The trials and tribulations of killer whale research – part 2

If you read my last post you will appreciate some of the difficulties and uncertainties of cetacean research. It is far from easy! Becoming a proficient researcher depends on having, or attaining, certain attributes of character, including: patience, determination and flexibility. The researchers I know have an almost limitless patience for, and acceptance of, the sometimes daunting, trivial, impossible, stressful, hilarious, frustrating or distressing challenges they face every single day. The average person could be forgiven if they gave up, wept and decided to become a cat-herder instead. But for a researcher, cetaceans are so infused into their being, in their blood, heart and head, that they could not conceive of a life lived any other way and will always find the means to further their research, whatever the obstacles.

To some of us, the point and validity of such research, and such a life, may not seem obvious. Who cares what the population distribution and abundance of a spotted dolphin is? Why would I want to know the male to female ratio of gray whales? What is so fascinating about the feeding behavior of sperm whales? Let the whales and dolphins be, why bother prying into their private lives!? But, from a wider perspective, who are we to question the validity of anyone else’s passion simply because we do not share a passion for the particular subject they are passionate about? Surely, we can respect and admire the simple fact that they are passionate about SOMETHING, and furthermore that they ACTIVELY pursue that passion and have not allowed the FEAR of doing so to conquer them. And, from mother Earth’s perspective, such research contributes to the quest to look after her ocean dwelling children, for which I am sure she nods her head in approval.

All of which brings us back to Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies, one such whale-addicted researcher who spends the majority of her time initiating conservation and education work, and the minority engaged in her passion for killer whale research. My last post documented our research attempts this April, when elemental forces either prevented our expeditions entirely, almost resulted in an upturned boat or lavished us with an abundance of rain. But, what were those three remaining bullet points left hanging mid-blog? There is a little more of the story left to tell…

Chasing strange smells, oily slicks and elusive reports of killer whales

So, one morning as Peggy and I headed round the bay to Moss Landing harbor, we received a report that killer whales had been spotted far out in the bay, possibly hunting, possibly with prey. Our sense of excitement rose twofold! We met Kate and Cindy, readied the boat in double-quick time and headed out to sea. Peggy took the wheel; as a seasoned captain we needed her to drive us as quickly as conditions, safety and good practice allowed. Even so, it was an hour or more before we reached the last known coordinates of the orcas. As we neared the area, a strange smell was in the air. A hard to explain smell; kind of bloody and oily and pungent, although not distasteful. Peggy stopped the boat. The smell was distinctive and one that Peggy and Kate have smelt many times at sea; it was the smell of a kill, the smell of blubber and other internal parts. Somewhere close by and sometime not long ago, killer whales had been here with prey at the surface. Maybe they had made their kill here. Maybe they had dragged it here from another location. Maybe they had been eating at the surface, (orcas sometimes eat underwater, with the body suspended in the water column, and sometimes at the surface). There was no way of knowing and, likewise, no way for us to know what animal had died in the predator-prey dance today. We looked, gazed and scanned some more, each of us straining to take in an expanse of blue-green waves in a wide arc around us, stretching our vision to the horizon, which from the height of our small boat was three miles. We waited expectantly, hoping to catch sight of blow (a whale’s out breath) or better still, the tall, dark, distinctive dorsal fin of a proficient hunter. Nothing… The smell dissipated…

We carried on until we reached their last known coordinates, wondering how likely it was that they would still be here after so much time had elapsed. Alas, of course, they were already gone. We headed in the direction which they were last seen travelling in and maintained that course while our eyes ranged unceasingly across the bare horizon.

A while later we came across another hint that orcas had been in the area with a successful kill. It was an ‘EX’ day in terms of sighting conditions, with a very calm and glassy ocean around us, some sun but not too much glare. In the distance Kate spotted a patch of ocean that looked different from the rest. It appeared somehow smoother and had an oily looking film on its surface. We slowed the boat and drew up close to the oily slick. A similar smell to before hung in the air. This had undoubtedly also been the sight of a kill or a feast, with the oily patch created from the blubber and liquids of the prey. But, everything was frustratingly intangible… We looked, we listened, we smelt, but no orcas indulged us with their presence and once again we were left with as many questions as before. Had this been the same group of killer whales or a different one? How many had been here? What had been their kill? Was it the same kill as before or a fresh one? (We were quite a distance from where we had smelt kill in the air before, but orcas are capable of moving their prey, depending on the size.)

Our questions remained unanswered. We covered a huge distance in the bay that day, heading alternately in the direction the orcas had last been seen travelling in, by Peggy’s special map highlighting killer whale hotspots in the bay (built from her data on previous orca sightings), and by misguided instinct. Whenever we stopped we dropped the hydrophone in the water, as Peggy has on occasion found orcas from sound alone, but we never heard a whisper of killer whale activity. (Not that transient orcas are known for being loud; they often maintain silence in order not to alert their prey, but they will vocalize when not engaged in the hunt.)

