Category: blackfish

Killer whale calves do a lot growing in their first year of life. This photo highlights the size difference between a yearling calf and a calf roughly one week old.

In Norway, killer whales have learned to associate the herring fishing vessels with an easy meal. When the nets are hauled in or the catch is transferred via pump to another ship, the whales are able to catch some of the fish that manage to escape.

There can be a lot of activity when this feast occurs—spyhops, flipper slapping, tail slaps, ect. Norwegian killer whales rarely breach, but the few breaches I did observe occurred only around the fishing boats. While these feeding opportunities are likely energetically beneficial for the whales as they don’t have to work to herd the herring towards the surface, it also comes with risk. There is always the chance of being caught in the nets.

Lots of spyhopping whales today! Norwegian killer seem to spyhop more than other populations, but they rarely, rarely ever breach.

On June 2nd, I had my very first encounter with Gulf of Alaska transient killer whales! This population of transients is not well known and many aspects of their lives are shrouded in mystery. We know they prefer Steller sea lions as a main source of prey and tagging studies show they will range as far as 60 miles offshore from Kodiak to Prince William Sound, and on rare occasions, Southeast Alaska and even British Columbia.

I recorded 7 of these transients, including: AT131 (the male), AT163, AT132, AT186, and AT193. They were foraging just off the beach near Land’s End Resort on the Homer Spit.

To the untrained eye, the differences between residents and transients are subtle. However, there are a few traits you can look at to tell if the whales you saw are residents or transients! A sloping eye patch is a common feature of transients, while the eye patches of residents tend to be more straight across. The saddle patches of transients tend to be very wide and broad—when you draw an imaginary line down from the dorsal fin, the saddle will almost always extend far past that midline, whereas a resident’s saddle patch will only peek over the midline.

Births are exciting. The arrival of a newborn into a family is something to celebrate, both in human and killer whale society.

The vocal behavior of resident killer whales undergoes a significant change in the days immediately proceeding the birth of a new calf. Each family group has its own unique calls that act as a “family badge” of sorts. When a calf is born, the whales increase the use of these calls after birth for up to two weeks. There are often increased rates of excitement calls as well.

Killer whale calves are not much different than toddlers —they often wander away from their mothers and many have strikingly independent personalities. It may be crucial for a newborn to quickly learn the family calls in order to recognize family members and maintain contact when they go a little too far astray. It is also vital for later in life as they will stay with their family members for their entire life.

This is a 2017 photo of AX87 and a new calf, probably born in 2016.

An AP pod female coming back down from an impressively high breach. She was doing what is called “popcorn” or “popcorning” by some whale researchers—multiple successive breaches in a very short period of time!

At first glance, this photo seems alarming—AP12’s ribs are prominent, suggesting she may be ill or not getting enough to eat.

HOWEVER!

This is a perfect example of how a single photo taken at a strange angle can make healthy killer whales look emaciated! In reality, AP12 is a chunky, rotund whale. After I took this photo, I watched her cavort around with her family, with no ribs visible whatsoever. Evaluating a killer whale’s body condition can be tricky and conclusions should never be made based off one photo taken at a weird angle like this one!

Long-term field studies of resident killer whales have resulted in a bit of a unique situation in the world of population biology: every single individual is known and documented. This holds true for the northern and southern resident killer whale populations.

In Alaska, however, there are still occasional undocumented pods of killer whales that pop up. This male belongs to one of those “mystery” pods. I have had only a handful encounters with this male and his equally unfamiliar companions. Curiously, I have only seen them in the company of more well known pods, such as AX27 pod, AP pod, and AS30 pod, never by themselves. It seems that even though they are strangers to us, they are old friends to the documented pods! I love a little bit of mystery and the fleeting glimpses I’ve had of this male and his family have left me wanting to know more about their pod structure and movements.

One of the more unique perspectives I’ve been able to capture. Love those baby killer whale snouts! This is AP3’s most recent calf, probably around 4 years old now.