Ken Balcomb

Tag: Ken Balcomb

Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

UPDATE, Oct. 6
The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy.
In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and J51 were chasing the fish and J58 was right there in the middle of the action. After the chase, the threesome pointed down island and then inshore.”
—–
This year’s official census for the endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound will record one new orca death but no births from mid-2019 to mid-2020.
Because the census accounts for the southern resident orca population as of July 1 each year, this year’s report will not include the much-welcomed birth of J57, born on or around Sept. 4 to Tahlequah, or J35, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who compiles the annual census documents.

The head of the new calf, J57, can be seen alongside its mother, Tahlequah, or J35.
Photo: Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

Ken and his associates were able to complete the census and confirm the birth of the new orca calf after all three southern resident pods gathered together in widely dispersed groups on Sept. 5. After reviewing photos from that day, Ken has informed federal officials that this year’s census count will be 72 southern resident orcas. A formal report with photos and data about each whale is expected to be submitted by Oct. 1, as required by a federal contract for the census work.
In years past, all the whales were generally seen in and around the San Juan Islands by mid-June, so the census could be completed right after July 1. But in recent years, the whales have been coming back late and staying around for shorter visits — probably because of declines in Chinook salmon, their primary food source.
For the census, we have 22 orcas in J pod, 17 in K pod and 33 in L pod, for a total of 72. That does not count the new calf, born after this year’s census period, nor Lolita (Tokitae), the only southern resident whale still alive in captivity. For a list, see births and deaths by Orca Network or “Meet the Whales” by The Whale Museum. Last year’s census report listed four deaths and two births for the year (Water Ways, Aug. 6, 2019).
It is disappointing not to have any births to report for the annual census. The one death on the list is a male orca named Mega, or L41, said to be the prolific father of at least 20 offspring. Check out Water Ways, Jan. 30, or read the note of reflection that Ken wrote when confirming the death. Also of interest is an article from NOAA researchers discussing the breeding patterns of killer whales and what it means to lose a whale like Mega.
Even though the newest calf was not born soon enough to be counted with this year’s census, the news of the birth was happily received and widely reported. (See news release from CWR.) It was a great story, especially considering that Tahlequah is the same mom that mourned the loss of her previous calf in the summer of 2018, when she carried her dead offspring on her head for 17 days. During that time, Tahlequah, then 20 years old, traveled an estimated 1,000 miles throughout the Salish Sea in what was called the “Tour of Grief” by staffers at the Center for Whale Research.
The new calf is energetic and appears to be healthy, unlike some of the calves born in recent years, Ken told me. As many as 40 percent of young orcas in this group fail to survive their first year of life, and many more are believed to die in the womb.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/oxf9k2P2po8″%5D
Two other females appear to be pregnant at this time, based on recent aerial photos taken from a drone. Those whales are J41, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, and L72, a 34-year-old female named Racer, who also has one surviving offspring.
Sept. 5, the day the new calf was confirmed by orca researchers, was notable not just for the introduction of a young animal into the population but also for the fact that all three pods were essentially together for the first time this year.
Lodie Gilbert Budwill, community relations coordinator for CWR, posted a blog entry this morning about her personal experience on the water with Ken and the whales. She also posted a video, which I’ve shared on this page.
“Upon our arrival,” Lodie wrote, “the whales were spread across the border in social groups: some on the U.S. side, some still in Canadian waters. Ken spotted J35 and her calf from a distance and took photos with his telephoto lens. He commented while photographing, ‘Looks like a healthy and precocious baby.’ The calf was swimming next to J35’s side. It was a beautiful sight, mother and baby, both swimming…
“The female whale in the lead started vocalizing above water,” Lodie continued in her blog. “This made Ken giggle, and I couldn’t hold back an ‘Awwww!’ They stayed next to the boat positioned at the surface like this for several minutes. Ken photographed while I took video. I felt like I was witnessing a greeting ceremony between the whales and Ken!!!”
When it was time to go, the whales decided to follow Ken’s boat, according to Lodie’s vivid description. The whales were even porpoising through the water as they tried to keep up with the speeding boat.
“After several miles of breathtaking travel with escorts off both sides, Ken stopped the boat,” she said. “The whales stopped too. They moved in front of Chimo, just a short distance off the bow, and then engaged in a roly-poly, cuddle puddle.
“At this point, I was taking video with my jaw dropped to the floor! There are no words to fully describe this experience. It was like a love-fest of tactile behaviors at the surface of the water. We witnessed whales spy-hopping in unison, three and four at a time while cheek to cheek, rolling and twirling, pec-slapping, tail-lobbing. I felt like I was dreaming!”
Lodie ends her lively blog post with a very nice tribute to Ken, who is indeed a living legend.
A few final notes:
Smoke and killer whales: If the smoke from wildfires is not good for humans, then it’s not good for killer whales either. While one could hope that the whales would swim to an area with fresh air, the truth is that they are likely to stay in an area if they are finding fish to eat, Ken told me. In Alaska, a group of whales stayed in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, he said, despite the ongoing presence of irritating — and toxic — fumes coming off the oil.
Wildfire smoke can affect the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems in various ways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is likely to do the same for air-breathing marine mammals, including killer whales.
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Traveling whales: The southern residents should be venturing farther south into Puget Sound anytime now, as chum salmon begin to head back to their spawning streams. That’s the typical pattern of the orcas when the earlier Chinook runs decline. How long the whales remain in Central and South Puget Sound often depends on the size of the chum run.
Based on preseason forecasts by state and tribal biologists, we can expect to see one of the lowest chum runs in years. (See graph on this page.) Whether it will be enough to sustain the orcas for a while is yet to be seen.
Listen to orcas: Even when people can’t see the whales for the smoke, they can hear their calls with the help of underwater hydrophones in various places in Puget Sound. Such was the case last week, when dozens of scientists and other interested folks tuned in to Orcasound, according to a blog post by Scott Veirs, who coordinates the network. Thanks to Scott, here is a 30-second sample of what was heard near the San Juan Islands last week.

