From the September 1987 issue of 48° North by Louise Mastrantonio
Cold and alone one night, in the cockpit of a small sailboat, in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I watched a sliver new moon drift in and out of the fog and waited for my watch to end.
Then, without warning, came a sound somewhere off to starboard. A low “whoosh.” And again “whoosh.” Unforgettable. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. Yet I knew it had to be the orca, the “killer” whales of Puget Sound, for we had seen them earlier in the day.
I have seen killer whales many times since, but that night lingers in memory, a haunting experience. I don’t know just why. Perhaps it was because I felt – close up – the very life and breath and voyage of another species.
The Orca (Orcinus orca) sometimes called “killer” whales or grampus, are one of the most fascinating mammals that inhabit the coastal region of the Pacific Northwest. Warm-blooded and air breathing, they belong to the order cetacean (whales, porpoises and dolphins) and are among the most widely distributed whales in the world.
Scientists with the Moclips Cetological Society at Friday Harbor began studying the orca in 1976, shortly after the Canadians began similar work. Together, their research is the longest, most thorough fielded study ever undertaken of a group of wild whales. Over the years, much had been learned. In the first place, they are not killers at all. Ocean-going orca feed on marine mammals and sometimes attack larger whales, but the orca that live in Puget Sound eat mainly salmon and other fish.
Orcas are highly intelligent, individualistic, have strong family ties, engage in play, greeting rituals, and have been known to “befriend” people on occasion. They live in small family units known as pods, social groups that serve several purposes: for feeding, nurturing the young, identity, socializing and play.
Partly because the orca are so individualistic, scientists have been able to track individual whales and learn much about their social behavior. Three separate pods have been identified – a total of seventy-seven animals. “J” pod now has 18 members, “K” pod has 11, and “L” pod has 48. These orca are “resident” to Puget Sound and never venture into the ocean. Each whale has a name and number and has its photo taken yearly. No, there’s no line up for mug shots! The whales are photographed in the course of field research and the photos are studied at year’s end to identify new or missing members.
In 1985, researchers reported the birth of five new calves and the disappearance of three whales from “L’ pods: Wanda, an old adult female; Kimo, an adult female between 30 and 60 years old; and Neptune, an adult male who may have had a unique social role among the whales.
Neptune appeared to act as an intermediary between the three pods and regularly went off to “consult” with one pod or another. Orca Update, a publication of The Whale Museum (sponsored by the Moclips Cetological Society), reports that “on one occasion in 1979, he almost appeared to be officiating during an intermingling session, when he hovered in the same spot for fifteen minutes, as tight groups of whales from all three pods did a gyrating circle dance around him.
Killer whales communicate by underwater calls. Each pod had it own dialect. Transient (ocean going orca) and resident pods in Puget Sound tend to ignore each other, but residents engage in elaborate “greeting” ceremonies when they meet.
In captivity, killer whales are the main attraction at marine parks around the country, thrilling young and old alike with their acrobatic leaps and dives and spraying water over viewers. Handlers say they respond more to the affection of their human trainers than to fishy rewards.
Hunting between 1965 and 1976 drastically reduced the Puget Sound orca population, but both state and federal law protect them now. It is illegal to kill or capture any wild animal or to approach closer than 100 yards without a federal permit. There is still concern about the future of the orca in Puget Sound, however, because of environmental pollution.
As of December 31, 2015, the Southern Resident Killer Whales population totaled
84 individuals: “J” Pod=29, “K” Pod=19 “L” Pod= 36.