Tag Archives: orca

Splendid pictures, research propel book

Published January 7, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

The University of Hawaii Press published Robin Baird’s book “The Lives of Hawaii’s Whales and Dolphins” in November. Cover photo of resident rough-toothed dolphins by Deron S. Verbeck/iamaquatic.com

Over the years, when I had a question about Hawaii’s whales or dolphins, I would email Robin Baird, a researcher at Cascadia Research Collective. Although this nonprofit scientific and education organization is based in Olympia, Wash., Robin and his team have been traveling here about four times a year since 1999 to study our little-known whales and dolphins.

Robin always replied quickly to my queries with the latest information and generously offered me the use of photos from the Cascadia website, cascadiaresearch.org (This site has so many out-of-this-world photos and thought-provoking articles that often hours would pass before I wrote one word.)

When Robin and I met for the first time two years ago at Hanauma Bay, we talked about how good it would be to have a book that reported Cascadia’s research and showed off those fantastic pictures.

Now we have one. In November the University of Hawaii Press published “The Lives of Hawaii’s Dolphins and Whales,” by Robin W. Baird.

This is no coffee table book, but the pictures are so amazing I can almost hear the photographers’ whoops of joy when they got many of these shots. There’s the orca carrying a bigeye thresher shark in its mouth, a family of pilot whales carrying, and grieving for, their dead calf, a false killer whale about to bite a mahimahi that was trying to hide behind the photographer — and on and on.

One of my peeves in science writing is that many researchers use jargon and passive verbs to describe what happened: “The diverse time course of the observed subjects …” Not only is this dull reading, but you don’t know who did what to whom. Not Robin. This is marine biology at its finest, detailed science told in everyday language, often in story form.

One of my favorites is the tale, with photo, of a false killer whale offering a researcher a 100-pound ahi (yellowfin tuna). This whale species has the unusual habit of sharing food, not just with each other, but with humans too if they’re nearby.

Another remarkable aspect of “blackfish,” a 17th-century fishermen’s name for five mostly black whale species, is that the females of three — killer, pilot and false killer — stop reproducing when around 40 years old and live 10, 20 or even 50 more years. The theory is that long life after menopause, which as far as we know occurs only in those whales and humans, provides experienced aunties and grandmothers to guide younger generations.

This book is a rare treasure: easy-to-read marine biology with precise science that is also a dazzling picture book. Bravo, Robin.

Yes, Virginia, there are killer whales off Hawaii

Published March 31, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ABOUT two weeks ago, a Hawaii fisherman called the Star-Bulletin to report the sighting of a killer whale about six miles off Kaneohe Bay.

“Can this be true?” a reporter asked me.

Yes, killer whales do swim in Hawaii waters. In fact, orcas are the most cosmopolitan of the world’s whales, present in all oceans and seas, from the ice floes of both hemispheres to the warm waters of the equator. Sometimes, killer whales even swim up rivers.

Most of us don’t think of killer whales as ramblers because of the close-knit family units some orcas form in places like Puget Sound. Such groups, called resident pods, are present in specific areas year-round and travel only short distances to find food, mostly fish.

Usually, these family-oriented whales spend their entire lives within the same group, with population gains and losses coming only from births and deaths. This social structure is the only one of its kind among the world’s mammals.

But another type of killer whale exists, called transients. These whales roam in and out of resident whales’ boundaries but don’t mix with resident populations.

Both types of orcas live in pods ranging from 1 to 55 individuals, but transient pods tend to be smaller than resident pods.

Transient orcas are different from their resident cousins in other ways too. Transients are quieter animals and have pointed tips (as opposed to rounded) on their distinctive dorsal fins. Also, it is the transients that sometimes eat marine mammals, a practice that gave the whales their common name, killer.

In spite of this malevolent name, documented attacks on humans are rare. In those attacks that have occurred, the whale was provoked either by harpooning or by an attempt to capture it or a member of its family. Collisions between whales and boats are usually accidents.

This doesn’t mean that orcas can’t sometimes be pests. Hilo fishermen once reported a whale “with an 8-foot sail” raiding and destroying fishing lines. The description is likely that of a male orca.

Other orcas have been spotted off the Waianae Coast and near Kauai in 1979.

The orca sighting two weeks ago was by Hawaii resident David Shane, owner and captain of the 50-foot trawler Moana Mele.

“It was a male orca, about 25 feet long,” he told me. “It swam right up to the side of the boat, then rolled up to look at us. It stayed for about 10 minutes, then took off. We were so mesmerized, we didn’t think to take its picture.”

Because sightings of killer whales are so rare in Hawaii, researchers believe that these mammals are not residents but transients, merely passing though from time to time.

This recent sighting was a lucky, rare moment for David Shane and his passengers.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com