Orca ‘apocalypse’: half of killer whales doomed to die from pollution

September 27, 2018

At least half of the world’s killer whale populations are doomed to extinction due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans, according to a major new study.

Although the poisonous chemicals, PCBs, have been banned for decades, they are still leaking into the seas. They become concentrated up the food chain; as a result, killer whales, the top predators, are the most contaminated animals on the planet. Worse, their fat-rich milk passes on very high doses to their newborn calves.

PCB concentrations found in killer whales can be 100 times safe levels and severely damage reproductive organs, cause cancer and damage the immune system. The new research analysed the prospects for killer whale populations over the next century and found those offshore from industrialised nations could vanish as soon as 30-50 years.

Among those most at risk are the UK’s last pod, where a recent death revealed one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded. Others off Gibraltar, Japan and Brazil and in the north-east Pacific are also in great danger. Killer whales are one of the most widespread mammals on earth but have already been lost in the North Sea, around Spain and many other places.

“It is like a killer whale apocalypse,” said Paul Jepson at the Zoological Society of London, part of the international research team behind the new study. “Even in a pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce.” Healthy killer whales take 20 years to reach peak sexual maturity and 18 months to gestate a calf.

PCBs were used around the world since the 1930s in electrical components, plastics and paints but their toxicity has been known for 50 years. They were banned by nations in the 1970s and 1980s but 80% of the 1m tonnes produced have yet to be destroyed and are still leaking into the seas from landfills and other sources.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force in 2004 to tackle the issue, but Jepson said the clean-up is way behind schedule. “I think the Stockholm Convention is failing,” he said. “The only area where I am optimistic is the US. They alone produced 50% of all PCBs, but they have been getting PCB levels down consistently for decades. All we have done in Europe is ban them and then hope they go away.”

The researchers said PCBs are just one pollutant found in killer whales, with “a long list of additional known and as yet unmeasured contaminants present”. Further problems for killer whales include the loss of key prey species such as tuna and sharks to overfishing and also growing underwater noise pollution.

The new research, published in the journal Science, examined PCB contamination in 351 killer whales, the largest analysis yet. The scientists then took existing data on how PCBs affect calf survival and immune systems in whales and used this to model how populations will fare in the future. “Populations of Japan, Brazil, Northeast Pacific, Strait of Gibraltar, and the United Kingdom are all tending toward complete collapse,” they concluded.

Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca, said: “Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding at the next meeting in May 2019 to help stop this scandal.” Scientists have previously found “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution even in the 10km-deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

“This new study is a global red alert on the state of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lonsdale, chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s whales group. “If the UK government wants its [proposed] Environment Act to be world-leading, it must set ambitious targets on PCB disposal and protect against further chemical pollution of our waters.”

The research shows that killer whale populations in the high north, off Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Faroes, are far less contaminated due to their distance from major PCB sources. ”The only thing that gives me hope about killer whales in the longer term is, yes, we are going to lose populations all over the industrialised areas, but there are populations that are doing reasonably well in the Arctic,” said Jepson.

If a global clean-up, which would take decades, can be achieved, these populations could eventually repopulate empty regions, he said, noting that killer whales are very intelligent, have strong family bonds and hunt in packs. “It is an incredibly adaptive species – they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”

He praised the billion-dollar “superfund” clean-ups in the US, such as in the Hudson River and Puget Sound, where the polluter has paid most of the costs: “The US is going way beyond the Stockholm Convention because they know how toxic PCBs are.”

Source: The Guardian.com

Killer whales spotted hunting humpback off Sydney

July 12, 2018

It’s the time of year where it’s not unusual to see whales off the coast of Sydney, as hundreds of humpbacks migrate north to warmer waters over the winter months.

However, it is rare to see a pod of killer whales.

A Go Whale Watching Sydney tour was out in the waters off Botany Bay yesterday when the group spotted about 50 of the whales swimming together.

It’s the first time orcas have been spotted off Sydney for quite a few years, and certainly not this close to shore.

The tour boat was about six nautical miles out to sea when they came across the pod.

Go Whale Watching guide Simon Miller told 9NEWS, “I’ve been whale watching up here since 2004 and I’ve never seen the killer whales in close to shore off Sydney before”.

