2017 Encounters

Encounter #59 - Aug 2, 2017
T120 et. al.

T120 et. al.

Photo by Ken Balcomb



Photo by Ken Balcomb

Photo by Ken Balcomb

Photo by Ken Balcomb


for Orcas

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Date: 02-Aug-2017

Sequence: 1

Encounter Number: 59

Enc Start Time: 16:22

Enc End Time: 16:47

Vessel: Chimo

Observers: Ken Balcomb and Gail Richard

Pods or ecotype: Transients

Location: Strait of Juan de Fuca

Begin Lat/Long: 48 13.595N/122 58.867W

End Lat/Long: 48 13.189N/122 57.783W


Encounter Summary:

For the past few days we have been hearing reports of a couple of “exotic” Transients in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet, but they have been a little bit distant from our base on San Juan Island, and we usually hear the report late in the day. Today, however, we happened to get an early afternoon report of a small group of Ts between Ediz Hook and Dungeness Spit not far from our new auxiliary launch site in Port Angeles. Though the report was in the afternoon it was feasible with glass-calm seas to go out and check it out in hopes that it would turn out to be the “exotics”. It was, and by the time we caught up with them they were travelling with some of the T46Bs in a small group of five whales foraging just south of Eastern Bank and travelling toward Admiralty Inlet. The “exotics” are T117 and her presumed son T120, and this is the first time we have seen them in the Salish Sea, though they may have been here and not seen/identified. The T117s have been documented in recent years in the Johnstone Strait region by Jared Towers, and were first identified by John Ford in that area in 1990; but, they have only been seen occasionally anywhere. For this reason they have been given the moniker “exotic”, but they are no different than others of their ecotype. Their appearance in the core Salish Sea region represents a continuation of a very remarkable incursion of the Bigg’s Transient ecotype whales into the Salish Sea in recent years. We have documented nearly 200 whales of this population in the Salish Sea in this year alone! Their total population is now more than 250, and they are remarkably successful at producing babies with their numbers growing while the “Southern Resident” ecotype population is dwindling. This is a classic demonstration by Mother Nature of predator/prey relationships – any natural predator population must exist within the “carrying capacity” of its food source. In this case, the food supply of the Transient ecotype whales (mostly harbor seals) is currently abundant due to their rebound from culling in the 1960s, and the food supply of the Resident ecotype whales (mostly Chinook salmon) is dangerously scarce due to extreme overfishing in the 1970s and 80s together with management policies that prioritize economic metrics over ecological metrics. That is to say, we humans are managing resources for human economic benefit, not for sustainable ecological health. For example, in the 1980s, after grossly overfishing Chinook salmon destined for Salish Sea rivers (human harvest of 1.4 to 1.9 million natural run Chinook per year), the management policy shifted toward hatchery production and smolt release timing of these fish to favor a recreational sport fishery of Chinook that were more residential to these waters – hence fishing licenses could be sold to the public like fees for fishing in an artificially stocked pond. It is safe to say that no attention was paid by management for the ecological needs of the salmon predators – they were the enemies of fishermen.

                  Another extremely arrogant resource management policy was to dam rivers to produce electricity for human convenience and distribute water for agriculture, etc. with the full and transparent knowledge that salmon required these rivers for their anadromous reproductive cycle. The Congress of the United States forbade the management agencies from preventing salmon access to their requisite spawning habitats, but the agencies (Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers) went ahead and blocked their access anyway. Hatcheries to produce ‘factory fish’ were offered to mitigate the damage wrought by dams, but they have only increased the problem by messing up the genetics of natural populations of fish that adapted to the rivers through natural selection. The hatchery fish are smaller, costly to produce, and in the long run not sustainable. Hence, populations of whales that depend upon these fish are not sustainable. In essence, management policies of the past and to this day spell sayonara to the Resident ecotype killer whales and hello to a very uncertain future in which Mother Nature will play the last hand. It is happening now, along with other inconvenient truths. It is simply our job to document the situation with respect to killer whales in this Salish Sea ecosystem, and that we will do for as long as we can. It is up to all of us to exercise our sapience to bring our knowledge into conformity with the processes of natural reality in a world that is much bigger and more complex than humans can scarcely comprehend.

Photos taken under Federal Permits
NMFS PERMIT: 15569-01/ DFO SARA 388