A Possible Break in One of Evolution’s Biggest Mysteries

The little-understood history of the whales and how barnacles may be the key to understanding how giant mammals evolved underwater. Peter Brannen | The Atlantic | Dec 2016 [ Full Story ]

Source: A Possible Break in One of Evolution’s Biggest Mysteries


Orcas on the Edge – National Wildlife Magazine

Orcas on the Edge – National Wildlife Magazine

This little gem caught my eye while I was browsing my email. Part of a typically well orchestrated campaign by the National Wildlife Foundation – the email was asking my support in Adopting an Orca!

Good idea or not. Is it true? Are the orca really within a 100 years of extinction? What about the salmon that they feed on? The email pointed out that this combined with global warming, toxic pollution, and vessel noise are all contributing factors.

And I sit and think of the one line from the Whale Museum visit that I made this summer that has stuck with me. In the context of talking about why orca go to certain beachs and rub themselves on the gravel. “We don’t know why.”

There is so much about these magnificent creatures that indeed we don’t know. One thing we do know though – they are a part of an intricate web of life that throbs and thrills throughout the Salish Sea and its archipelago. If I needed inspiration to encourage me in exploring this web this is it.


Simple Orca sociology

When I started reading about Orcinus orca I was pleasantly surprised. They are all over. Very much a symbol of the islands. The house down the street is “Orca Villa”. Bumper stickers. Sports teams. But as I started reading I was quickly fascinated by a couple of things. How recent a lot of the knowledge of orcas is. How little we know about what they do underwater and at night. And what we know about their sociology.

Out at Point Roberts I had seen for the first time the identification charts and realized that there are few enough individuals that we can learn to recognize them. What I hadn’t realized was that there are three distinct societies of whales. Distinct enough that some feel that they should be separated into races. The ones that we see most often in the San Juans are the Southern Residents. But there are transients and offshore groups as well. And there are the Northern Residents.

  • Salmon eaters
  • Larger pods (6 to 50)
  • Smaller home area
  • Dive for 3 or 4 minutes
  • Larger range of vocalization
  • Lots of echolocation
  • Rounded dorsal tip – sharper rear angle with open saddles


  • Marine mammal eaters
  • Small pods (less than 6)
  • Dive for 5 to 7 minutes
  • Minimal vocalization
  • Pointed dorsal fin with grey saddles


  • Salmon maybe?
  • Larger pods (25 or more)
  • Outside Puget Sound
  • Continuously rounded dorsal tip – no sharp rear angle though
  • Saddle patch gery or open


Missing orcas (killer whales)

Researchers fear five missing killer whales are dead

Almost certainly this link will rot but until it does. So who is missing?

Three Southern

  • K28 – Raven – 12 year old female – last seen Sept 19th
  • L43 – Jellyroll – 34 year old female – last seen Sept 2nd
  • L71 – Hugo – 20 year old male – last seen July 15th

Have a quick look here for the id photos.
Two Northern (Identities not given in the story)

Boat strikes are speculated on as is toxic waste weakening the immune system. Southern stories focus on starvation and lack of salmon.

In the light of a story that I started a few days ago about the endangered status of the whales this is hardly encouraging. When I think about all the other life in the ecosystem that is suffering but doesn’t get this coverage it seems a little discouraging. Except that there will be a trickle down effect.

For example: Each fall one of my true pleasures is going and doing some treeplanting on an obscure creek in the Whatcom watershed. From orcas to treeplanting? Ah yeah. I’m here to plant trees. I have some obscure sense that this in some way stems the disappearance of trees and I just enjoy being out in the crisp fall air. The link though is salmon. Prime fodder for the orca and the heartbeat of this little stream.

Choked out by reed canary grass – a local group is slowly restoring it. In the face of beavers and other setbacks we are slowly gaining ground. Salmon being released now will return to be able to spawn in clear waters at some point in the future.

Do we need millions of dollars to restore the orca? No though we do need millions of tiny actions like this tree planting exercise.


Dall’s Porpoise

“Lips like a moose” used to tease one of my classmates of girls with big lips. Dall’s porpoise have lips like that. It has a tiny head with a great big body with a little triangular dorsal fin. Like the orca it’s body is black and white with several different morph’s.

Amazingly it is possible for Dall’s porpoises to interbreed with Harbor porpoise. There is a great deal of overlap in range with the harbor porpoise in the Pacific. But this animal isn’t found in the Atlantic.

Easily recognized by the “rooster tail” that the dorsal creates as it shoots to the top of the water, the Dall’s porpoise is colorful and a joy to watch as you paddle or sail through the islands.


Harbor Porpoise

Harbor porpoise are vastly reduced in numbers in the Baltic Sea due to the beleif of fishermen that they reduce vaslty the numbers of fish available. And they are right. Each porpoise consumes several pounds of fish a day. In the San Juans it is the salmon gillnetters that struggle with these animals. They blunder into the gillnet – for what reason it is not understood because they can “see” them – and tangle.
Distinguished by a small triangular dorsal fin in the middle of the back – at best – these beautiful animals reach five feet at best. Harbor porpoises are colored:

  • Gray back – lighter sides and belly,
  • Dark mouth-to-flipper stripe,
  • Indistinct beak.

Usually solitary, at the end of summer they will congregate in larger groups of up to 25 individuals. They are seldom seen because of their quick rolls on the surface with little to no splashing. They are found in the north Pacific and Atlantic along the coast. Harbor porpoises can be distinguished from the coastal dolphins by their size.


Marine mammals

Many first time visitors to the San Juan Island come to the see the Orca. Fascinating and spectacular they are only a small portion of the marine mammals that call Puget Sound home.

My interest began with the porpoises that rolled by the sailboat as I went from island to island. Usually they were visible in calms seas but I occasinally saw them in weather too. Talking to other boaters and fisherman I got some interesting stories including being told that they were “blackfish” and really were fish – not mammals.

That got me going. I discovered that Dall’s porpoises and harbor porpoises both exist in the area. Being told that what I was seeing was Dall’s – I carried merrily on. I realized that there were other small whales in the area. And then there were the seals.

All fascinating creatures in their own right.