top of page

Where are all the whales?

A photo of CWR Staff with a group of L's in 2010.


We have started off the summer field season going full speed at the Center. For the last two months, we have been especially busy! Between kicking off our first ever naturalist class, all the events of Orca month, Superpod, film crews and our long list of projects, we have hardly had time to catch our breath. Let alone write a blog! As for the whales and the weather however, summer on the islands has been off to a slow start. It was just last week (July 14) before we had seen all the Southern Residents this year. J pod has been drifting in and out of the area, but mostly in fragments and individual matrilines. All of the K’s have been in but not all at once. Same goes for L pod: in and out, but not all together. Until this week, it was starting to feel a lot like 2013, when the whales were noticeably absent from their core summer habitat. 2013 was one of the two worst years on record for Chinook salmon, as measured by the Albion Test Fishery. Not coincidentally, the whale's presence in the Salish Sea that year was also at an all time low. In July of 2013, J pod was only present 5 days. K pod was also present those same 5 days, with two more days of partial pod presence. The majority of L pod was present on only 4 days, and there were no days in July where all of L pod was present. So far, this season is not looking much different. Although J pod has been around this last week with the L12s, they have mostly been spread out all the way from Cattle Point to Active Pass.


This graph shows the attendance of J pod in June 2004-2016. The striped bars are for years when only part of J pod was present within the core summer habitat.


The pattern this year is a continuation of what we have been seeing over the past 5 or so years: the pods as we know them are disintegrating. We are no longer able to talk about J pod, for example, as a whole unit. We are now referring to groups of whales in terms of matrilines and pod fragments. The impetus for this blog was to look back at our 40-year history to make comparisons and parallels with what we know now, versus when we started out. We talk frequently at the Center about what conclusions would we draw about this population if the study had started today. Would we be able to lump these fragmented groups into pods? If so, how many pods would we have in the Southern Resident clan? We all agree that we would not be able to draw the same conclusions. L pod would likely be split into at least 3 different pods, L87 would likely be assumed to be J2's son, and K pod might be considered an entirely separate population- we exaggerate slightly here:). Seriously though, people frequently ask why it is important to keep studying the same 80-ish whales year after year. These apparent changes in association and pod cohesion are just one answer to that question. If it were not for the years and years of research, we wouldn't know that what we are seeing now is not "normal" for this population. The days of seeing the J16's and being able to say with confidence, that the rest of J pod is close by or at least in the area, are over. In the wake of Superpod 5 (a week-long event for killer whale researchers, journalists, film makers and activists) we have been remarking on the relative absence of a true killer whale superpod in “classic” sense- as Dave would say. A classic superpod meaning an occasion when all members of all three pods are all together and socializing. We could not collectively remember the last time we saw that behavior, nor even a day when all the whales were at least in Haro Strait together.


The above graph shows J pod sightings April through September in the core summer habitat from 2004- June 30, 2016.


The Albion test fishery data for this year looks a little better than the all time low numbers we saw in 2012-13, but not by much. The general assumption is that if there is no salmon here then the whales will go somewhere else. We all hope that "somewhere else" has more salmon for them to eat than what is available here. But, based on the baseline data and years of observations that tell us that the pods tend to stick together and forage together, we could argue that they are not finding enough to eat anywhere. If we just talk about J pod, and say that the "norm" is that all of the J's travel together, it is pretty clear that the norm is changing. Even in recent encounters it is apparent when we have all of J pod, except the J11s. What is causing the "break-up" of J pod, the historically most pod-like of all the pods?? It may very well be that, not only is there not enough salmon here to feed all of J pod, there is not enough salmon to feed them "somewhere else" either. If there were enough to eat somewhere out there, wouldn't they all be there together?


This graoph shows the cumulative CPUE as of July 1 for each of the years starting in 1988, with the dashed line representing an adjustment for the late start (using 2012 as the reference year for a “late start”).


Even if they are finding enough to eat wherever they are, the fragmentation of the pods is likely not a good thing. Orcas are highly social animals. When they are not spread out and foraging, they typically travel within one body length of one another. We know from studies and from the history of the captures how strong their social bonds are. What we don't know is just how important social cohesion is to their overall health. In humans, long term starvation can cause all kinds of emotional disorders, including social withdraw, decreased sex drive and apathy. Breakdown of community can also have similar effects in humans. Recent studies have shown that the whales are under nutritional stress, whether or not there is any corresponding emotional stress may never be known. Either way, aside from lack of food, boats, toxins etc., breakdown of community/social structure could be imposing a whole other layer of stress and associated health consequences that we cannot see or measure.

Maybe this is all conjecture, but there is little reason to believe that the things that cause stress in humans do not have similar effects on other mammals. All else aside, the fragmentation of the SRKWs has some issues that we can see. For one thing, it has made our job a lot harder than it used to be. Being able to say with confidence exactly which whales are in the core habitat area on a given day has become a difficult task. Our main job is the same now as it was in 1976, to keep a complete census of the SRKWs. With the whales spread out all over the place, we are less able to do that job. Even with more than one boat on the water, these days we cannot cover the distance between all whales in one encounter. When the whales are spread out over several miles, and in groups of 1-2, we have to spend a lot more time and fuel checking everyone off our list. We will discuss what that means for us and what we plan to do about it in the next several blog posts, stay tuned….. *Thanks to Jane Cogan for providing and creating the grafts used in this post


KILLER QUESTION: This is where we answer some of the best questions we receive from our members and on social media. Send us an email to submit your own Killer Question

Q: How does the structure of the Orca brain compare to the human brain? Has an Orca ever had an MRI? Do we have any idea what physical similarities Orcas brains have to ours? People regularly anthropomorphize Orcas in their political quests to protect the awe inspiring cetaceans. But how much do we really know about Orca minds, feelings, and perspectives?

A: Yes, a killer whale brain has been scanned through a MRI. Killer whales have the second largest brain of all marine mammals, weighing as much as 15 lbs. A human brain weighs about three lbs. There are several differences in structure, but one of the most interesting is the difference in the limbic lobe. In humans it is associated with emotions, behavior and memories. In orcas this structure is many times bigger and more complex than that of humans. As for their minds, feelings and perspectives, we can only guess at this point. They clearly express a range of emotions and have strong social bonds with one another. It does not seem far fetched that in some ways their minds might operate similar to our own.

bottom of page