On July 16th, my Mom and I left San Francisco by boat to tour the Southeast coastal islands of Alaska. I have been hearing stories about the untamed Alaska since I was a small child. My mom lived in Kodiak as a girl. Her father and my grandfather had his last tour of Naval duty on Kodiak. His assignment was to survey the numbers of Kodiak bears for the sake of conservation. So I was more than eager to see the wildness and wildlife of Alaska.

While at sea, I’ve seen common Alaskan wildlife. Humpbacks have spouted and breached, raven and eagles have dived at the water for a dinner of spawning salmon. But I keep looking at the water, hoping to glimpse Orcas. The next opportunity to do so will be tomorrow coming out of the port of Victoria, British Columbia. Orcas, or killer whales as they are commonly known, are not whales at all. They are the largest species of the dolphin family and they are prominent along the Southeast islands of Alaska. They have captured the spirit of natives in these lands. They are alive in their legends and are carved into totem poles that are being preserved in the towns and museums along the coast. Both the native people here and Orcas form matriarchal societies and many native people believe that members of their tribe are reincarnated as killer whales.

Resident Orcas are just one type of Killer Whale. Three groups of Orcas have been found to be genetically separate on the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA level here. Resident Orcas stay close to the shore of the Alaskan islands in herds of up to 200. They have strongly bonded familial ties and are the fisherman of the Orcas, as their diet consists only of fish. Transient Orcas, on the other hand, live also in groups of up to 200 but will split off for the sake of the hunt. They hunt small marine mammals and migrate a great deal more, going where they can find food. While residents have a small and predictable migration route, transients are harder to research because of an unpredictable migration route. Researchers in Alaska have been able to collect more data on resident pods because of their predictability. They identify each individual by their Saddle-patch, or the white markings adjacent to the dorsal fin. It is like a fingerprint, identifying individual Orcas. The third group of Orcas is even more elusive than the transient pods. They are known as the Offshore Orcas. They are known as the rogue of the species and have been very difficult to research because of their unpredictability and often solo migration.

I am most interested in Orcas because of the question of Orca culture. They are seen as very intelligent animals by Native tribes as well as researchers. There is a controversy in the scientific field if Orcas have culture. Traits of fishing or hunting seem to be passed down to offspring denoting learning and hence culture. However, the science community is still split on learning behavior. One story I heard while here paints them as creatures of learning and remorse. One sick Orca was found in a pod. Fisherman noticed the other pod-mates line up and the sick Orca went through the line giving attention to each pod member and then left the pod after what looked like “saying his goodbyes”. Was this a goodbye ritual for sending off a dying pod-mate? Whether is was or not, such unusual behavior is well worth more research. Hopefully, I will be able to see some of their behavior myself before returning to San Francisco.

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Watching the Water 23 July,2008Cat



Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division.
Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.

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