Letter to the editor | Nov. 23 edition

A reader writes in about orcas.


They often surprise us

As a biologist who’s studied whales for 43 years, I was perplexed by the reaction of some folks to the appearance of killer whales in Quartermaster Harbor recently. It’s not clear why this sighting prompted something approaching panic among the public, and even among some who’ve been directly involved with this famous group of endangered whales. My inbox was filled with questions. Was one of them dying? someone asked. Were they giving birth? What did it mean that they appeared here and stayed?

To me, this was simply whales refamiliarizing themselves with a part of their range that they probably hadn’t visited much of late. Watching them — they came right by my house — I saw nothing unusual in their behavior.

But I’m a baleen whale guy (though I’ve worked with orcas in various places). So I ran this by my friend John Durban, who is a leading expert on orcas, including Southern Residents. John — who used to work in my lab in Seattle — was the protegé of Ken Balcomb, one of the pioneers in the study of this population. John’s reaction was similar to mine: they’re just exploring, he said, maybe looking for the chum salmon that run at this time of year.

Whales are forever showing up in places we don’t expect them, and it usually doesn’t portend anything strange. They live for decades, and they range over vast distances; human scales of space and time are often inadequate to understand their behavior. We’ve often seen individuals of this and other species make truly extraordinary movements (one of my current PhD students has recently documented humpback whales migrating thousands of miles, including between oceans).

Whales don’t read our textbooks, so they often surprise us. Or as one of the pioneers of whale research, Bill Schevill, succinctly put it more than fifty years ago: “Whales have tails, and they have been known to use them.”

Phil Clapham

Until 2019, Dr. Phil Clapham directed NOAA’s Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.