Orcas get downright chummy

By Theresa Goffredo

Herald Writer

MUKILTEO — This time of year, the chum are heading inland to spawn in freshwater rivers, and hot on their tailfins are orca whales trying to catch a salmon dinner.

The chum numbers are so plentiful that a pod of 11 or so orcas seen this week between Clinton and Mukilteo are feasting on salmon sushi, and it may be another month before this whale party leaves the bar.

"For orcas, their job is to eat 10 percent of the fish," said whale expert Ken Balcomb. "Our resident whales here will eat bottomfish and rockfish, but they love salmon. They’re not stupid."

As executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Balcomb coordinates the monitoring of whales in Puget Sound, keeping track of their numbers and their overall health. And though the number of orcas that frequent Puget Sound has dropped, those recently observed appear to be in good condition.

"They are looking great right now," Balcomb said. "There’s a good chum run now, and there was a pretty good sockeye run up here, and so for the next month the numbers of orcas we see should be good."

That’s the kind of whale health report Michael Bennett likes to hear. Bennett has a personal interest in the whales’ well-being, but also owns and is captain of Mosquito Fleet, a whale-watching tour service.

"It’s nice to see a good year for them," Bennett said. "Their numbers are down overall … and you never know if it’s a catastrophic suffering or a lack of prey, and I’m very happy to see them here feeding."

The number of Puget Sound orcas has dropped from more than 90 to 78. Researchers know because they keep track of the whales’ family units or pods using an alpha-numeric system. For instance, the orca whales visiting this week are thought to be from L Pod. So each whale from L Pod will be given an identification, such as L-1.

Whale researcher Balcomb said that for the next month Puget Sound boaters can expect to see this particular orca pod, and even get pretty close to them as the whales are busy feeding.

"They’re dedicated. They’re going after the fish," Balcomb said. "They’re quite used to people and boats now. Thirty years ago we were killing them, but not any more. They’ve learned we’re on good behavior."

To maintain that relationship, Balcomb cautions boaters to keep 100 yards away from the pod and boat behind the whales or alongside them, but not in front of them.

"That diverts the school of fish," Balcomb said. "The orcas are herding the fish, and boating in front of them would disrupt that normal behavior, and that’s not being good to the whales."

You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097

or send e-mail to goffredo@heraldnet.com.

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