At any point during the day they could have been close by, without us even knowing it. Kate and Peggy have professional-whale-spotting-eyes, but even with their experienced vision (and Cindy’s and my less experienced but still competent eyes), we were out of luck. Killer whales are experts at subterfuge; if they do not want to be found, they are capable of travelling underwater until out of range. And when they surface their fin may appear for only the barest flicker of time and, if your eyes happen to be scanning another patch of ocean, you can miss them. On one of the large whale watching boats we might have stood a better chance as sighting distances increases dramatically the higher up your vantage point. But, there was no point in wondering what might have been; cetacean researchers have many such days as these and must learn to take them in their stride.

At the end of the day, we headed home with reams of data recording near-sightings and evidence of killer whale activity, but nothing concrete and not one single photo of a magical, glistening, night-shade, peak of fin.

Now, I am going to jump bullet points to the short and sweet…

Briefly spotting three orcas, before inadvertently, but ever so quickly, losing them again

And that really pretty much says it all. On this particular research day, we heard a reported orca sighting on the radio and headed to the area. There indeed were three killer whales, which we saw for all of about three minutes before they dived out of sight and went on their secretive way… We never found them again that day.

In fact, in all of my two week stay in Monterey, this was our one and only killer whale sighting. (The action heated up a few days after I left, when on one occasion Peggy found orcas hunting a minke whale and on another, orcas and humpbacks interacting in unusual ways… So the flow of peaks and troughs takes us; we never know when we will be dealt a ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ day, likewise for a minke whale, orca or any other animal.)

The Toxic Pinnacle

That last undealt with bullet point, (the one with dolphins and an excitable dog), I will save for a final post. But for now, one sobering fact. The transient killer whales that frequent Monterey Bay, among other places in the NE Pacific, enjoy the dubious title of being, possibly, the most toxic animals on the planet. Transients are believed to be top of the list because of their diet; whereas, for example, resident orcas eat salmon, transients eat marine mammals. This puts them just about as high up the food chain as it is possible to get. They sit on the very pinnacle and unfortunately this is a dangerous place to be.

I will write more about this topic in the future, but in a nutshell, some of the pollutants which we put into the ocean never, ever, quite fully disappear. We have produced substances to be so wonderfully long lasting, (we love plastic because it lasts FOREVER right?!), that they really do just that. They last, and last, and last. Unfortunately, of course, in our childish dismissal of consequences, we have managed to create very HARMFUL substances which LAST and LAST and LAST. So, when a tiny organism ingests a tiny bit of harmful chemical, that harmful chemical stays in its body; it does not get miraculously transformed by the animal into something less harmful, it is not excreted back out again, and it does not break down of its own accord. It stays put. So when that animal is eaten, along with several others, the harmful chemicals get transferred to the predator… And when that predator is eaten, along with several others, it gets transferred again. Once the toxin is in the food chain it never leaves; it just becomes ever more concentrated as it is transferred up the food chain. Right to the very top, the pinnacle, where sits our majestic transient killer whale.

Scientists do not know for sure yet but they believe that, although current adult male orcas contain higher levels of toxin than females, they will maybe, possibly, probably manage to live a decent, if possibly shortened, life. But, why do females have a lower concentration? The irony is pretty torturous… The miraculous life-giving gift of the female is to give birth and transfer her nourishment to her offspring. From within the womb, to suckling from its mother, a baby killer whale is being given frequent, concentrated doses of harmful chemicals along with its life sustaining nourishment. As far as human science has so far discovered, (and of course it is rare for objective research into the harmful effects of chemicals to be funded), these chemicals affect in particular, thyroid and reproductive functioning, and the immune system. The consequences of such poisoning to orcas, and other animals including ourselves, may only be clearly evident to the most willful of deniers once today’s young orcas grow up. Monterey Bay recovered from the last manmade wound inflicted upon it. Whether its inhabitants and visitors will recover from this more insidious wound is, as yet, unknown.

If you are reading this and wondering, “Yes, but what can I do about it, there is no point in knowing this stuff when it is not within my power to do anything about it, I’d rather not know!” The best advice I can give you is actually to find out more, even though part of you revolts at the thought of doing so. Do not even worry what you can or cannot do, just bring a researcher’s intense curiosity to the subject. Leave any feelings of doom and gloom, negativity, blame, guilt or impotence to the side; they are not useful. Simply choose to learn more. We all love surfing the net, some of us could do it all day long. So surf… Go and find some websites with more information… Those websites will lead to others… You will soon find yourself immersed in a whole new world of learning. We can only take small steps. I do not believe anyone will ‘Stand up and Take Action’ without first learning more and gradually, organically, increasing their capacity to care, to be active, to WANT to stand up and take action. There are things that you and I can do, that we can all do… But you are not going to do them if you have not first developed a strong enough PASSION, WILL and LOVE to do so, coupled with a researcher’s patience, determination and flexibility.

So, go and explore, in whatever way gives you pleasure to do so… And I’ll leave you with a few sources to get you started, some of which I am already connected with, but all of which are easy to find in about five minutes flat:                                                   

6 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of killer whale research – part 2

  1. Interesting read. I’ve read elsewhere about the rising toxicity levels that are occurring in the apex ocean predators, I think mainly from plastic particles that don’t degrade and absorb other chemical pollutants which are then eaten by smaller prey before heading up the food chain. It’s sad what we’re doing to the oceans.