While they might look friendly and are in fact part of the dolphin family, killer whales are one of the world’s most powerful predators.

“They are a type C killer whale and they’re predominantly found in the Ross sea down in Antarctica”, said Mr Miller.  

The reason they’re in Sydney’s waters right now is to hunt for humpbacks.

They also eat great white sharks, seals – and even polar bears if given the chance.

Despite their killer instincts, there has never been a known attack on a human in the wild.

The pod was last seen heading down to NSW’s South Coast.

Source: 9news.com

Mysterious orcas are filmed underwater for the first time: Pod of the elusive and majestic type D killer whales is spotted by chance by tourists returning from Antarctica

March 2, 2018

  • These creatures have only been spotted a handful of times in the past 70 years
  • A submerged camera caught the incredible underwater footage of the pod
  • Some experts believe they should even qualify as their own species 
  • Sighting was particularly rare as these creatures live in deep waters far from land

A pod of illusive type D killer whales has been filmed underwater for the first time by surprised researchers on a tourist boat returning from Antarctica.

These majestic creatures – which were only identified in 1955 – have only been spotted a handful of times in the past 70 years.

A submerged camera caught the unique underwater footage of the pod as they moved in synchrony with one another.

These incredible creatures are so distinct from other orcas some experts believe they should even qualify as their own species. 

‘They were playing and seemed to be following our boat… they just kept popping up,’ said Gregg Treinish, executive director of Adventure Scientists who was a guest speaker on the Lindland expedition.

As well as being seen by tourists on the boat, an underwater camera captured these rare animals floating beneath the surface, writesNational Geographic, as part of an in-depth feature.

The sighting was particularly rare as these creatures generally live in deep waters far from land.

Compared to normal dolphins, these orcas have more bulbous heads and sharper dorstal fins.

The patches over their eyes are smaller than on other species – A, B and C – which are all known to dwell in Antarctic waters.

‘We know next to nothing about what they feed on, their longevity, their migrations, if any, or their social structure,’ said Conor Ryan, a naturalist on the Lindblad expedition.

When they were first discovered after a mass stranding in New Zealand in the 1950s they were thought to be a mutated type of the worldwide orca species.

They are especially distinctive due to their small eye patches, writes UK Whales.

Type A is the most common type of orca. They are the large, black and white ones with white eye patches that most people are used to seeing.

Type B is smaller and more grey than black on their darker areas. Type C is the smallest with white eye patches slanted at an angle to the body.

Although there have been few sightings of the type D variety there have been enough sightings for experts to realise they are a unique ecotype and not just a mutation.

They have been seen eating Patagonian toothfish but it is unknown if they exclusively eat fish.

Experts believe that if they are a new species they could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet.


These majestic creatures – which were only identified in 1955 – have only been spotted a handful of times in the past 70 years.

When they were first discovered after a mass stranding in New Zealand in the 1950s they were thought to be a mutated type of the worldwide orca species.

They are so distinct from other orcas some experts believe they should even qualify as their own species.

Compared to normal dolphins, these orcas have more bulbous heads and sharper dorstal fins.

The patches over their eyes are smaller than on other species – A, B and C – which are all known to dwell in Antarctic waters.

They are especially distinctive due to their small eye patches. 

They have been seen eating Patagonian toothfish but it is unknown if they exclusively eat fish.

Experts believe that if they are a new species they could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet.

Source: Daily Mail.co.uk

What Antarctic Killer Whales Can Teach Humans About Climate Change

April 10, 2017

The giant mammals are extremely vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem, making their health a good barometer for the state of the environment.

They stood on the top bridge of the cruise ship National Geographic Explorer, peering through binoculars at the vast icy Weddell Sea. It was a summer afternoon in February in Antarctica, the air a balmy 32-or-so degrees Fahrenheit, and John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, biologists with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, had spotted killer whales in the distance.

