Wednesday, August 23, 2006

That missing calf

Sunday before last, while kayaking with my sister and my daughter along the western coast of San Juan Island, we encountered the combined J and K pods of the southern resident killer whales that ply those waters in the summer. (Some of the photos and sounds from that encounter are included in the little home movie I recently made.)

The most notable member of the pods was a young calf traveling with the K pod that was extraordinarily playful, particularly in the repeated breaches it performed in close proximity to a number of kayakers. (You can see it surfacing alongside the adult female on the right in the above photo.)

It breached twice about ten feet behind our kayak, too quickly for me to swing the camera around, but still giving Fiona her chief thrill of the trip. We then watched it perform four breaches in succession in front of a cluster of kayaks about 300 yards past us, including a number of google-eyed youngsters, so closely that it splashed them.

Two days later, on a trip into Roche Harbor, we read the front-page headline and photo in the Seattle Times: "Newborn orca has disappeared". Naturally, we were concerned that the calf we had just seen might be dead.

Then we read the story and discovered that it was all about merely this:
Researchers at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island were elated Sunday to see a newborn orca calf swimming with K pod in Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.

But Monday, researchers observed the K pod for hours and did not see the baby. Then Tuesday, none of the members of the pod were seen.

It is possible the calf is dead. About 40 percent of all orca calves do not survive their first year.

The baby could also be alive, but stranded by its family. "Then what do we do?" said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research.

Researchers at the center will continue to search for the calf.

Well, the problem with all this is that when the whales were sighted Monday, they were in serious transit mode, steaming southward at a heavy pace and fairly spread out, obviously headed out of Puget Sound and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the open Pacific. They do this periodically in the summer, especially between runs of salmon, and can disappear for nearly a week at a time (they did not reappear until Saturday).

The lack of a sighting for the calf did not necessarily mean anything; individuals often can be hard to spot in a single sighting, especially when they're spread out and moving steadily, as they were in this case. Disappearances are usually only confirmed after multiple sightings of the family group.

It all seemed like, perhaps, much ado about nothing. And sure enough, when the K pod returned Sunday, little K-41 was among them after all:
"The lost was found," said Ken Balcomb, veteran orca researcher at the Friday Harbor center. "It wasn't with its mom that day," he added of reports last week that the calf was missing and perhaps dead.

The state's three resident orca pods -- dubbed J, K and L -- were declared an endangered species last year, and the disappearance of the newborn that had boosted the population to 90 for the first time this century was painful news.

The calf -- whose orange newborn coat made it stand out among its black-and-white family -- was first spotted Aug. 13 in Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juans, where the orcas congregate over the summer to chase salmon. But then it was not seen for days.

"J, K and L pods have been pretty much together this (past) week when they've been seen," Balcomb said. "He didn't show up with any other pod."

There were a couple of possible sightings, but no documentation until Sunday.

"We have to go by a picture to be sure," he said.

"He's an adventurous little guy," an exuberant Balcomb said. "But he was there today, nice and tight" with the other orcas.

"He's moving around," the researcher added. "He'll surface way ahead of Mom. Very unusual for that small of a baby."

It's worth noting that, since K-41 is this young, it is unlikely to have been the calf that was breaching around us; they typically are not that active until later in their development.

Each of them, however, is specially precious because of the southern residents' endangered status; they represent the pods' fragile hopes for surviving into the next century. If one of them disappears, those hopes dwindle exponentially.

Still, this feels like a classic case of overreporting. While the calf's appearance and then non-appearance was certainly noteworthy, this wasn't a real story until its disappearance was officially confirmed.

Both the Times and the P-I have been significantly stepping up their coverage of killer whales this spring and summer, and for the most part, that's something of a welcome change. The state of the southern residents has been, if anything, underreported here in recent years, so the change in news judgment is long overdue (though one has to suspect that the likelihood orca pictures also sell lots of papers may be part of the shift).

But credibility, bred by perspective and informed restraint, is always an essential part of effective coverage. Misplayed stories like this, by fostering a "boy who cried wolf" effect, tend to undermine public awareness of the very real problems these orcas face.

No comments: