Category: killer whale

One of the most exciting parts of this season was recording a new Gulf of Alaska transient calf! 

Our first encounter of the summer was on June 2nd with a group of GOA transients, including the adult female AT163. She did not have a calf with her at this time. 

We didn’t see AT163 again until around 2 months later in late August. She was with a group of about 7-8 other individuals, some of which she had been traveling with in our June encounter, and some were whales I had never seen before. Most surprisingly, she had a brand new baby with her, indicating she had been pregnant when we last saw her. The calf was quite small and could not have been older than 2.5 months,  though I suspect it was probably only a few weeks to a month old at most based on the size. 

This may be AT163′s first calf, though it is difficult to know due to the infrequency of GOA transient encounters. 

Hello! I am still here! Apologies for the long absence–I’ve been very busy and simply haven’t had the time to update this account.

Our season wrapped up in early September. It was an interesting summer. Alaska was hit with an unprecedented heat wave, with temperatures regularly reaching 70-80 degrees F over the course of July. We also had terrible wildfires that made the air quality quite horrible. There were several days where it was nearly impossible to be outside without inhaling smoke. Climate change certainly made its presence felt this year. 

It was also a fairly odd year for whale sightings. Our main sightings for the last two summers have been resident killer whales, though we only encountered them three times from May to early September. AP pod did not show up at all (however, I do have at least one confirmed sighting of them on the outskirts of the bay in July). Instead, Gulf of Alaska transients made up the bulk of our killer whale sightings. They were present all summer long inside Kachemak Bay and were recorded hunting seals and harbor porpoises. The humpback whales also had bizarre timing this year. We saw a few lone individuals in June and early July but they were always leaving the bay when we encountered them and did not stay more than a few hours at most. In July, we went 27 days without encountering a single whale of any species, the longest stretch in the four years I’ve worked this job. But when August rolled around, it was like a switch flipped! Humpbacks began showing up in the bay and stayed for over two months, consistently feeding in key areas of the bay. They even showed up in numbers higher than in the last two years. All in all, a strange year. 

I’ll share some more photos from key encounters a little later, but these are some highlights from this summer. 

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.

I did it! Today I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Southeast. All of my hard work over the last four years has all been for one thing—the whales. I will use this degree to learn more about these amazing, charismatic animals and to help conserve their populations. I can’t wait to see what the next adventure will be!

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.