Orca census: One death in January, but no births were reported until September

UPDATE, Oct. 6
The newest calf among the Southern Resident killer whales was officially designated J58 after being seen alive and healthy on Sunday. The calf is the offspring of J49, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, J51 or Nova.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had been withholding the official designation until CWR staffers could be sure the newborn had survived and was healthy.
In Sunday’s encounter off San Juan Island, CWR staffers Dave Ellifrit and and Katie Jones reported, “Both J41 and J51 were chasing the fish and J58 was right there in the middle of the action. After the chase, the threesome pointed down island and then inshore.”
—–
This year’s official census for the endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound will record one new orca death but no births from mid-2019 to mid-2020.
Because the census accounts for the southern resident orca population as of July 1 each year, this year’s report will not include the much-welcomed birth of J57, born on or around Sept. 4 to Tahlequah, or J35, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who compiles the annual census documents.

The head of the new calf, J57, can be seen alongside its mother, Tahlequah, or J35.
Photo: Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

Ken and his associates were able to complete the census and confirm the birth of the new orca calf after all three southern resident pods gathered together in widely dispersed groups on Sept. 5. After reviewing photos from that day, Ken has informed federal officials that this year’s census count will be 72 southern resident orcas. A formal report with photos and data about each whale is expected to be submitted by Oct. 1, as required by a federal contract for the census work.
In years past, all the whales were generally seen in and around the San Juan Islands by mid-June, so the census could be completed right after July 1. But in recent years, the whales have been coming back late and staying around for shorter visits — probably because of declines in Chinook salmon, their primary food source.
For the census, we have 22 orcas in J pod, 17 in K pod and 33 in L pod, for a total of 72. That does not count the new calf, born after this year’s census period, nor Lolita (Tokitae), the only southern resident whale still alive in captivity. For a list, see births and deaths by Orca Network or “Meet the Whales” by The Whale Museum. Last year’s census report listed four deaths and two births for the year (Water Ways, Aug. 6, 2019).
It is disappointing not to have any births to report for the annual census. The one death on the list is a male orca named Mega, or L41, said to be the prolific father of at least 20 offspring. Check out Water Ways, Jan. 30, or read the note of reflection that Ken wrote when confirming the death. Also of interest is an article from NOAA researchers discussing the breeding patterns of killer whales and what it means to lose a whale like Mega.
Even though the newest calf was not born soon enough to be counted with this year’s census, the news of the birth was happily received and widely reported. (See news release from CWR.) It was a great story, especially considering that Tahlequah is the same mom that mourned the loss of her previous calf in the summer of 2018, when she carried her dead offspring on her head for 17 days. During that time, Tahlequah, then 20 years old, traveled an estimated 1,000 miles throughout the Salish Sea in what was called the “Tour of Grief” by staffers at the Center for Whale Research.
The new calf is energetic and appears to be healthy, unlike some of the calves born in recent years, Ken told me. As many as 40 percent of young orcas in this group fail to survive their first year of life, and many more are believed to die in the womb.
[iframe align=”right” width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/oxf9k2P2po8″%5D
Two other females appear to be pregnant at this time, based on recent aerial photos taken from a drone. Those whales are J41, a 15-year-old female named Eclipse who has one surviving calf, and L72, a 34-year-old female named Racer, who also has one surviving offspring.
Sept. 5, the day the new calf was confirmed by orca researchers, was notable not just for the introduction of a young animal into the population but also for the fact that all three pods were essentially together for the first time this year.
