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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

February 24, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Whale tagging underway on Puget Sound orcas

Orcas in J Pod are being darted with tags under research authorized by the federal fisheries service intended to shed light on the animals’ winter travels. The agency needs better information on where the animals go in part to delineate critical habitat needed for their recovery.

webBabyOrca.jpg

This Dec. 17, 2011, photo provided by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center shows a new baby orca born to 39-year-old Slick, also known as J-16, in Puget Sound near Seattle. It’s her fifth calf since 1991 and it brings the total number of killer whales in the Southern Resident population to 89. (AP Photo/NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Candice Emmons)

Up to six members of the Southern Resident population of killer whales will be tagged this year under the research program — probably fewer, due to the difficulty of the operation and restriction on tagging only post-reproductive females and males.

The agency intends to tag up to two orcas in each of the three southern resident pods per year. The first tag was darted in to an adult male in J Pod on Monday in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The fisheries service in an announcement and question and answer press release stated one of the orcas in J Pod had already been tagged. The agency also posted a map of the path traveled by the tagged orca.

For more on the tagging operation, take a look at this story by the Seattle AP’s Phuong Le, who talked to researchers worried about injuries caused by the darts, and the possibility of infection.

The agency states that risks to the whales’ health, reproductive success and survival from tagging is so low as to be insignificant. The agency has tagged 250 cetaceans of 16 species during the past six years, so far without indication of serious injury, according to the agency. Marks from the dart are no worse than naturally occurring injuries, such as shark bites, the agency states.

The population of southern resident killer whales is down to fewer than 90 animals, and is listed as endangered.

The southern residents’ travels in winter are not well documented. Sightings here and there over the years document movement at least as far south as Monterey Bay, California, and as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands in B.C.

The tags consist of a transmitter about the size of a standard 9-volt battery that uplinks to a receiver mounted on a weather satellite, held onto the animal with two retention darts. The darts are shot from a pneumatic dart projector, and penetrate the skin, with “petals” on the dart keeping the transmitter in place on the fin.

“We typically only see a ‘flinch’ by the whale and a more rapid than normal dive. In some cases there was no observed response. I most cases, we are able to re-approach the whale for photographs within a few moments of tagging,” the agency states in its release.

Tagging will be underway from late winter through April, to determine winter movements, when the whales come into Puget Sound, or during coastal surveys. The tags are expected to work for at least 31 days, but some tags used in other research have lasted as long as three months.

It’s been a newsy month for orcas. See Craig Welch’s recent story about concern about the effects of Canadian Navy sonar on the whales.

To learn more about killer whales, see the agency’s web site. The Center for Whale Research also maintains a photo catalog of every whale in the Southern Resident population. Logistical support for the tagging operation is being provided by the Cascadia Research Collective, in Olympia.

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