Monterey Bay Whale Watch - March 2003 Feature


Southern Resident Killer Whales Sighted in Monterey Bay

Click on small pictures below to see full-size photos.

Resident Killer Whale L71, photo by David MooreMembers of L pod, part of the southern resident Killer Whale community that frequents the inland waters of Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington State and British Columbia during the summer, were sighted in Monterey Bay on March 13, 2003. Leon Oliver, captain of the Magnum Force, first spotted the whales and alerted Monterey Bay Whale Watch captain David Lemon and naturalist Katherine Whitaker. Katherine recognized that the whales were not our "regular" Killer Whales that occur in the area, and noted some distinct marks in the saddles of some animals. In addition, their behavior was unlike those of Killer Whales seen here and she suspected they might be residents. She encouraged passengers who took photographs to send them to marine biologist Nancy Black. A photograph taken by David Moore, a passenger aboard the Monterey Bay Whale Watch trip, was sent to Nancy, who has been studying the Killer Whales in Monterey Bay for over 15 years. Nancy then sent the photo to Dave Ellifrit, biologist for the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington. Dave confirmed that this whale was the male L71.

Killer Whale ID photoKiller Whales can be identified by taking a perpendicular photo of their dorsal fin and saddle patch. Each whale has distinct markings including the shape of the fin and saddle patch as well as nicks and scratches in the fin. Nancy has identified over 300 individual Killer Whales sighted in Monterey Bay. Most sightings are of transient Killer Whales who specialize on marine mammal prey and are unpredictably seen in the area, usually 2-8 times per month. Transients often search Monterey Bay during the spring when the Gray Whale cow/calf pairs are migrating north over the deep Monterey Submarine Canyon where they attack and feed upon the calves.

Resident Killer Whales are frequently and very predictably sighted in the Pacific Northwest during summer months where they feed on salmon. They specialize on fish, live in very tight social groups from 20-50 whales in distinct pods, with even adult males staying with their mother for life. They are genetically distinct from the transients and never mix with them. During the summer the southern resident community of Killer Whales, consisting of J, K, and L pods, frequents the waters off Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Here they are often seen every day foraging for salmon. These whales have been studied for over 30 years by the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor led by biologist Ken Balcomb.

The recent sighting of L pod in Monterey Bay is only the second time that this group has ventured and been identified so far south from their summer home waters. The last time these whales appeared in Monterey Bay was during January 2000 (see related story). These Killer Whales are of great concern as their population has been decreasing over the last several years. No one is sure what the exact cause of this problem could be, but it may be partly due to high levels of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs that accumulate in their system, possibly affecting their immune and reproductive systems. Also, salmon populations, their main food source, have drastically declined in the Pacific Northwest in recent years. These whales are considered endangered in Canada and talks are ongoing to consider them threatened in U.S. waters. Although they normally leave the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest for periods of time during the winter, and were thought to travel and feed along the outer coast of Washington, their occurrence in Monterey Bay is extraordinary and may suggest they need to search farther for food sources.

Nancy Black and co-researcher Richard Ternullo have developed a large sighting network where boaters such as fishermen, researchers, and other whale watch boats report Killer Whale sightings. Nancy also works with the National Marine Fisheries Service to catalog and identify Killer Whales in Monterey Bay. In addition, she works in Alaska with NMFS on several Killer Whale projects in Southeast Alaska and throughout the Aleutian Islands. Nancy has found that the transient Killer Whales off Monterey Bay also have very high levels of toxic chemicals in their system. She continues to monitor the whales, collecting more samples from her small research boat, and identifying whales by photographs through Monterey Bay Whale Watch. She is preparing for the spring season to document predation events by Killer Whales on Gray Whales in the Bay. A recent film by the National Geographic Society, "Secret Killers of Monterey Bay" documents her research along with co-researcher Richard Ternullo. This film also documents the first appearance of the resident Killer Whales in Monterey Bay. She also consulted for the Blue Planet Series featured on the Discovery Channel where the first professionally filmed Killer Whale/Gray Whale predation event was shown.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch always has marine biologists (often Nancy) and naturalists along to educate people about the whales and dolphins they are watching, and provide important conservation information to passengers. The biologists and naturalists also opportunistically collect identification photos of Killer Whales, Humpback Whales and Blue Whales for use by scientists who study these animals. For more information about these trips please look at our whale watching trip information.


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Photos by David Moore and Nancy Black.

Last updated March 17, 2003