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.
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.
Did you know that in 1983, SeaWorld attempted to capture 100 of Alaska’s killer whales? SeaWorld had been barred from capturing in Washington and British Columbia, so they looked farther north to acquire more killer whales for their parks. They had received a permit from NMFS to temporarily capture 100 whales in Alaskan waters to obtain blood samples, extract teeth, and take weight/length measurements. While 90 whales would be released, 10 would be kept and shipped off to their parks in California, Florida, and at the time, Ohio.
Naturally, this did not sit well with Alaskans. The proposed area of the captures, Prince William Sound, is an important region for the local resident killer whales and people feared captures could deplete the population and cause remaining whales to become scared of humans. The Tlingit people, who revere killer whales, branded the captures and cruel and exploitative. Some fishermen and environmentalists threatened to interfere with any of SeaWorld’s capture operations. Coincidentally, SeaWorld failed to file an environmental impact statement prior to issuance of their permit—several groups, including the Sierra Club, challenged the permit in court on this basis. Their permit was voided by a federal judge in 1985 and SeaWorld was not allowed to conduct the proposed captures.
Knowing that the whales I study and love could have been subjected to cruel procedures or confined to tanks to splash tourists in Florida sends a shiver up my spine. The removal of even one female whale would have had profound impacts on the pods—a productive female can leave as many as 15 descendants over 3 generations. Had even a few of these whales been captured, I might not have had the privilege to view the whales I see today! I am extremely grateful Alaskans stood up to SeaWorld and prevented them from disrupting Alaska’s wild whale populations.
Education matters. As a naturalist and a marine biology student, I am deeply entrenched in all things whale, killer or otherwise. I view them as an extension of myself, and it’s not uncommon for me to react to the phrase “killer whale” as if I heard somebody call my name.
When I first became a naturalist, it was startling to me how little most passengers know about whales. It is so easy for us, entrenched in our whale-centric circles, to forget that to most people, whales are foreign. These are creatures many only see in films or photographs. When I am asked questions like “Are orcas and killer whales the same thing?” I am reminded how crucial education is! Whenever we see whales on our tours, I make it a priority to ensure every passenger has a chance to learn something new, even if it means lugging my laptop and camera around to 70 different people to explain how photo-ID works. The only thing that makes me happier than seeing whales is seeing people’s faces light up as they are introduced to the wonderful world of whale science.
2018 brought many unusual wildlife sightings to Kachemak Bay.
We saw an increased amount of killer whales throughout the summer, of course, but the whales were often accompanied by tiny pelagic birds which I had only seen once before: fork-tailed storm petrels! These seabirds prefer open-ocean habitats and only come near land to breed—curiously, Kachemak Bay is not a nesting site of storm petrels, but nevertheless, hundreds of them were present in inner Kachemak Bay for a few weeks.
They often followed the resident killer whales, swooping low next to their dorsal fins. Perhaps they were looking for any fish scraps the foraging whales might have left behind. Here is a photo of 10 year old AS48 being buzzed by a storm petrel.