Kitchen Killer Whales By Carl Safina

October 3rd, 2013 | 3 Comments

I was just standing on researcher Ken Balcomb’s kitchen porch looking out at Haro Strait, from Washington toward Vancouver Island, Canada, watching killer whales going by.

Cool enough, but these were not the usual “residents” who hunt salmon. They were “transients;” mammal eaters. One way we knew: We’d been listening to the nearby hydrophones set up by (you can eavesdrop too, on the Web) but we heard nothing when we noticed the whales coming around the corner. The fish-eaters are chatterboxes, very vocal. The transients are silent stalkers, hunting with their sonar but being quiet about it, so they don’t give their location away to mammals they hunt.

Ken saw a seal pop its head up and go down. Ken said the seal wasn’t reacting evasively, adding, “reaction right now is crucial.”

Suddenly several male killer whales were surging through a spreading slick under and a couple of dipping gulls.

Then I saw one of the whales surface momentarily with a piece of the seal.

The 3 males that were in on that kill are about 27 feet long and weigh about 17,000 pounds. The seal they ate weighed about 250 pounds and was gone in under a minute.

The so-called transient, mammal-eating killer whales have been showing up increasingly in recent years. They continue to benefit from the increasing seal numbers following the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In such slow growing, long-lived creatures as killer whales, their recovery, following the lengthy recovery of the seals they hunt for food, is a decades-long proposition.

Ken Balcomb  Photo: Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

That’s the good news. The situation is more difficult for the fish-eating killer whales, whose food—salmon—have been severely depleted. The whales’ fate follows the fate of their food.

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3 Responses to “Kitchen Killer Whales By Carl Safina”

  1. Mike Sato says:

    Cool, Carl. I remember doing the filming at Ken’s a few years back with you, Ken and Kathy. It was spectacular– even without the whales.

  2. Erik Hoffner says:

    Interesting on the sonic differences between the whales, makes sense. Incredible luck that you were able to witness a kill!

  3. Scott Veirs says:

    Fascinating account, Carl. For those interested in the acoustic side of mostly-silent transients, I highly recommend this recording of transients (probably after similar foraging success) made by the U.S. Navy in Dabob Bay —

    Did you happen to listen in to the nearest live hydrophone during/after the event — — or were you still listening to the Lime Kiln hydrophone?

    Also, here are links to the live hydrophones you mentioned. The second is a new site aimed at citizen scientists and school kids —

    Happy listening,
    Scott in Seattle

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