Biologists are gaining new information about the winter movements of endangered Puget Sound killer whales by tracking the daily activities of one orca by a satellite tag.
Since scientists attached a transmitter to a 21-year-old male orca named Scoter two weeks ago, they’ve watched as he has sprinted more than 1,000 miles — from the Seattle area to north of San Francisco before curiously reversing course over the weekend and heading north.
The whale, known as K-25, is traveling with other members of his group and was spotted near Crescent City, Calif., on Tuesday.
“One thing that has struck us is it seems to be directed movement. They haven’t paused very long in one place,” said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle who is leading the project.
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The satellite tag is helping scientists better understand where the black-and-white mammals go in the winter.
“It’s definitely providing new information,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. He recently traveled to California and spotted the orca five times from shore. During the past week, he has helped researchers sight the animals so they could collect samples of whale scat and fish scales left behind after feeding to understand what they’re eating.
The endangered orcas — which hang out in three groups known as K, L and J — spend a bulk of the summer months in Puget Sound, but scientists aren’t certain exactly where they spend the rest of their time.
Visual sightings, ship surveys and acoustic reports have shown the animals travel as far south as Monterey, Calif., and as far as the north coast of British Columbia during winter, but the information has been spotty, Hanson said.
Tracking the animals in the winter would reveal their range and rate of travel, how far offshore they go, where they loiter and the timing of their activities, Hanson said. The information could lead to designating new critical habitat areas for the animals.