Scientists unraveling mystery of Orcas in race to save them

NEAR SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. -- The first thing you notice is the sound -- actually, two sounds, back-to-back:

"Voooosh, huhh!"

When you get as close as I was to these magnificent killer whales, you can hear them not only exhale, but inhale. And you know you're close when even the scientists are exhilarated.

"Oh, it's absolutely spectacular!" says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration killer whale scientist Brad Hanson while at the helm of a 22-foot research boat, bouncing in heavy seas off San Juan Island. He's among the lead scientists finalizing an official report summarizing everything we know about Orcas, with special focus on the last 10 years since NOAA has been intently researching. The report is due out in January.

"Yeah, this is actually pretty spectacular to see them all grouped up like this," he gushed. At times there were a dozen or more. Some are above water noisily exhaling in the cold winter sun. Others are still submerged yet still visible in a ghostly image slicing with ease under water.

"L-54 is up ahead!" yells NOAA scientist Candi Emmons, who has been studying these Orca for 30 years and can instantly identify each one whenever a fin rises above the surface. Sometimes she can identify them while they're still submerged.

The majesty of this iconic animal is wrapped in mystery. And it's that mystery these two federal scientists, along with many others, are trying so hard to unravel and save them from extinction.

"Everybody loves these animals and they arean iconic species for the Pacific Northwest," confesses Hanson. "It'd sure be a shame to lose them."

Just 81 southern resident killer whales remain - the Orcas we usually see in Puget Sound. Yet after years of steady, excruciating decline, there is good news: The number now seems to be holding steady.

The Endangered Species Act requires they find out what's killing them and fix it. Hanson says we are learning more than we ever have before.

"Absolutely, we've seen a significant increase in the amount we've known, learned about the animals," he said.

For example, we scoop up a tiny piece of salmon flesh after a whale chewed it.

"We can run genetics on this," says Hanson, "and not only get species but we can also get the river system from which the fish came."

We now know the whales depend on Chinook salmon from the Fraser River. Their incredible sonar can distinguish specific species.

We also now know they go to California regularly. They swim constantly at about 4 miles per hour and move 75 to 100 miles a day.

The research benefits of whale poop

"See if we can scoop some poop!" hollers Hanson from a perch sticking up and out the bow. He armed with a long pole with a net at the end.

That's right. The key scientific tool is floating fecal. The stool tool, you could say. Or not.

It's not glamorous but it reveals an incredible amount of information about each whale: what they ate today, hormones, DNA of individual whales.

All from whale poop.

A rifle aims toward one of the whales.


"Yea, there we go!" Hanson says enthusiastically.

No worries. The whales hardly notice the tiny red dart that snips a miniscule piece of flesh. The tiny red dart falls off instantly and floats in the waves until it's retrieved.

"Oh yea! That's a fatty! Holy smokes!" says Hanson.

He knows the harmless tissue samples reveal diet, gender, specific name, family tree, pregnancies, and - the chief concern - toxins. They're chock full of DDT and PCB - banned years ago. Toxins weaken them so they can't fight off diseases.

And now the newest threat, especially to newborns: household flame retardants.

"PBDEs. Flame retardants. They're in everything!" exclaims Hanson. "And when we wash our clothes and dispose of items - all those go into the waste stream. And all that shows up in the ocean. And I think that it's very hard for people to make those connections."

Does Hanson feel a sense of responsibility to help save this species?

"Oh absolutely. I'm a Pacific Northwest native," he says. "This is my dream come true. So I feel a very special responsibility to try to make sure that everything we do is going to, you know, work to help save this particular species."

Orca. Revered for centuries by Native Americans. Loved by multitudes. They're a part of our culture. And yet humans unwittingly threaten them in a thousand, million tiny ways. Scientists can unlock the mysteries, Hanson says, but only people can save them.

For More Information:

Follow Puget Sound Orca with satellite tags as they travel up and down the Pacific coast.
Read the scientific studies done by NOAA scientists on Southern Resident killer whales.
Center for Whale Research is an important partner with NOAA.
Have you seen an orca? Want to know where they are? Go to Orca Network