Watching the Orca Kids this Summer

Baby watching New Mother eat a salmon given to her by other family group members

Baby watching New Mother eat a salmon given to her by other family group members

It’s been great news that the resident Orcas of the Northwest have had 9 new births since late 2015. The major papers of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver BC paid lots of attention to them at first but now the attention is fading just as the new kids go through their first critical year of life. I'll introduce the individual babies in a future post, but in this post I want to talk how I’ll continue watching them this summer.

The First Year

Besides enjoying the photos of them on Orcanetwork, I’ll be noticing three major threats*: food, noise, and toxins. Like all babies during the first year, getting enough to eat is primary. And it turns out that both noise pollution and toxins will affect their food supplies indirectly.

Nursing Time

The babies are mostly nursing from their Orca mommas for the first 12 months. Adult Orcas eat about 145 pounds of fish a day (80% Chinook salmon) and nursing moms will need more. Sad to say the numbers of Chinook have recently been lower than their historical runs.

Toxins

If momma doesn't get enough calories, she begins to draw on the energy stored in her fat deposits. However, it is exactly in this blubber that toxins from the environment and the food chain get stored. Not so good for the babies' milk.

Noise

The sheer volume of sound from fossil fuel engines is certainly louder than it was a hundred years ago when steamships took over from sail. We can guess that the echolocation systems of the Orcas have not changed during that time; since they hunt salmon with these sound-based sensing systems, hunting is harder. They are so sensitive that they can detect the difference between Chinook and the other types of Northwest salmon.

In addition to boat noise that masks echolocation, the explosive noises of oil exploration and our Navy’s weapon testing occur without warning so they can't be avoided by the whales. Again, interference with nursing mom’s dinner.

Enjoying Watching the Kids this Summer

So I’ll be watching salmon, noise, and toxins this summer, hoping they interact to help the new Orca kids can make it through their first year.

  • Along with the normal excitement around salmon runs, I’ll be noticing which are Chinook, compared to earlier years.
  • I’ll be whale watching from land rather than from a noisy boat; there are clear guidelines on speed and distances for those watching from boats.
  • I’ll work at reducing toxic load on the ocean both by limiting fossil fuels when I can and testing out organic weed killers.

May you also be planning an enjoyable summer, whatever kids you may be watching.
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*Thanks to Giles for writing so clearly about this in her proposal to nominate the Orcas to the top 10 endangered species list.

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