NOAA Orca Research: Finally, the Waiting Pays Off

Orcas with ferry in background

A pod of orcas travels on the same route as Puget Sound ferry commuters

Seattle Aquarium Community Engagement Manager Darcie Larson recently had the opportunity to assist scientists from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center with their research on the local endangered orca population, the Southern Resident killer whales, which consist of J, K and L pods. These whales are frequent visitors to the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest and are even sometimes seen in Elliott Bay, right in the “backyard” of the Seattle Aquarium. NOAA has identified three main threats to this population of approximately 85 whales: scarcity of food (salmon); high levels of contaminants from pollution; and disturbance from vessels and sound. During the summer, the Southern Resident pods can often be found around the San Juan islands, about 100 miles northwest of Seattle. In the fall and winter, the whales follow salmon runs into central and southern Puget Sound, bringing them close to Seattle. Researchers obtain a permit to follow the whales in a boat flying a yellow flag, allowing them to come much closer than the 200-yard minimum distance that other boaters are required to maintain. From the research boat the scientists collect a variety of information about the whales to determine if recovery efforts are helping or what other efforts should be made.

Assisting the researchers allowed Darcie to get a firsthand look at all the work that goes into studying these amazing animals, and share the experience and knowledge she gained with others through her work at the Seattle Aquarium. Learn about Darcie’s experience in this 3-part blog.

Part 1: Waiting For Whales

Part 2: Still Waiting For Whales

Part 3: Finally, the Waiting Pays Off

Darcie on NOAA research boat with orcas

Darcie observes L-92 from NOAA’s research boat

So, after three days of waiting, the whales didn’t come around and I had to head back to Seattle. However, happily I had another chance to help out with the research, this time much closer to home! My opportunity to see the whales came when they made a brief tour into central Puget Sound. I was back at work at the Aquarium when I got the call from the researchers: could I meet them at the marina in an hour? There were reports that part of L pod had cruised down Admiralty Inlet the night before, and were seen again that morning. I quickly rescheduled some meetings, grabbed some granola bars and a water bottle, and went to meet up with the researchers. We headed north on the research boat and it took over an hour to sight the dorsal fins of the whales up ahead of us. As we carefully motored closer to the group of traveling whales, one of the researchers took photos of each whale’s dorsal fin and saddle patch to confirm that these whales were part of L pod. Two whales that I got a good look at were L-90, a 19-year-old female, and L-92, a 17-year-old male. An adult male’s dorsal fin can be up to six feet tall, whereas an adult female’s dorsal fin is about half that size. L-92’s fin looked pretty tall to me though I can’t say what its exact height was. But I could easily tell the two whales apart by the size of their dorsal fins. A practiced eye is required to identify the whales using their saddle patches, though some are more distinctive than others.

Orcas traveling side by side

Orcas surfacing for a breath together

The whales were resting almost the entire time we were observing them, traveling side by side in a line. They would surface all together and take three or four breaths before going for a longer dive of about five minutes, then repeat the synchronized surfacing. They continued to travel north at a very slow pace for a few hours, with some of the younger whales doing an occasional tail slap as if to say, “Isn’t our nap over yet?” Of course that’s just my interpretation of what they were saying, since I don’t speak orca. A couple whales did spy-hop while we were with them, their heads peeking up out of the water to take a look around (their eyesight is similar to ours, and they can see well both above and below the water).

Orca fin and research boats

Whale watchers come from all over the world to see our local orcas

Research boat and orcas

NOAA research boat in action, photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

But mostly they were resting. Normally, boaters are required by law to stay at least 200 yards away from orcas. Since the NOAA scientists are operating under a special research permit, they sometimes carefully maneuvered the boat close enough so that we could actually smell the whales’ fishy breath and feel the spray from their blows. The permit was issued because the research was determined to be important to help protect this vulnerable population, outweighing the potential for any disturbance to them.  Other than a handful of other boats and a container ship that passed through, it was a quiet day on the water. This is quite different from the situation the whales encounter around the San Juan islands during the summer months, when the inland waters are teeming with all types of boats. After working as a naturalist on a whale watch boat based on San Juan Island, as well as sailing each summer on my own sailboat in and around the San Juan archipelago, I know firsthand how noisy and crowded these home waters of the iconic orcas can be.

We identified the whales and then proceeded to follow them to try and collect poop, prey samples, or anything else they might leave in their wake. The DTAG study season had been completed so no tagging was done on this day. One of the samples we picked up was mucus, as if a whale had “blown its nose”— kind of gross but it could reveal some information about the health of the whale once analyzed back at NOAA’s lab. We collected several poop samples too. The poop was kind of slimy, liquidy and brown. It didn’t really have a smell that I noticed (though I didn’t stick my nose too close). You have to love science! My job was to help with the nets used to collect the samples: they’re like nets you would use to skim leaves off a swimming pool. I would clean them after they had been used to collect a sample. And, after a few hours out on the boat, we headed back to the marina.

It’s such an amazing and humbling experience to observe these whales in the wild. I feel very fortunate that I helped with this important research to try to learn more about the health of the orcas, and what we can do to protect them. I also have a great appreciation for what it takes to be a wildlife biologist—you just never know what’s going to happen. You might be waiting around for days, or you might have to drop everything when an opportunity to observe your study animal suddenly arises! Special thanks to NOAA researchers Brad Hanson, Marla Holt and Candice Emmons; University of Washington graduate student Juliana Houghton; and Jeff Hogan and Pam Martin of Killer Whale Tales.

To learn more about orcas, visit our Orcas in Puget Sound webpage.

All photographs taken under federal research permits and except where noted are courtesy of NOAA.

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