Observations of a small killer whale in Puget Sound

November 2001? to January 2002

Kenneth C. Balcomb
Senior Scientist
Center for Whale Research
Friday Harbor, WA 98250

On 1 November, 2001 an experienced whalewatch operator observed a small lone killer whale in southern Puget Sound, Washington State. The observer was responding to a report of a pod of killer whales in Puget Sound, and at the time considered that the small whale was simply an unusual stray from the pod. He did not locate any other whales, and only saw the small whale briefly. There was a newspaper reporter aboard who published (Seattle PI November 15, 2002) an account of this whalewatching trip and the sighting.

Perhaps unrelated to this incident, on 2 and 3 January 2002 an experienced tug boat operator and others observed a small lone killer whale in Swinomish Channel near La Conner over a period of two days and reported it to the Center for Whale Research. At the time, this sighting was considered to possibly represent a young killer whale that was reported with two transient killer whales that stranded on 2 January at Dungeness Spit, Washington. One of the stranded killer whales died, a female identified as CA189 (referring to its identification number in a California catalogue of photo-identified individuals). The other stranded killer whale, a male identified as CA 188, was escorted back into the Strait of Juan de Fuca after three days of dedicated assistance from government and non-government rescue personnel. This whale was radio-tagged and is known to have survived the critical first few days after release (Contact Brian Gorman, NMFS (206) 526-6613 for details).

On 14 January 2002, another experienced observer again reported seeing a small lone killer whale in southern Puget Sound. The report was made to the Center for Whale Research by phone and the public via the internet (orcanetwork.org). On 15 January, Ken Balcomb accompanied biologist Mark Sears by small boat to the area where the whale was reported, and both videotaped and photographed the small killer whale confirming its species identity and solitary situation. The individual identity could not be determined at that time due to the whale's distinguishing characteristics being masked by naturally sloughing skin. It appeared and behaved like a "resident" killer whale, though apparently it was not a southern resident. Resident killer whales live in very stable kin groups called matrilines. A whale born to a matriline rarely if ever strays for long from this group, especially in the case of young animals. This lone small whale situation is extremely unusual, although we know that there is currently one other example (L98 see accompanying backgrounder), and two historical incidents that bear some resemblance .

It is not known how this small lone killer whale came to be in this situation, nor is it known how long it has been alone in the Puget Sound area. Perhaps it has been in the region since November, but we know it has been there at least two weeks. It currently appears to be in good health. Photographs (by Mark Sears) and acoustic recordings (by Joe Olson, ACS) of this whale have been forwarded to our colleagues, John K.B. Ford and Graeme M. Ellis at the Pacific Biological Station, DFO Canada for analysis.

Future Plans
We will continue weekly field trips to monitor the small lone killer whale in Puget Sound. Its behavior and appearance will be documented with photographs and video. Members of the public are advised that this whale is in US waters and it is a member of a protected species that should not be approached closer than 100 yards. Due to the potential for disturbance, it is not in this whale's best interest to have the public launch multiple vessels in an attempt to see it from any distance. Contact NMFS for guidelines and update on this whales status between now and mid-February.

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