Whales: Good news, all around…

First – the blue whales – they’re back!!!!!

Blue whales, on the move...NOAA photo.
Blue whales, on the move…NOAA photo.

California blue whales, the largest animals on Earth once driven to near extinction by whaling, have made a remarkable comeback to near historic, 19th-century levels, according to a University of Washington study released on Friday.

The recovery makes California blue whales – which study authors say now number about 2,200, or 97 percent of historical levels – the only population of blue whales known to have recovered from whaling.

“The recovery of California blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management and conservation measures,” said Cole Monnahan, a University of Washington doctoral student and lead author of the study.

Here’s the rest of the story.

There’s a new killer whale calf  in the Salish Sea….

Newborn Southern Resident orca L120 with family off San Juan Island, WA, USA. It's the first birth in the population since 2012.  Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
Newborn Southern Resident orca L120 with family off San Juan Island, WA. It’s the first birth in the population since 2012. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

Looks like the welcome news is…the baby looks healthy! The numbers of the Southern Resident Killers Whales (SRKW) have dropped to around 78 (they were in the high nineties around twenty years ago), and have been assigned to the US Endangered Species list.

This past week, several whale watch operators (I think Jim Maya was the first) reported an apparent calf – see the peach-coloured spot in the picture? That’s customary for newborns.

The new orca’s mom is from L pod  – L86 – and has been given the number L120. It’s L86’s second calf, which is good, as the first calf often is the weakest of the kids any given killer whale mother produces. That wasn’t the case with L86’s first calf – hers died because of human activity.

L86’s first calf (named Victoria or Sooke, L112) died two years ago from some sort of percussive force (here’s the 2012 story in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the more detailed and better writeup by Monika Wieland, when it happened).

Grim stuff.

Here’s more about the new calf with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, and the Center for Whale Research.


A couple of weeks ago: Killer whales bothered by humpbacks (that’s backwards!)

Humpbacks confront their aggressive ocean relatives (but they're not THAT close....)
Humpbacks confront their aggressive ocean relatives (but they’re not THAT close….)

Here’s video of an extremely rare happening – humpbacks apparently bugging orcas, down near Monterey off the California coast in the States. Click here to see the videos

Whales: Attack by killer whale…unlikely, according to expert

Orca expert and rescue founder Dr Ingrid Visser with an orca in Whangarei Harbour some years ago. Photo/Michael Cunningham
Orca expert and rescue founder Dr Ingrid Visser with an orca in Whangarei Harbour some years ago. Photo/Michael Cunningham

Human/killer whale attacks are rare, which prompts this expert in New Zealand to suggest this event was unfortunate, but more of an accident – here’s more:

An expert on marine animals is skeptical about reports of an orca grabbing a free diver’s catch bag and dragging him underwater until the rope became free.

Whale rescue co-founder, Far North-based Jo Halliday said it was not unheard of for such an incident to occur but she doubted it was a case of “whale attacks man”.

Levi Gavin, who was diving for kina and crayfish two weeks ago at Horahora estuary, on the coast east of Whangarei, said he was dragged beneath the water for about 40 seconds after the orca grabbed the catch bag tied to his right arm.

Mr Gavin described being down to his “last breath” in a death spiral, and trying to relax to conserve his breath as the huge creature dragged him deeper and deeper.

(Here’s the rest of the story from the New Zealand Herald)

Whales: Capturing our brother & sister killer whales, in Russia

russian_orcas2_2012_tatiana_ivkovich_feropIf the marine entertainment industry folks tried to capture orcas in Atlantic waters, or off the Pacific coast….you bet there would be a fight.

So they’re doing it in the cold seas of Russia. According to Erich Hoyt:

Four more orcas have now been confirmed to have been captured in Russian waters for ocean amusement parks and aquariums. That makes seven total captured in the past 2+ months in two separate captures in the Sea of Okhotsk—the massive far eastern inland sea of Russia, lying due north of Japan. Having spent time with these wild, beautiful orcas, I feel personally, as well as professionally, depressed about these developments.

The first 2013 capture happened in mid-August. The three orcas, or killer whales, were taken by a Russian catching team, the same team that caught a female orca in the same general area at the same time last year. For the past year, that young female — someone named her Narnia and the name stuck — has been swimming alone in a tiny makeshift pen near Nakhodka (Vladivostok area), awaiting her fate. The rumors have consistently pointed to her eventual transfer to Moscow.

Here’s more.

Whales: Twenty years after “Free Willy,” what have we learned, and what have we missed…

It was twenty years ago, today....(actually, July 16th....)
It was twenty years ago, today….(actually, July 16th….)

Do you remember where you were, the first time you saw Free Willy? For me, it was in a movie theatre in Eugene, OR, USA, with a packed house that screamed & cheered & clapped when Willy gets away at the end (see the poster at right, for spoiler). It was a football game where the home team won, a fairy tale that wasn’t Grimm, it was a tale of justice, unpeeled. It was awesome.

One of the byproduct events of the movie was the eventual real-life release of the whale who played Willy, a captive killer whale named Keiko. Was this a good idea? DId it work out? Did humans learn anything from the experience about orcas, or about themselves?

I got to shake David Kirby’s hand last summer when he was passing through Friday Harbor (WA) on a promotional tour for his new book, Death at SeaWorld. I found him thoughtful, articulate, and an impassioned warrior against marine mammal captivity. Reading Death at SeaWorld made want to read the article linked below.

He shares his take on what we could have learned, what we missed, and perhaps what lies ahead in this penetrating essay. Let me know what you think.

Here’s the link to David Kirby’s remarks about Keiko on the 20th anniversary of Free Willy.

And…. here’s the trailer for the movie, back then.