Lodie Gilbert Budwill, community relations coordinator for CWR, posted a blog entry this morning about her personal experience on the water with Ken and the whales. She also posted a video, which I’ve shared on this page.
“Upon our arrival,” Lodie wrote, “the whales were spread across the border in social groups: some on the U.S. side, some still in Canadian waters. Ken spotted J35 and her calf from a distance and took photos with his telephoto lens. He commented while photographing, ‘Looks like a healthy and precocious baby.’ The calf was swimming next to J35’s side. It was a beautiful sight, mother and baby, both swimming…
“The female whale in the lead started vocalizing above water,” Lodie continued in her blog. “This made Ken giggle, and I couldn’t hold back an ‘Awwww!’ They stayed next to the boat positioned at the surface like this for several minutes. Ken photographed while I took video. I felt like I was witnessing a greeting ceremony between the whales and Ken!!!”
When it was time to go, the whales decided to follow Ken’s boat, according to Lodie’s vivid description. The whales were even porpoising through the water as they tried to keep up with the speeding boat.
“After several miles of breathtaking travel with escorts off both sides, Ken stopped the boat,” she said. “The whales stopped too. They moved in front of Chimo, just a short distance off the bow, and then engaged in a roly-poly, cuddle puddle.
“At this point, I was taking video with my jaw dropped to the floor! There are no words to fully describe this experience. It was like a love-fest of tactile behaviors at the surface of the water. We witnessed whales spy-hopping in unison, three and four at a time while cheek to cheek, rolling and twirling, pec-slapping, tail-lobbing. I felt like I was dreaming!”
Lodie ends her lively blog post with a very nice tribute to Ken, who is indeed a living legend.
A few final notes:
Smoke and killer whales: If the smoke from wildfires is not good for humans, then it’s not good for killer whales either. While one could hope that the whales would swim to an area with fresh air, the truth is that they are likely to stay in an area if they are finding fish to eat, Ken told me. In Alaska, a group of whales stayed in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, he said, despite the ongoing presence of irritating — and toxic — fumes coming off the oil.
Wildfire smoke can affect the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems in various ways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is likely to do the same for air-breathing marine mammals, including killer whales.
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Traveling whales: The southern residents should be venturing farther south into Puget Sound anytime now, as chum salmon begin to head back to their spawning streams. That’s the typical pattern of the orcas when the earlier Chinook runs decline. How long the whales remain in Central and South Puget Sound often depends on the size of the chum run.
Based on preseason forecasts by state and tribal biologists, we can expect to see one of the lowest chum runs in years. (See graph on this page.) Whether it will be enough to sustain the orcas for a while is yet to be seen.
Listen to orcas: Even when people can’t see the whales for the smoke, they can hear their calls with the help of underwater hydrophones in various places in Puget Sound. Such was the case last week, when dozens of scientists and other interested folks tuned in to Orcasound, according to a blog post by Scott Veirs, who coordinates the network. Thanks to Scott, here is a 30-second sample of what was heard near the San Juan Islands last week.

Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time

UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out:

—–
“So far, no new babies to report.”
That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find.
July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts for every orca in the population and reports the number to the U.S. government. This has been going on since the 1970s, when the capture of orcas for marine parks was brought to an end.

K20, a 34-year-old female named Spock, was among the southern resident orcas visiting the San Juan Islands the past two days. // Photo: Monika Wieland Shields, Orca Behavior Institute.