  2. Hi Darren, Thanks for following my blog and leaving a comment. Yes, plastic and also especially certain chemicals such as PCB’s and PBDE’s which cannot be eliminated from the body and which mimic hormones (hence impacting hormonal functionning in the body). Often, as soon as one chemical is made illegal the next one is developed to replace it, until it too is proven to be toxic and outlawed. Unfortunately, the damage is done before the chemicals are removed from use and, because they do not breakdown in the environment, their legacy remains long after they have been banned. I like your use of the word ‘we’ – I agree that we are all complicit in the damage we are causing, whether wilfully or through neglect, incompetence, laziness or ignorance. Let’s hope that we can collectively find a way forwards and not take the ineffectual approach of blaming one another and forcing someone other than ourselves to deal with the mess!

  3. Amanda, it’s so great to read your first-hand accounts of cetacean research. Your blog posts are such an involving and direct connection to all the vital work being done. I’ve been a supporter of Whale & Dolphin Conservation (formerly WDCS) since the late 80s/ early 90s when the charity first began, reading their reports on various research projects and devouring books by folk such as Mark Carwardine and Horace Dobbs etc. Way back when, my husband and I attended a WDCS conference at which Mark Carwardine spoke (so entertainingly) – and there was a wonderful atmosphere of people joining together and such a sense of empowerment in knowing that all our contributions, however small, could really add up to something. As you say, when an individual truly cares there are real opportunities out there to help change things, and the more people join in, the greater the influence. When changes do happen – through campaigning, taking responsibility, writing letters, through members of the public helping with ‘citizen science’ data collection, and other projects run by various conservation charities etc – it’s an amazing feeling. So worth all those times of hanging in there and keeping faith and patience. And there are so many other enjoyable rewards too.

    When I spent a year as a Volunteer Field Officer for a national nature conservation charity and in later years, when my husband and I ran our local conservation volunteers group (wonderful times!) we worked with various conservation organisations. We met such an amazing network of people, volunteer and professional, each and together making things happen through their passion. All the projects we worked on were on land – so cetacean projects are a different world in many ways – but in your wonderful descriptions, I recognise so many familiar aspects to the challenges and complexities; and the dedication and creative qualities of the people involved are the same…

    Thank you for another absorbing and inspiring read…


  4. Hi Melanie,

    Oh I so agree…. It is an amazing feeling when you do get involved… It is when you get involved with something and give of yourself that you really do learn about the cyclical nature of giving and receiving… That you truly receive the most when you are giving the most…

    The problem that I see around me generally, (and I feel as trapped by it as anyone else), is that we have not all experienced the full cycle and not felt the fundamental reality of it. If you’ve never experienced the full cycle of giving-receiving then you do not have the motivation to take part in it. So that as an adult, with everyday cares and worries to take care of, with the energy and time expenditure, plus layers of conflicting emotions feeling too overwhelmingly great, with the ’causes’ and pressures out there in the world too many…..

    …It is easy to see why and how people do not want to stretch themselves further to ‘get involved’ with something. If and when they/we do, a little revelation occurs and they/we experience life feeling more enhanced, rather than more pressured, by giving. But if we do not get involved in the first place, we never have the revelation and we never experience the joy of the giving moment.

    We all probably have 100 or so chances everyday to give that little bit more of ourselves to something, someone or the world… I am as guilty as most in that I maybe only give that little bit more 1 time out of 100. What interests me (as well as exasperates and frustrates me!), is how that little miracle of transformation occurs… When and how is the seed born in someone to give a little bit more, learn a little bit more, grow a little bit more, open a little bit more…? Collectively, we probably all only need to step up to giving 10 times out of 100 for our world to flourish… By what miracle will we choose to do so?

    Thank you for your generous, thoughtful, insightful and, as ever, giving words.


  5. Wonderful blog! Very well written and what wonderful information you’ve conveyed here. As a killer whale researcher myself I completely get the passion of studying killer whales. It’s a life consuming project indeed. What a great experience for you. Thank you for sharing it in such excellent detail.

    Jodi Smith, Naked Whale Research

  6. HI Jodi,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! Seeing as I am not a professional whale researcher, and have but touched the surface of that deep iceberg of expertise and knowledge, I feel very honored to receive compliments from a researcher such as yourself. I remember coming across Naked Whale Research when I worked for Planet Whale in England a couple of years ago; I wish you well with your work and hope your research and education initiatives are effecting the positive changes that you hope for. I am sure it feels like a tiny drop in the ocean sometimes, but all the drops add up!

    I really hope that my husband and I will be able to take a trip up the coast one day… I would love to pop in on you when we do and learn more about your work.

    By the way, were you at the American Cetacean Society conference in November? I am just writing up an article or two about the event at the moment. If you were there and would like to send me your thoughts on it, then please do message me through my contact page.


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