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New baby killer whale in our waters: a closer look at why that’s not good news for our local orcas

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SEATTLE-- Whale watchers have spotted a new baby killer whale in the Salish Sea. It's some amazing new video of the estimated month-old marine mammal off the southeast coast of Vancouver Island. While the calf is a delight to see in Northwest waters, this newest one is a transient killer whale. So, it won't likely be roaming in our waters for much of its potentially 40-60 year lifespan.

"So, not all killer whales are the same," says Lynne Barre. She's with NOAA fisheries and the recovery coordinator for our Southern Resident Killer Whales. "The Southern Residents live in a busy urban environment with fishing and ferries and commercial boating and commercial whaling watching."

Our Southern Residents Killer Whales generally call the waters home around the south end of Vancouver Island in territory that extends out into the Pacific and down to the southern end of Puget Sound near Olympia. That's where you'll find Pods J, K, and L. The Northern Resident Killer Whales are where you'll find Pods A through the letter I. They're doing much better up north. The water is cleaner, quieter and they're closer to undisturbed (by humans) salmon runs.

"The Southern Residents are unique," says Barre. "They are specialists in Chinook salmon."

That's science-speak for saying the Southern Residents are really picky eaters. And the Chinook salmon they prefer are also a favorite of marine mammals like seals and sea lions in the Pinniped family. Places like fish ladders near dams and sometimes bridges that create choke points in waterways for migrating fish create easy eating for the smart pinnipeds. And to top it off, several decades ago, the federal government put the many of these hungry marine mammals on the protected species list.

"Without significant predation, their populations are out of control," says David Troutt. He's the natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe in the South Sound. "So, they're eating salmon but their eating way more than they've ever eaten before. It's causing huge impacts on our ability to recover [our] fish [populations]."

In studying what seals eat, by looking at their poop, his team noticed a curious thing when transient orcas visited Puget Sound. Juvenile salmon rates went from only 8 percent to 60 percent. That's a jump of 750 percent.

"So magnitudes of survival increase," says Troutt. "So our hypothesis is that the seals are eating our juvenile salmon as they leave and the transient [orcas] were either eating the seals or affecting their behavior and letting our fish get through."

But transient killer whales don't come around all that often, probably because their range covers nearly the whole planet. Fisheries experts say transient killer whales are the most widely distributed marine mammals found in parts of every ocean-- though mostly in the colder waters. Transients have different saddle markings, slightly different finds, and very different diet.

"Transient killer whales are amazing in their own way," says Lynne Barre. "They’re marine mammal eaters, so they’re eating seals and sea lions. And they work together in cooperative hunting in some places, so they have a unique social structure and approach to foraging as well."

And while globally, it's believed that transient orca populations are on the rise-- the chinook-eating Southern Residents are inching towards extinction. Only 76 whales remain in the three pods. And only a few dozen females of calf-bearing age are left. Contemplating a future with the Southern Resident is difficult.

"We feel a close connection to Southern Residents because of the family groups they live in," says Barre. "And the way they take care of their young and pass on information through generations. So, there’s something really special about Southern Residents"

And for the native tribes, whose family history with the orca go back centuries-- the loss would be both physical and spiritual.

"[Orcas] are so connected to salmon, and if we don't have the orca-- then we don't have the salmon," says David Troutt. "And that's a bad kind of future to think about. If resident killer whales can't sustain themselves then we've got massive ecological problems beyond just them."

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