SEATTLE -- Federal biologists next month plan to attach tiny satellite devices on Puget Sound's endangered orcas to better understand where they go during winter.
Southern Resident Orcas. J, K, and L pods live most of the year in local waters of Puget Sound and around the San Juan Islands. Their lives are well documented. But in the winter they go offshore, into the ocean, exactly what they're doing is a mystery.
“It is amazing how much we don't know,” said NOAA Marine Biologist Brad Hanson.
In 2004, Hanson lead a team of scientists on the first of several successful research trips to find orcas.
There have been other trips - other sightings at sea. We now know our local whales travel at least down to the Oregon coast - maybe as far south as Monterrey, Calif. - in search of salmon. But now that the whales are listed as endangered, Hanson says more information is needed to protect them, and wants to put satellite tags on some whales to monitor their movements around the clock for a month. That involves injecting two small barbed darts into the whale's dorsal fin.
Ken Balcomb, another scientist based in the San Juans and Hanson’s friend and colleague, says it’s not worth it.
“We're exposing them to injury that could be disfiguring or lethal,” said Ken Balcomb.
But Hanson says wounds do heal and 15 species of whales have been tracked this way. That’s some 250 animals.
“Everything that we've seen to date looks like the normal would healing process,” he said.
Hanson has received a permit for the tagging. He also says veterinarians have reviewed the tagging and consider it safe.