Orca Network Seeks To Expand To Southeast

A Northwest whale sighting network is looking to enlist more participants from Southeast Alaska. The Orca Network’s Howard Garrett is one of the featured speakers at this year’s Whale Fest in Craig. Deanna Garrison sat down with Garret during a brief visit to Ketchikan yesterday and filed this report.

Garrett says the Orca Network consists of a large group of volunteers who help track orcas in the Northwest.

“We keep track of the whales by citizen science, by people just calling in, e-mailing, posting on Facebook … and then we relay that information to whole network of scientists,” he says.

Garrett says scientists can use the information provided by volunteers to track the movements of orcas throughout the Northwest and California.

Although the whales look similar to an untrained eye, he says each orca has a distinguishing feature.

“If you get up close or get a good photo of that dorsal fin and then behind the dorsal on the back is what is called a saddle patch … . A good photo can show individual distinctions,” he says. “Even though there are a couple thousand up and down the coast from California to the Bering Sea, each one is unique and with a photograph you can find it in a catalog. They’ve all been photographed at this point, well there are new ones now and then, but there are photographs so we have histories on just about every single one of them.”

He says Southeast Alaska has a resident population of orcas of around 300 that he says is in very good shape.

Garrett says a separate population of killer whales that straddles the border between British Columbia and Washington State experienced a 25 percent drop in its population. He says that community of orcas was listed as an endangered species.

He says the dramatic decline of killer whales in that area has resulted in more research and greater interest in the movements of killer whales.

Garrett says researchers only just recently learned that orcas from the Washington State area make their way as far north as Southeast Alaska.

“That’s the news that we only found out three weeks ago. Some fisherman in Chatham Strait found some photographs from June 1st of 2007 that showed our whales from Washington. That extended their range about 300 miles,” he says.

Garrett says it’s not clear if the orcas have always travelled to Southeast Alaska or if they are expanding their range.

He says researchers only learned in 2007 that killer whales from the Northwest made their way as far south as California.

Garrett says each population of orcas stay within their extended families for life. He says they don’t recruit or mate outside of their community.

When visiting outside of the natural territory, he says they adjust their behavior.

“When they are in an area that is the usual habitat of another community, they tend to be very quiet. Otherwise, in their home range they are very vocal. It’s like a cocktail party going on. It’s just multiple conversations going on between whales all the time. You can listen in and it’s so exciting, there are just all these different calls,” he says. “They avoid any run-ins. Maybe it’s showing respect, I don’t know.”

He says each community has its own completely separate vocabulary.

“It’s not like there is an orca’s moo or roar or anything. Each community learns its own vocabulary of calls, so you can identify them without seeing them if you have their calls,” Garrett says.

Garrett says although orcas can eat just about anything in the ocean, their diet is almost exclusively made up of king salmon and chum.

He says an adult orca can eat 250 to 300 pounds of Chinook a day.

“They can go for days and weeks without eating, so sometimes they have to make up that difference. They do eat a lot,” he says. “They are high energy animals. They’re on the move 24 hours a day. They never sleep. They just keep moving. They sometimes slow down and rest and get into a regular pattern, but they are still swimming. They cover 100 miles every 24 hours.”

Garrett says there has been limited participation in the Orca Network from Southeast Alaska. He is hoping more residents will share photos from the area, so researchers can better track the West Coast killer whale populations. Information about the Orca Network can be found on their website at: orcanetwork.org.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta will speak about the Orca Network during this week’s 2nd Annual Whale-Fest in Craig this Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Craig High School Auditorium.

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Deanna Garrison is a reporter at KRBD in Ketchikan.

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