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 discernable 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.
Suzanne Burns, 2015.
An adult male orca is an impressive beast and one not to be trifled with. Six tons of flesh, bone and blubber constitute this imposing dolphin. For all of his potential brute force and physical abilities, this male has a surprising secret, he is the ultimate Mummy’s boy.
He will live out his whole life in the family fold with his mother charting his course. Daddy is nowhere to be found. He was a romantic interlude many moons ago that lasted no more than an aquatic tryst. The young male progeny will go from a playful young buck to an impressive bull that will dwarf his mother. Adult females usually weigh between 3-4 tons, Their dorsal fins are less than half the size of the males prodigious 1.8 m (6 foot) fin which is so large that it provides a daunting spectacle on rapid approach.
Orca society is matriarchical and functions in a somewhat similar way to elephant society. The mother is the figurehead or matriarch of the family. She is responsible for keeping the family unit cohesive and for establishing feeding and migratory patterns. Her longevity and knowledge is pivotal in keeping the family together and for finding resources. Surprisingly, mothers tend to long outlive their sons and there is an interesting, albeit unfortunate reason for this.
In British Columbia, Canada there are 4 distinctive orca ecotypes, transient orcas that only eat mammals, resident orcas that only eat fish (one Northern and one Southern population) and offshore orcas that eat mainly sleeper sharks. For transient orcas in particular, there is a tendency to bioaccumulate large quantities of toxins in their body tissues. Being a top predator results in a toxic load accumulating in their bodies from the prey they are consuming over the course of their lives. When a female gets pregnant and gives birth, her first baby gets a particularly heavy hit from the toxins in its mother’s body. This is exacerbated by her milk, more toxins get passed unwittingly to the oblivious baby. This consequently diminishes a female’s toxic load over the course of her life each time she has a baby. Males are unable to offload this toxic burden so become more heavily loaded over time. Males tend to die younger as a result, with an average lifespan of 30 years, whereas wild females average 50 years, with some living into their 80’s and 90’s.
The male orca that has lived alongside his mother and siblings obviously has needs of his own but how are these satisfied when he is kept busy fishing for the family as well as babysitting? Luckily Mum has some other orcas that she knows who have some eligible lasses for her son to go and have some fun with. When the opportunity arises and one family happens to come across another then it is game on! When the male is sexually mature (usually from the age of 15) he will be free and ready to court a lucky lass from an unrelated family. Their encounter will be brief, he will go back to Mum and the rest of his family, as will she. If his conquest becomes pregnant, her family will help her raise her baby. The male that she tangled with will go back to his family and help raise any new babies his mum or sisters will give birth to.
The matriarch will go through menopause in her forties just like we do but will continue to live on and dote on her family and grandchildren. It has been found that even grown males who lose their mothers tend not to fare so well, and many even die after losing her. It is believed a combination of protection, companionship and assistance are important factors in maintaining the well being of the orca unit. And we thought our family bonds were strong?
Suzanne Burns 2014.
Humpback takes seal under its flipper to cheat predators
by Philip Hoare
The Guardian, Thursday 26 November 2009
There are plenty of stories of cetaceans saving humans. Indeed, Jonah was rescued by a whale when he was thrown overboard, and there have been tales of dolphins assisting swimmers in distress or shielding them from circling sharks.
Killer whales, however — themselves a species of dolphin — didn’t get their name for nothing. Early Basque whalers called them whale killers when they saw them attacking other whales. Hunting like a pack of wolves, orca know no fear. They’ll tear the throats from grey whale calves, and have even been known to take chunks out of sperm whales — the largest predators that ever lived.
But here’s a sight to gladden the eye. Earlier this year, Californian scientists Robert L Pitman and John W Durban sailed to the Antarctic in search of killer whales. They were looking for a possible new species, known to hunt Weddell seals — one of the plumpest of the pinnipeds (the suborder that includes seals and sea lions) — by washing them off ice floes with their wake.
That’s what was happening here — until a group of humpback whales arrived on the scene. Unlike orca, which are odontocetes or toothed whales, humpbacks are mysticetes, harmless leviathans with only baleen plates in their mouths.
Doubtless open-mouthed themselves, Pitman and Durban — along with a film crew from the BBC Natural History unit — watched as one seal, swept into the water by the orca, swam towards the humpbacks.