In the not-so-distant past, the whales would generally return to Puget Sound in late May or June, after hunting for fish along West Coast. In most years, Ken and associates were able to spot every living southern resident orca at least once before July 1. That allowed him to report which whales had died and which ones had given birth.
For the past few years, the orcas have returned late, and often they have stayed a brief time while searching for schools of Chinook salmon, their primary prey. This year, the whales barely showed up at all, so Ken cannot yet tell us the exact status of the population. Under his federal contract, he has until October to report to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Experts say the whales are missing because the salmon are missing. Fraser River Chinook — the main reason that orcas frequent the San Juan Islands — have dwindled to low levels along with Chinook bound for rivers flowing into North Puget Sound.
One indication of the dire condition for Chinook is the Albion Test Fishery, which involves catching fish in nets off the Fraser River. In June this year, only four fish were caught during the entire month, compared to an average 322 fish caught during the same period from 2000 to 2009.
Roughly half the orcas in the southern resident population have been observed so far this year in one place or another, Ken told me. With some luck, the rest will be spotted this summer. So far, observers have seen no obvious signs of any whales missing from their family groups. We can hope that there will be no deaths to report. But the bad news is that no new baby orcas have been reported either.
More births are needed to maintain the population, let alone expand the number to avoid extinction. If no new births or deaths are reported, the population will stand at 72 animals — with 22 in J pod, 17 in K pod and 32 in L pod. See Orca Network for the full rundown.
Last year, the census showed 73 animals in the population, following four deaths and two births over the previous year. Since then, a 42-year-old male name Mega (L41) was declared missing and presumed dead in January. See Water Ways, Jan. 30, 2020.
Even J pod, known as the homebody group of Puget Sound, has been elsewhere most of the year and not observed in Puget Sound since mid-April. J pod was last seen in Barkley Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island two weeks ago (June 21), according to a Facebook post by Orca Behavior Institute with a video provided by CBC Vancouver.
A portion of L pod, known as the L18s, has been observed near Swiftsure Bank, a prime fishing spot just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Ken noted that a baby born last year, L124 named Whistle, was seen with the group.
San Juan Islands // Map: Pfly via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, two groups from K pod — the K12s and K13s — were seen off the west side of San Juan Island after they entered U.S. waters from Canada. The whales were still in the San Juans today, doing the “westside shuffle,” according to multiple reports.
“The residents are here!” wrote Cindy Hansen, Orca Network’s education coordinator, after spotting the whales. “That phrase has such a different meaning now. What used to be an almost daily occurrence here in the summer is now a momentous occasion that makes you drop absolutely everything you are doing and run out the door to try to catch a glimpse of them, because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance.”
Cindy’s post on Facebook, which received 111 comments by this evening, goes on to express her sudden fears that one or more whales will be missing, her sadness about the whales that have died and her frustration that ongoing human efforts are not enough to create conditions to keep the whales safe at home.
She also describes the excitement of seeing the whales and running into fellow whale enthusiasts, all watching from the shore.
“Even though you chat with some of them almost daily, there is something so special about standing on the rocks and talking and laughing and feeling so grateful to be here with the whales we all love,” she said. “It makes you remember that you aren’t alone and makes the fear and sadness and frustration easier to bear.”

Absent orcas: Most of the whales simply are not around to be counted at this time

UPDATE, JULY 3: Two new reports worth checking out:

—–
“So far, no new babies to report.”
That’s the latest word from Ken Balcomb regarding the southern resident orcas, the three pods of endangered whales that once frequented Puget Sound but lately seem hard to find.
July 1 marks the date of the annual killer whale census, a project carried out by Ken and his fellow researchers at the Center for Whale Research. Each year, Ken accounts for every orca in the population and reports the number to the U.S. government. This has been going on since the 1970s, when the capture of orcas for marine parks was brought to an end.

K20, a 34-year-old female named Spock, was among the southern resident orcas visiting the San Juan Islands the past two days. // Photo: Monika Wieland Shields, Orca Behavior Institute.

