It was 40 years ago today, April 1, that the Orca Survey Project began. For those of you that don't know the history, Center for Whale Research Director, Ken Balcomb was contracted by the US National Marine Fisheries Service in 1976 to complete a census of the wild killer whales of Washington State and southern British Columbia. Together with a few friends he established a non-profit organization called: “ Moclips Cetological Society", named after a small town on the coast of Washington where he lived when ashore. The plan was to spend six months aboard a research vessel conducting survey transits of the Greater Puget Sound Region (now called the Salish Sea) and taking photographs of whales that were encountered. The goal was to determine if Dr. Mike Bigg was correct in estimating the killer whale population size from individual identifications. He was.
In many ways, not much has changed for the people since the first year of Orca Survey. We are still conducting vessel surveys or on standby, waiting for the whales to show up, only now we base at Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, instead of mooring wherever we end the day. We still take photographs of whales and we also collect photographs from the public, but now they come mostly from whale watching boats, naturalists and avid local whale watchers. We still head out on the same 19" Boston Whaler, whenever the whales are within reach, and endlessly take photographs. A main difference now is that our photos are digital, and where 4 rolls of film (approximately 144 photos) would have been considered a big day in 1976, it is not uncommon for us to come home with literally thousands of photographs in one encounter! We now have found that many photographs from many angles are useful for evaluating the health condition of these whales – and we have more than a million health records! The hand drawn chart below shows the list of public sightings for the first month of the study in April, 1976. On April 1, three whales were sighted, with no time reported; on April 5, one whale was sighted at 11:30, and so on.
Our very first encounter was on April 8 with K and L pods. Below is Ken's log book entry from April 1.
We will release the log book entries and photographs from our first encounter next week! Stay tuned!