The only question was, were these the Type B2’s, with their gorgeous gray-and-white coloring and their culinary fondness for Gentoo penguins—one of only three kinds of killer whales found in the Antarctic Peninsula? Or another type of killer whale unique to these cold deep waters? From miles away it was hard to tell. The rest of us spectators on the ship, far from our native habitats of Texas, England, and Kenya, gazed out at the ice floes and the foggy horizon splashed with blue, wondering too.

The scientists were on board thanks to a grant from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund. The fund aspires to protect the ocean’s last pristine areas through research, conservation, education, and community-development projects in the company’s far-flung destinations.

For Durban and Fearnbach, who are based in sunny La Jolla, California, the fund has buoyed their research in Antarctica. While they also study orca and humpback whale populations in the Pacific Northwest, the North Atlantic and Alaska, on these trips they’ve been able to observe killer whales in perhaps the most inaccessible place on the planet. Since 2011, the scientists have made several voyages a year to the frozen continent on the Explorer, using the ice-cutting, refurbished Norwegian ferry to follow the whales.

On the trip in early February, the scientists were joined by 148 passengers and a flock of naturalists. For those paying hefty sums to see Antarctica, the 10-day voyage was like a floating science classroom. In the lounge, naturalists lectured on such pertinent topics as “Know Your Penguins,” “What Does Ice Tell Us About Climate Change?” and a Belgian expedition’s epic discovery of the Gerlache Strait.

Durban and Fearnbach gave several talks about their work in Antarctica, and how the health of killer whales is a barometer of the continent’s rapidly changing environment. Their research has been especially revelatory. Until as little as 20 years ago, scientists used to believe that Antarctic killer whales were all alike. But Durban, his colleague Bob Pitman and others took small skin samples of whales, analyzed their DNA, and ended up discovering that there are five distinct types, each with its own prey preferences, hunting techniques, and habitats. Durban and his colleagues are proposing that they may be separate species. This means that each type of killer whale will adapt to climate change in different ways—some likely better than others—largely depending on their food supply.

The enormous Type A’s, which are a striking black and white, feed on minke whales and perhaps elephant seals. The B2’s, which are the smallest and most plentiful, typically frequent the Gerlache Strait, munching on gentoo and chinstrap penguins and probably fish. The B1s, which are a dazzling gray and white, dine on seals. When they hunt, the clever whales band together and literally make waves to wash seals off ice floes. “They are my favorite animals,” said Durban during their talk.

It’s not exactly easy to spot killer whales in the Antarctic seas, where the horizon can be an endless expanse of whites and grays and mesmerizing teal-blue ice sculptures. The creatures are mostly underwater, and race through the seas at a brisk 55 miles per hour. When Durban and Fearnbach do spy them, or get a tip from the sharp-eyed crew on the bridge that whales are in sight, the scientists chase after them in a Zodiac—a small, black rubber motorboat—taking photographs and collecting data. The photos help them identify individual whales and keep close track of their health from year to year. They can also pinpoint where in the vast Antarctic waters the whales are most likely to be, and how stable the various populations are. Although they already know a lot, they want to learn more about what the insatiable animals eat. That will tell them if the warming environment is threatening their food sources.

There’s abundant enthusiasm for their research on the ship. Passengers and naturalists have contributed thousands of photographs of killer whales to the scientists. Counting their own photographs snapped from the Zodiac and from the Explorer’s decks and bow, they’ve amassed nearly 80,000 images of the little-observed animals.

In the past six years, they’ve gained tremendous insights into the enigmatic cetaceans. Using tiny satellite tags affixed to whales that relay their movements, Durban and Fearnbach were the first to document Antarctic whales making a speedy, 5,000-mile trip to the warmer waters of the subtropics and back, apparently to shed their algae-encrusted skin. They recorded the deepest dives—more than 2,000 feet—of any killer whales in the world. They’ve seen feeding behaviors few scientists have: a killer whale dangling an elephant seal in its mouth, another type of killer whale pursuing pretty Adélie penguins.

In early February, the researchers had already been out for two weeks traversing the Southern Ocean and Weddell Sea, where Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance famously got trapped in ice in 1915, trying to fathom more about the role of killer whales in the continent’s rapidly warming environment.  With news of the ever-widening crack in the nearby Larsen C ice shelf, their quest seemed especially relevant.