In the not-so-distant past, the whales would generally return to Puget Sound in late May or June, after hunting for fish along West Coast. In most years, Ken and associates were able to spot every living southern resident orca at least once before July 1. That allowed him to report which whales had died and which ones had given birth.
For the past few years, the orcas have returned late, and often they have stayed a brief time while searching for schools of Chinook salmon, their primary prey. This year, the whales barely showed up at all, so Ken cannot yet tell us the exact status of the population. Under his federal contract, he has until October to report to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Experts say the whales are missing because the salmon are missing. Fraser River Chinook — the main reason that orcas frequent the San Juan Islands — have dwindled to low levels along with Chinook bound for rivers flowing into North Puget Sound.
One indication of the dire condition for Chinook is the Albion Test Fishery, which involves catching fish in nets off the Fraser River. In June this year, only four fish were caught during the entire month, compared to an average 322 fish caught during the same period from 2000 to 2009.
Roughly half the orcas in the southern resident population have been observed so far this year in one place or another, Ken told me. With some luck, the rest will be spotted this summer. So far, observers have seen no obvious signs of any whales missing from their family groups. We can hope that there will be no deaths to report. But the bad news is that no new baby orcas have been reported either.
More births are needed to maintain the population, let alone expand the number to avoid extinction. If no new births or deaths are reported, the population will stand at 72 animals — with 22 in J pod, 17 in K pod and 32 in L pod. See Orca Network for the full rundown.
Last year, the census showed 73 animals in the population, following four deaths and two births over the previous year. Since then, a 42-year-old male name Mega (L41) was declared missing and presumed dead in January. See Water Ways, Jan. 30, 2020.
Even J pod, known as the homebody group of Puget Sound, has been elsewhere most of the year and not observed in Puget Sound since mid-April. J pod was last seen in Barkley Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island two weeks ago (June 21), according to a Facebook post by Orca Behavior Institute with a video provided by CBC Vancouver.
A portion of L pod, known as the L18s, has been observed near Swiftsure Bank, a prime fishing spot just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Ken noted that a baby born last year, L124 named Whistle, was seen with the group.
San Juan Islands // Map: Pfly via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, two groups from K pod — the K12s and K13s — were seen off the west side of San Juan Island after they entered U.S. waters from Canada. The whales were still in the San Juans today, doing the “westside shuffle,” according to multiple reports.
“The residents are here!” wrote Cindy Hansen, Orca Network’s education coordinator, after spotting the whales. “That phrase has such a different meaning now. What used to be an almost daily occurrence here in the summer is now a momentous occasion that makes you drop absolutely everything you are doing and run out the door to try to catch a glimpse of them, because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance.”
Cindy’s post on Facebook, which received 111 comments by this evening, goes on to express her sudden fears that one or more whales will be missing, her sadness about the whales that have died and her frustration that ongoing human efforts are not enough to create conditions to keep the whales safe at home.
She also describes the excitement of seeing the whales and running into fellow whale enthusiasts, all watching from the shore.
“Even though you chat with some of them almost daily, there is something so special about standing on the rocks and talking and laughing and feeling so grateful to be here with the whales we all love,” she said. “It makes you remember that you aren’t alone and makes the fear and sadness and frustration easier to bear.”

Missing orca named ‘Mega’ lived a long, productive life, says Ken Balcomb

A 43-year-old male orca named Mega, now missing and presumed dead, was one of the first new calves that researcher Ken Balcomb spotted when he began his extensive census of Southern Resident killer whales back in 1976.
Ken didn’t know it at the time, but the baby orca — one of nine born in 1977 — would grow to become a large, powerful whale, living up to his name by fathering at least 20 offspring of his own.
Designated L41, Mega was around throughout Ken’s career at the Center for Whale Research. Ken watched other baby orcas grow up and eventually die, with many perishing before adulthood. The average lifespan of a male resident orca was once calculated at 29 years old, Ken told me, though it may be less now.
Several years ago, Mega seemed near death, Ken said. “He was lethargic and breathing hard and was away from the other whales by a couple miles. We thought that was it for him.” But the next time his group of whales came around, he was doing much better.

L41, a male orca named Mega // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Last Friday, Mega was missing from his social group, known as the L12 subpod. Orca researcher Dave Ellifrit got a good look at the group, which is rarely seen in inland waters. Mega’s large, distinct dorsal fin provided a first sign that observers could use to identify the group. The aging male was looking rather thin a year ago, Ken said, and now all signs point to his death. Read the Center for Whale Research encounter from last week.
“We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community,” Ken wrote in a note of reflection on the Center’s website.
“We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s,” Ken wrote.
“To me, he was not particularly noticeable for his behavior,” Ken told me on the phone. “Until the genetic work, we never realized that he was quite a loverboy.”
A genetic study led by Mike Ford of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center found that two whales — Mega and Ruffles (J1) — were responsible for 80 percent of all the paternities where a father was identified. Mega produced 20 known offspring, of which 14 are still alive. Ruffles produced 16 known offspring, of which 12 are still alive. A few other males added one or two offspring each to the population.
Ruffles died in 2010 at an estimated 59 years old.
Mega’s death would bring the Southern Resident population to 72 whales, just one higher than the 71 orcas counted during Ken’s first survey in 1976. It was a year of recovery following the halt of a massive capture of whales for aquariums around the world.
In the early months of that first survey, Balcomb, along with the late Mike Bigg and others, identified the Southern Resident killer whales for the first time, using their unique markings, including a “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin. The researchers assigned them to one of their three major groupings, J, K and L pods. They also assigned numbers in the order they were first identified.
After the first year, the numbers were assigned in order that the whales were born. Thus L41, later named Mega, was among the first nine calves to receive their numbers along with a precise birth year. Of those nine whales, three are still alive: L54 or Ino, a female who has three living offspring; L55 or Nugget, who has four living offspring; and K14 or Lea, who has three living offspring.
Mega was unusual in that he lived many years after the death of his mother in 2000. Often, males survive only a year or two after their mothers are gone, presumably because older females share food with their more energetic male offspring.
As for Mega, he will be missed, but as Ken wrote, “He had a good life.”