Satellite tags providing new information on orcas

SEATTLE — Biologists are gaining new information about the winter movements of endangered killer whales in the Salish Sea by tracking the daily activities of one orca by a satellite tag.

Since scientists attached a transmitter to a 21-year-old male orca named as Scoter two weeks ago, they’ve watched as he sprinted more than 1,000 miles — from the Seattle area to north of San Francisco before curiously reversing course over the weekend and heading north.

The whale, known as K-25, is traveling with other members of his group and was spotted near Crescent City, Calif., on Tuesday morning.

“One thing that has struck us is it seems to be directed movement. They haven’t paused very long in one place,” said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle who is leading the satellite tagging project.

“How did they decide once they got to Point Reyes (California) to turn around?”

The satellite tag is helping scientists better understand where the black-and-white mammals go during the winter.

“It’s definitely providing new information,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands. He recently traveled to California and spotted the orca five times from shore. During the past week, he has helped researchers sight the animals so they could collect samples of whale scat and fish scales left behind after feeding to understand what they’re eating.

The endangered orcas — which hang out in three groups known as K, L and J — spend a bulk of the summer months in Western Washington and British Columbia waters, but scientists aren’t certain exactly where they spend the rest of their time.

Visual sightings, ship surveys and acoustic reports have shown the animals travel as far south as Monterey, Calif., and as far as the north coast of British Columbia during winter, but the information has been spotty, Hanson said.

Tracking the animals in the winter would reveal their range and rate of travel, how far offshore they go, where they loiter and the timing of their activities, Hanson said. The information could lead to designating new critical habitat areas for the animals.

The tag is about the size of a 9-volt battery attached by barbs to the orca’s dorsal fin. It doesn’t provide real-time tacking but sends out about three or four good locations each day. It’ll likely fall off the animal after about 30 days.

Hanson, who has a permit to tag up to two orcas per pod a year, said he initially thought they would forage near the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco or head south from there to Monterey.

“They didn’t go as far as I thought they were going to go,” said Balcomb. “Everything you find out leads you to ask another question. … I’m wondering if they’re on a scouting trip.”

Balcomb has raised concerns about whether the tags could needlessly injure the animals but said Scoter is “doing fine, he’s sprinting right along.”

NOAA Fisheries announced last November that it is reviewing whether Puget Sound orcas should keep their protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The review was prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation seeking to delist the killer whales. The petition asserts that orcas are not in danger of becoming extinct because they’re part of a larger population of thriving whales.

Whale advocates say the orcas are still endangered and should be protected.

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NOAA satellite tagging project: http://is.gd/hnyry7

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