Oh yeah. Maybe the girl running along the shore with camera, dog, socks, and sandals, oversized flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. Regardless, it was inspiring seeing them in so close to shore and so calm, fins breaking the surface and blowholes hissing out clouds that mingled with the incredibly dense fog.

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It wasn’t long before the whale watch boats found us (well they weren’t really looking for me, just the whales…) but Marron and I didn’t mind too much when the whales and boats all moved off faster than we could follow. We were having a good shoreline wander. I took too many photos of jellyfish and liked them all, so they’ll be showing up probably in future posts. Here’s one of my favorites: 

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It’s a Lion’s Mane jelly, I think- star of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and one of the biggest (if not the biggest by length) animals on the planet at full size. In cold waters, they can loose tentacles 120 feet in length. I tried to keep Marron from swimming with them and met with mild success… and mild failure. Luckily, it didn’t appear that she got stung.

She’s a good beach walk buddy, though I worry that I’m letting her get too wet. She doesn’t appear to mind:

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Tomorrow’s hopefully going to be nice and clear, sunny and whale-ful. We need to photograph more of K pod, especially their males because they’re likely to be first and most impacted by food shortages. Stay posted- the next few days are likely to be busy and fruitful as the weather turns back toward summer.

Mama’s Boys

I was going to call this post “Killer Whales are Killer Wailers” and talk about their systems of hunting but then I just couldn’t do it. But real quick, these whales (southern residents) do make a lot of noise while hunting because they find and catch fish with sound (fish aren’t good listeners apparently, never learned that skill in Kindergarten). Mammal-eating whales are silent as they hunt, potentially coordinating using their saddle patches and eye spots as visual clues to their pod-mates’ movements.

Okay, but back to the title of the post: southern residents are organized roughly along matrilineal lines. That means that most groups are composed of mothers and their offspring, whether male or female. It’s fascinating listening to the researchers here, because according to them, the big males with their tall dorsal fins and wide pectorals are fairly useless at feeding themselves. The older females keep them around and help them sate their bigger appetites, in the hopes that their sons will then procreate and pass the mothers’ genes on indirectly. Sort of like lions? Sort of like humans?

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Males whose mothers have died are sometimes taken on by other groups (or tag along, I’m not sure which). We’re hoping for the successful reattachment of a few of the big males to new groups of females, because there aren’t too many mature males left. They eat more, so when fish are scarce they’re the first ones to bite the metaphorical dust.

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Here’s Holly Fearnbach, one of the researchers I’m working with. She’s that tiny dot hanging out of the side of the helicopter, strapped in with a construction harness and taking aerial photos of the whales to determine, basically, how fat they are this year. (They told us we were looking good on the boat from above… with only a few snarky comments on our relative widths and potential “peanut-headed” status. A peanut-headed whale is unhappily skinny- they ought to be sleek and fat all down their bodies.)

Hopefully if we find evidence that the endangered Southern Residents are getting skinny, we might be able to convince interest groups to stop people from taking so much of their food source. Having watched the fishing boats seining for the past few days and hauling in nets of salmon, I’m not sure how they’d up the protection on Chinooks without impacting fishermen to the point of bankruptcy- I don’t understand how they could exclude the big (and tasty) fish while still catching enough of the small ones to make it worth their while. It’s not an easy problem, but it would be better to start fighting for the whales’ food now…

Also, helicopters are neat.

Finally for today, I know some of you have been reading along in the hopes of super cool leaping whale shots- I don’t blame you. But because I’m on a boat that is permitted to approach the whales pretty much as close as we need to get, it would be unchivalrous of me to use photos taken within the 200m permitted range for my own personal amusement and profit (aka this blog and my facebook page). I definitely super don’t want to get anyone in trouble or mess up anyone’s research or step on any toes, so all the whale photos I post on this blog will be fairly far away. THAT BEING SAID, some of my photos may go up on the Center for Whale Research’s website, http://www.whaleresearch.com. I highly recommend it- the people at the Center are constantly updating with whale encounters, awesome whale photos, and pages of ID guides and info on these animals. I personally think a membership to the website is worthwhile as well, and I can guarantee the proceeds from the memberships are well-used here.

I’m going to go try to photo-ID some more whale photos now. It’s getting slightly easier, but I’m nowhere near good enough to figure them out on the water. I’ve picked a few favorites that I’ll hopefully be able to spot next time we go out- stay posted for their stories!

Vicky Meets the Whales

Just completed my second day out on the water- apparently it’s rare to have two such full days as these past two have been, which might mean I have more time to update in the near future (forecast says rain, surprise surprise Washington…) but that I will have slightly less to say? Somehow, I doubt it. I always have something to say.

Anyways, basically this is the coolest internship ever. I’m on-site to jump in a boat and go hang out with, identify, and photograph amazing apex predators in their natural environment with (extremely patient) experts willing to answer all of my (millions of) questions about whales, their food, their habits, their moods, their habitat, and their future.

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Basically, we’re out to find, identify, census, and hopefully determine the sizes of the Southern Resident population of killer whales. But let’s back up a step here:

Killer whales are widespread, from Antarctica all the way to the Aleutian islands and possibly even farther north when there’s no ice. But that’s only if you consider every killer whale (Orcinus orca) to be part of a single species. You’ll notice I call them “killer whales”- I’m mimicking the scientists here, who are of the (undoubtedly correct) opinion that killer whales are not all one species, so it’s inaccurate to refer to them all as “orca.” The Antarctic/southern hemisphere whales probably haven’t had contact with their northern relatives for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Additionally, killer whales are further divided by their locations- northern and southern populations, close to shore or away from shore, Atlantic, Pacific, Aleutian, etc. and even further within those groups by their diet and group-specific culture. Yes, that’s right. Killer whales can be distinguished very clearly by their proprietary languages and cultures. They don’t interbreed between cultures (they’ve been described to me as “xenophobic”), look significantly different to those who know what to look for (eventually I will…) and haven’t traded genetic information in hundreds of thousands of years. In the wild, they are completely separate entities, and ought to be considered as multiple species across the globe.

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In the area we’re studying, three groups of killer whales can be found: residents, transients, and offshores. Offshores are the most rarely seen and least well-known, but it’s hypothesized from the state of their worn-down teeth that they eat sharks and live mostly off of the continental shelf. (WHAT.) Transients are the big mammal-eaters, taking down harbor seals and other kinds of whales with sneaky silent group efforts, and share nearly all the same spaces as residents. Residents and transients don’t compete for space (it’s a big ocean) or food, however, because residents eat nearly exclusively large Chinook salmon.

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Chinook salmon is the big stuff- the real deal, cherished by humans and whales alike. Complicating the already-sensitive reliance of the Southern Residents on these fish is the international border and fractured nature of interest groups in this area: whale-watchers want to conserve the whales, obviously, but also want close access to them; meanwhile, the US and Canada have to negotiate shares of ocean-caught salmon for their commercial and recreational fishermen; on top of this, native groups in both countries have ancestral claims to subsistence on the fish; and upstream pollution and dams and water loss are making it harder and harder for these sought-after snacks to breed every year. (In case you have never heard of salmon, they are born in high freshwater streams, make their way to the oceans to grow, then return up rapids and falls and long distances to their place of birth to generate their own offspring. Already a hard life for the lil’ guys. Or, you know, big guys…)

More on the whales themselves (their culture and language, especially) probably tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this at the end of your day:

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Goodnight whales. Goodnight internet. Goodnight little trailer and goodnight to you too.