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Scientists seeking dead killer whales to help the living ones

Experts hope to examine remains of orcas killed in a 1970 hunt by marine parks to shed light on three pods struggling for survival in Puget Sound.

October 29, 2006|Rachel La Corte | Associated Press Writer

WHIDBEY ISLAND, WASH. — Several orcas that died during captures for marine parks more than three decades ago may provide a wealth of information about Puget Sound's remaining killer whales.

Up to five orcas are believed to be buried on Whidbey Island, about 40 miles northwest of Seattle. A team of experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Washington and the Orca Network want to exhume the remains for DNA analysis.

"We're trying to add to our material that we have for the southern residents," said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, who is involved in the effort. "Like a lot of things in science, you don't know what it's going to yield until you get ahold of it."

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are actually a kind of dolphin, and are found in all the world's oceans.

The remains in question are believed to be from a 1970 hunt at Penn Cove off Whidbey Island, where more than 80 orcas were rounded up and seven were captured and sent to marine parks. Up to five whales got tangled in nets and drowned.

For years, Orca Network co-founder Susan Berta said, she had heard stories about whales buried on the island. Earlier this year, she asked Hanson whether they should try to find them.

She said she wanted to do something "to honor those deaths or make some good come of it."

Hanson said ground penetrating radar was used at the end of June to mark two potential sites that are expected to yield three remains; other sites are being sought. Excavation won't begin for several months, he said.

Last year, the federal government declared Washington state's three resident orca pods -- dubbed J, K and L -- endangered under federal law, which calls for habitat protection.

The three pods total 89 whales, down from 120 or more in the last century but up from a low of 79 in 2001. Their numbers have gone through three periods of decline since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when dozens were captured for aquariums.

Berta said at least 13 orcas were killed during those captures, and 45 were delivered to marine parks around the world. Only Lolita -- who is at the Miami Seaquarium -- is still alive. Believed to be between 40 and 42, Lolita is the oldest whale in captivity.

Orca Network launched its Free Lolita campaign in 1995, seeking to get the Seaquarium to release the whale back to Washington state.

Seaquarium officials have long dismissed any attempt to reclaim the orca.

In a written statement in August, the Seaquarium said releasing Lolita back into the Sound would "jeopardize her health and safety, especially given the fact that scientists have added the members of Lolita's pod, who reside in the waters of Puget Sound, on the endangered species list due to a distressed ecosystem."

The capture of orcas off the Northwest coast was stopped in 1976, after Washington state sued SeaWorld in federal court over a hunt in the Sound. In a settlement, Sea World agreed never to collect orcas again in Washington state.

Hanson said the work on Whidbey Island is a continuation of a project started a few years ago to obtain dozens of samples from orca remains at museums along the West Coast.

"We're shifting over to the materials that are not easily accessible," he said.

Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island has the skull of an infant whale that a Whidbey Island resident found after the 1970 capture, and is offering it up for DNA analysis as well.

Balcomb said that any information gleaned from this whale, or others that were found on Whidbey Island, could help explain why the orca population continued to struggle.

Pollution and a decline in prey are believed to be their biggest threats, though stress from whale-watch boats and underwater sonar tests by the Navy are also concerns.

Orcas are a matriarchal society, and Hanson said the team was interested in using DNA to determine lineages.

"Some of the questions are, was this a much larger population with more branches on the family tree?" Balcomb asked.

Berta said the network was reaching out to people on the island to see whether there may be any other whales buried on the island.

"We're excited to have something positive come out of a very negative part of our history here," she said.

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