As the killer whales moved in, the plucky pinniped leapt on to the vast ribbed belly of a humpback, and nestled in the animal’s armpit. Not only that, but when a wave threatened to return the seal to danger, the humpback used its massive flipper (at five metres, the longest in the animal kingdom) to nudge it back on.
“Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe,” wrote the scientists. They believe the seal triggered a maternal defence mechanism in the humpbacks. Whatever the truth, it’s a heartening tale. But spare a thought for the orca. They’ve got kids to feed, too.
Whales, whales everywhere! This was how you could describe the incredible day we had on the M.V. Lukwa. We sailed down Blackney Pass bursting with anticipation. Word was out that the orca were back. We had been patiently waiting for this day and we were delighted when we first caught sight of them this morning.
A group of orca called the A42‘s appeared ahead of us to our starboard side! This family are descended from the A5 pod and are made up of five members. The mother is called ‘Sonora’ and she was born in 1980. She has four of her young with her. The oldest, born in 1996 is a male called ‘Surf’. He was joined by his siblings ‘Current’ and ‘Cameleon’ who were born in 2004 and 2008 respectively. The youngest one was born last year and is yet to be named. This family are ‘residents’ or fish eaters only and their fish of choice is chinook salmon.
As we were watching transfixed by the sight of these phenomenal pescetarians, humpbacks started to appear to our port side! One of the humpbacks which is known as ‘KC’ or Kelp Creature breached while we observed the orca! Four humpbacks were seen altogether and another was identified as ‘Guardian’ by Sophia our naturalist on board. Lots of sea birds were seen milling around the whales, attracted by the glut of food in the water. We observed five Steller sea lions in Weynton Pass, right in the kelp bed. Bald eagles swooped over the sea lions in their watery lair.
The afternoon trip was all geared up and ready to see some orca. We headed south towards Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. We got word from the reserve warden, Marie that the orca were still in the area, close to the rubbing beaches. Marie works for a voluntary organization called ‘Cetus’ that patrol the reserve and surrounding areas during the summer. They educate and advise local and incoming boaters and help protect the whales from boat strike and entanglement in props and fishing gear.
The orca did indeed reappear close to shore, east of the reserve. It was confirmed that it was the same orca family we had seen this morning. ‘Surf’ was swimming alone while the rest of his family stuck close together. They began to disperse after a while and we watched awestruck as they dipped and weaved around us.
Cruising past Cracroft Point, Blackney Pass we saw a humpback. It was suspended in the swirling water and rose and sank with grace and ease. For such an enormous creature, it could slink from view effortlessly. Alison, our naturalist identified the wily whale as ‘Argonaut’. This whale is so called as it has what looks like to be an ‘A’ notched into it’s fluke. Some speedy Dall’s porpoises appeared momentarily after Argonaut disappeared. They looked so tiny after seeing such a huge whale.
So it’s a very warm welcome back for our resident orcas. An incredible opportunity to see an orca family thriving in the wild and spending summer in our waters.
What makes a day special? Wildlife, and particularly whales! We had two fantastic trips today with a vast array of beautiful creatures, from Dall’s porpoises, harbour seals, Steller sea lions, Pacific white sided dolphins, humpback whales, deer, orcas, eagles, rhinoceros auklets and even a sea otter!!!
The porpoises were our entourage as we started our morning. They were superseded by seals hauled out on the rocks at Whitecliff Islands. A couple of sea lions were swimming around the Plumper islands. The dolphins got in on the action and approx. eight adults bow rode the boat to our amazement. In Bull Head, Weynton Pass which is synonymous with whales and orcas, we were thrilled to see six different humpbacks. Our boat naturalist Kyle was able to identify three of the whales. The ones he recorded were ‘Argonaut’, ‘Horizon’ and ‘Conger’. Our Captain Geoff got word that a rare sea otter was in the area. They are seldom seen on our trips so we were thrilled to see one at Whitecliff Islands. It appeared and then disappeared quickly, giving just enough time for a quick viewing.
Our afternoon trip was slightly damper with the rain coming in. Luckily the wildlife here are predominantly pelagic so pay no heed to such frivolous concerns. At the Plumper’s, the eagles swooped and soared over the trees. Argonaut came back with a big steaming breath near our port side. He had a companion to the starboard side which we were unable to identify. Within minutes, two more humpbacks appeared with one of them confirmed as ‘Guardian’ by Alison, our naturalist.
