The price of loyalty in orca society

Loyalty to the pod may have contributed to the death of 11 or 12 orcas (killer whales) that were crushed in the pack ice earlier this month off the Shiretoko peninsula, north-east Hokkaido, in far northern Japan.

Thats the report from Kotoe Sasamori, naturalist from the Volcano Bay Marine Animals Watching Association in Muroran, Hokkaido, who was at the scene from the beginning, commenting on the event for Japanese TV.

Sasamori said that one or more of the calves in the group may have been ill, which then led to the rest of the pod remaining with them. The diver who recovered the animals reported that he had found one female orca floating as if still alive, with a little calf under her body, held between her two big flippers as if she was trying to protect the calf from the ice.

Also, scientists examining the bodies of the orcas found that one calf had a boil-like sore on its jaw, and another had a problem with its adrenal glands and kidneys.

According to WDCS's Erich Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, It is well known that orcas will stay with their pod when a pod member gets into difficulty. This has occurred when orcas have been captured for aquariums and other pod members have refused to leave, even endangering their own lives.

It may be that the orca pod off Hokkaido stayed with one or more calves who had either just died or were in serious trouble, risking their own safety and indeed losing their lives as a result of their intense loyalty to family.

Scientists found seal remains in the stomachs of several adult animals in the group. This has led to suggestions from local officials that the orcas may have been hunting seals too close to shore. Orcas have often been seen hunting various seal species in this area during February but without any previous incidences of them becoming trapped in ice. A local former seal hunter says that orcas sometimes lean up on the pack ice to make seals fall from it, which would indicate the orcas have an ability to work in and around ice and tends to discount the idea that they would become trapped while hunting seals.

The loss of an entire productive pod of orcas is a serious blow. Japan has lost many of its orcas in recent decades due to over hunting for both meat and captivity, and it is thought that there are now only a few orcas left in Japanese waters. Japan still hunts whales, including coastal dolphins and whales to some extent, although there is a growing whale watch industry.

Over the past few weeks in Japan, there has been tremendous public curiosity about this story. The regional Hokkaido and national TV news and newspapers have covered the event with, according to one TV producer, extremely high viewer interest and sympathy. The sad plight of this orca pod has also touched many school children across Japan, especially in Hokkaido.

Studies of the animals by some 20 different university and museum laboratories around Japan, will continue to try to establish who these orcas were, why they died, whether they belonged to existing Japanese or nearby Russian orca populations, and how the remainder of the population may fare with this productive pod now gone.