Changing Planet

Kitchen Killer Whales

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 orcasound.net (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 Balcomb  Photo: CarlSafina
Ken Balcomb
Photo: CarlSafina

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.

Killer Whale Photo: Carl Safina
Killer Whale
Photo: Carl Safina

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.

Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina
Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

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.

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.

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina's seventh book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," is available in stores July 12, 2016.

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