To read the FULL article, visit The Atlantic.com

Why researchers are hunting killer whales in the Antarctic

February 14, 2017


In this latest installment of the “Climate Diaries” series, CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips is in Antarctica, following a group of researchers chasing killer whales. They are using new technology, including drones, to learn about the health of the ocean’s top predator. Phillips shows us how the Antarctic Ocean’s dwellers are experiencing the effects of climate change.

The ship that took a CBS News team to the U.S. research base at Palmer Station, Antarctica is not your average love boat.  There’s some serious scientific work being done on this cruise, and the findings are not always happy ones, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips. 
The National Geographic Explorer is a different kind of adventure cruise ship. She’s on a whale hunt, cutting through the pack ice near the Antarctic Circle. The good ship Explorer is not just here for sightseeing, although there’s plenty to see.

And while nobody shouts “Thar she blows,” when whales are spotted, this time in open water, people do jump into small boats to chase them, just like in the old days. This hunt, though, isn’t about killing whales; it’s about saving them. It’s about giving them a health check, and the prognosis isn’t particularly good.

“One of the reasons we study top predators — and killer whales are the top predator in the ocean — is to understand the health of the ecosystem that supports them,” said John Durban. He and Holly Fearnbach are modern whale hunters who use the latest tools.
They use a drone fitted with equipment to monitor the whales’ condition. 

“With a small drone like this, we can fly just a little over 100 feet — the whales don’t know it’s there — and we fly a camera much lower so the quality of the images are so much better,” Durban explained.  

“What’s wrong with her?” Phillips asked.

“She’s very, very thin,” Fearnbach said. 

“You could see just following her, her whole body profile, you could see her ribs really clearly, so she’s lost all of the fat along her entire body,” Fearnbach said. 

“You’re looking at a dying whale here?” Phillips asked.

To read the rest of the article and watch the video visit the source at CBS News.com

Ross Sea becomes Antarctica world’s largest protected area

October 27, 2016

An enormous Antarctic bay, home to penguins and killer whales, became the world’s largest protected marine area on Friday.

A United Nations body sealed the deal after five years of negotiations, at a meeting in Hobart, Tasmania.

“It’s near pristine and how many near pristine parts of the ocean do we have left on the planet?” WWF Australia Ocean Science Manager Chris Johnson told CNN.

Twenty-four nations and the European Union agreed unanimously to declare the Ross Sea in Antarctica an official Marine Protected Area after negotiations brokered by the UN’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

According to the UN, 50% of ecotype-C killer whales (the smallest of the four types of Southern Hemisphere orcas), 40% of Adelie penguins and 25% of emperor penguins live in the area covered by the new park.

“The data collected from this ‘living laboratory’ helps us understand the significant changes taking place on Earth right now,” United States scientist David Ainley, one of the first to call for the area to be protected, said in a statement.

35-year limit on deal

Not everyone is completely happy with the deal however — Johnson told CNN the Ross Sea deal would expire in 35 years.

“While we’re very excited about this we don’t want it to become a precedent for other marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean,” he said.

For a new marine park to be declared, Johnson said every country involved must agree — complete consensus is required.

“This has been a long, ongoing, challenging debate and I believe this one of the compromises in terms of getting that 100% consensus,” he said.

Johnson said the WWF would be working hard to make the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area permanent.

“It’s critical to set aside these really epic spots for diversity, not just as marine parks but as places that can build resistance to the changing climate,” he said.

‘Speedo diplomacy’ helped sway Russia

Russia had voted against the new protected area on five previous occasions before finally agreeing on Friday.

In a statement, a United Nations spokesman gave credit to UN Environment’s Patron of the Ocean Lewis Pugh, who has worked over the past two years to gain Russia’s agreement.

He even swum in the icy waters of the Ross Sea in 2015 to raise attention for the issue, in what was described as “speedo diplomacy.”

“I am overjoyed,” Pugh said in a statement. “The Ross Sea is one of the most magnificent places on Earth. It is one of our last great wilderness areas. This is a dream come true.”

According to the United Nations spokesman, Pugh made multiple trips to Russia to convince officials of the Ross Sea’s value.

Source: q13fox.com