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Free Lolita Update 18

Lolita Update #18
October 6, 1999

News about Lolita's family

The past 2 weeks have been full of incredible whale dramas in the Pacific Northwest, where Lolita's family lives. It has been a tough year for the Southern Resident Community of orcas (J, K & L pods). Eight orcas have died this year, most of them years before their natural life expectancy, along with the sad news of 2 or 3 stillborn calves, bringing the total population of the community down to 83.

But there is good news, too......

1) New calf born to Lolita's family!
2) Family struggling to care for orphaned orca
1)New calf born to Lolita's family!
Sept. 19th, Center for Whale Research, San Juan Island, WA.

Howard Garrett was seeing his first wild orca in over two years, watching from the deck as L-67 swam by (L67 is from Lolita's sub-pod, & is possibly her sister). She was traveling alone, which is unusual.......but wait, what was that little splash surfacing next to L67?! A new calf appeared at L67's side, tiny dorsal popping up through the surface next to its mother......what a wonderful surprise to us all! L67 is a young, first-time mother, & the first week there were reports of orcas in K pod helping out with the "parenting" of the new baby. At last report, L67 seemed to be nursing & caring for the baby, L98, who seems to be doing fine. This is a much needed & welcome addition to the family, & a truly wonderful welcome home surprise for Howie~

2) Family struggling to care for orphaned orca
San Juan Islands, WA

And now on to the bad news, but also to the heart of how incredible these orca neighbors of ours really are. The eighth orca death occured sometime last week, when the body of 26 year old L51, or "Nootka", was found off the coast of Vancouver Island (she is also from Lolita's subpod). Nootka had just had a calf last May, who had been born premature and underweight. After Nootka's death, there was much concern for the little unweaned calf, L97, who seemed to be losing weight. But later in the week, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research witnessed & videotaped L97's uncle & brother catching fish & trying to feed small bits of it to the young orphaned calf, who seemed to be keeping up with the pod & looking stronger. The calf has not been seen for several days, but there is still hope that its family is working to help it survive. The story below appeared in today's Seattle Times - we'll keep you posted as to any new develpments~

Susan Berta,
Tokitae Foundation

SEATTLE TIMES, Tuesday, October 5, 1999:

Orphaned orca's human family struggles to help it survive
by Robert T. Nelson, Seattle Times staff reporter

The biblical passage says nothing about actually caring for the animals or treating them with some respect. That falls to Ken Balcomb, whose Center for Whale Research has been obsessed the past week with the fate of an orphaned, 5-month-old orca struggling to survive in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In the old days - the 1960s and '70s - man's "dominion" over orca whales involved capturing young calves, taking them from their mothers and siblings and hauling them off to places such as Sea World.

Capturing orcas in Washington state waters ended in 1976, the year Balcomb began studying them for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Since then, with a little help from state and federal governments, and lots of support from volunteers, Balcomb is now on a first-name basis with the dozens of orcas that roam the coastline and through the San Juan and Gulf islands.

"We've been able for the past 25 years to study them like they are in a fishbowl, almost," Balcomb said.

"Over time, we've watched whales grow up and, of course, we've seen them pass away."

That is why the recently orphaned orca is in the news and not some anonymous victim of the wild. The calf's mother died around Sept. 25, before the calf was weaned. The orphan has been tracked for a week. It was last spotted on Saturday.

If he survives, he will be named Tweak when the Whale Museum and the researchers at the center, both in Friday Harbor, San Juan County, hold their annual adoption and naming party.

Family takes up the feedings

Balcomb's whale-research center operates on about $60,000 a year. None of the staff gets a salary, and virtually all support comes in the form of private donations and volunteers - 50 or 60 a year - from Earthwatch of Watertown, Mass.

Because they have been able to keep such close track of the orca population here, researchers know precisely when Tweak was born, when his mother was born, that she gave birth to two undersized calves, and that she most likely died from a massive infection caused by the birth. A necropsy is under way.

They know who the baby whale's grandmother, brothers and uncle are. And during the past week, researchers have watched this family rally around the orphan and offer him food.

"I'd heard they were caregiving creatures, but I'd never actually seen it," Balcomb said. "It's the most dramatic example. We were out in our boat monitoring the condition of the whale. We saw this thrashing about. Turns out his brother was capturing salmon, breaking them apart and appearing to offer it to the baby."

The feeding appears to be working. Researchers tracked the emaciated calf by boat last Tuesday until it got too dark. They gave up the watch expecting the baby whale to die overnight. When they caught up with him the next day, they were amazed to find him alive and appearing stronger.

There had been some talk by Canadian authorities of capturing the calf, Balcomb said. If it was highly improbable the calf would survive on its own, they also would attempt to intervene and give it some formula. Since it appears to be taking some fish, that may be a moot point.

Such interest in a lone whale is understandable, say researchers who spend their days tracking animals at the top of the food chain.

"Who's alive? Who's born? Who's dead? What that gives you, as a scientist, are the life-history parameters," said Marilyn Dahlheim, a biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory at Sand Point.

"It's critical for understanding population dynamics. In the event there's a problem, you know when a species is starting to get into trouble."

Orca mother died young

Balcomb and Dahlheim, who tracks killer whales in Alaska, say they care about the whales in ways that are both personal and scientific.

The mother whale that washed up in a bed of seaweed on Race Rocks near Victoria was named Nootka, and her death at age 26 came midway through an orca's normal life span.

In studying her carcass, they have determined she probably didn't pass the placenta when she gave birth in May. That caused an infection that probably caused her to stop lactating long before Tweak was ready to be weaned.

"We've taken blubber samples and tissues from all the organ systems" of the dead whale, Balcomb said. "Collectively, they should paint a picture of what went wrong."

Balcomb and Canadian researchers expect to find PCBs and other contaminants.

"I think, in general, people don't understand and know about this," Balcomb said. "Even though it's a beautiful, gorgeous area we live in, it's a toxic soup, and they're swimming in it. That's a bit of an over"state"ment, but the toxins attracted to fats accumulate to super-high levels in these animals. That's what's happened to the whales."

Number of deaths `not natural'

In the past five years, the orca population in Puget Sound has dropped by 15, to 83 total. Balcomb and his center's volunteers have seen 30 orcas die - many prematurely.

"That pattern of mortality is not natural," he said. "It's not like these are old whales dying. And there are going to be more. The question is, what are we going to do? We've got to begin developing some techniques for dealing with environmental problems that we caused."

Balcomb says he feels the kind of affection for the whales that he would for a dog in his care for years. And he and Canadian researchers gave serious consideration to extraordinary measures to nourish the orphan.

Using a technique they developed for testing porpoises, they were preparing to net Tweak between two boats and force-feed him a formula. But they decided against it.

Now, as the world watches, Tweak's fate rests with the 9-year-old brother and uncle who've been giving him morsels of salmon.

"At the point where it's obvious his family is unable to care for him and abandons him, which at this point they have not done, I'd say at that point we have to write him off as a living member of this community," Balcomb said.

Much is going on to help bring Lolita home and to inform and advocate for her and her family Please consider a tax-deductible contribution to help Orca Network continue this work by clicking HERE. Thank you!

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