We got word from a local researcher, Jared Towers that transient or Bigg’s killer whales were close to Alert Bay so off we went. Our excitement mounted as we ventured forth to find ‘Blackfish’. A big male orca known as T012A was the first one we spotted, swimming close to the shallows. This is a 32 year old lone orca that is known to occasionally associate with other transients. A small family group of transients was then seen straight ahead of us known as the T109A’s. This family consists of a 24 year old female with three young ones that were born in born 2005, 2009 and 2012. These four initially appeared to be resting but then the young ones youthful exuberance took over. Breaching, spy hopping and tail slapping were all behaviours witnessed over the next half hour to our delight.
Heading back to port we saw some harbour seals with last year’s young. The Dall’s porpoises made another visit through the Plumper Islands. A guest from Switzerland spotted a young deer on shore nimbly leaping over the rocks. The eagles were seen to gather in the trees high above us, young and adults all vying for space on the branches. Below them, four male Steller sea lions broke the water surface in unison, before diving swiftly again. A day bursting at the seams with wildlife and incredible spectacles. We were truly blessed.
photo credit: NOAA/Vancouver Aquarium. Two killer whales share a moment, filmed by a remote controlled vehicle.
Even while being kept at a distance where it would not disturb the whales, the hexacopter took images so sharp it is possible to tell that some of the whales are pregnant.
The footage they took is disturbing. Some of the Northern resident orcas they tracked are lacking in body fat and in very poor condition. While they were tracking one, it failed to surface and appears to have died. While there could be many causes of death, the researchers are concerned that the whales in the area are affected by declines in the Chinook salmon population, one of their main food sources.
One particularly intriguing aspect was the observation that A46, the brother of the whale that died, called extensively after losing his sibling. NOAA’s John Durban speculates he may still have been seeking his lost brother, or telling the rest of the pod the sad news.
However, it’s not all grim times for the whales. The scientists managed to get the photo above of two orcas nuzzling (or maybe playfully head-butting) each other. Orcas spend their entire lives in family pods, which in some cases can be an entire century.
My contribution: One of my photos of the researchers is included in this film clip.
A mysterious and beautiful sea fog unfurled before us as we sailed through the Sounds this morning. In the gloom a whale could be heard breathing. It appeared briefly before heading to fathoms unknown. Within half an hour, the fog lifted to reveal the snow-capped mountains and dense forests. Three Dall’s porpoises were seen bow riding in the straits. Around the Plumper islands, over 60 seals were seen lolling about on the rocks and in thewater due to the low tide. Unusually enough, a group of Harlequin ducks were nestled in the rocks close to the seals. Another humpback whale was seen slowly surfacing. On seeing its fluke, our on board naturalist Kyle was able to identify it as ‘KC’ which is short
for ‘Kelp creature’. This whale got its name from being found as a calf in 2002, rolling around in the kelp! Today, it appeared doing a great log impression as it was moving slowly along, taking shallow dives and remaining close to the water surface. Off Stubbs Island over 20 bald eagles were observed feeding in the rip tide.
The glorious weather continued as wecruised out for our afternoon trip. The Dall’s porpoises came back to our
delight. They swam amongst various species of birds which included bald eagles and rhinoceros auklets. Pigeon guillemots ducked ahead of us, while young salmon or smolt leapt like pieces of silver out of the water.
The fog rolled back on in, but word of a large pod of Pacific white sided dolphins bolstered our spirits. Within moments we were surrounded by a bucking, flashing, whizzing pod all around us. We gasped and squealed in delight as the dolphins enveloped us along with the fog. Surrounded on all sides, hundreds of dolphins entranced us with an incredible display of acrobatics and bow riding.
According to Captain Wayne, for every dolphin we saw surface, approx. five dolphins were below. That was giving us numbers of at least 500!
Conger, a humpback which has been seen every year in this area site since 2009 was nexton the scene. Alison, our naturalist on board was able to identify it for us. We watched it glide effortlessly through the shallows.
We were also very lucky to observe a lunge feed. We had the advantage of seeing its white pectoral fin through the crystal clear water. This made it easy to track it’s movements as it fed.
‘KC’ showed up again near Cracroft point in Johnstone Strait. True to its name, it was seen with a strand of kelp draped across its face on surfacing! The fog was well and truly gone at this point. The sun and the scenery continued to deliver as we returned, well fed with wildlife images that would continue to endure.