Southern resident “ceremony” 10/4/05 (video, photos)


One of the most remarkable behaviors of the southern residents is the “greeting ceremony” in which two groups of orcas line up facing each other and then mingle together. This article describes a similar “ceremony” acoustically and visually (video; photo gallery), and then discusses whether it may have been related to a “greeting,” a “goodbye,” or a more complex combination of activities.

I offer it here in the hope that others who witnessed this particular event may further consider what occurred. Please feel free to comment on this article and/or contribute your thoughts via the discussion forum. Insights from other accounts of different “ceremonies” performed by the southern resident (or other) orcas would also be welcome. Perhaps we will piece together a publishable story?

On October 4, 2005, only a week into a month of sailing with the southern residents, students and teachers of the Beam Reach marine science and sustainability school approached San Juan Island along with members of J and L pods. The Beam Reach research vessel, the sailing catamaran Gato Verde, paralleled the orcas as they moved northward from Salmon Bank along the west side of San Juan Island during the mid-afternoon. In the early evening, starting around 4:30pm PST, the pods began to concentrate within 100 meters of shore below Hannah Heights.

The “ceremony” that we observed (along with Tom McMillen, observers from the Center for Whale Research, and Sharon Grace [and others?]) was similar to “greeting ceremonies” that sometimes occur in the spring as the southern residents return to the Salish Sea from their winter ranges. One group of at least 9 adults and one calf (probably a subset of the group that had been traveling northward with us) congregated within 100 meters of shore ~0.5km southeast of a promontory with abundant driftwood (48o 29.65N, 123o 7.62W). They remained on the surface, gathered into an extremely tight group, traversed the shoreline southward for a few minutes, then doubled back to the north. Meanwhile, a different group of at least 9 adults rounded the driftwood point, heading south, and began to congregate in a rough line just south of the promontory’s rocky bluffs. They, too, remained largely on the surface, drew together in a line, and proceeded slowly southeastward toward the southern group. When they were about 25m apart, the southern group lunged forward, submerged, and quickly met the northern group. The two groups mingled, turning quickly and making brief dives, and remained together for an extended period (at least 15 minutes — we left at ~5:15pm to make port before nightfall — and probably much longer).

The ceremony was documented by Beam Reach with still photographs, digital video, and stereo underwater sound recordings. Preliminary analysis of the still photographs and video suggests that at least J40, J14, and L41 were part of the southern group. Tom McMillen of Salish Sea Charters with Iris Hesse and EEH (??) of the Center for Whale Research (CWR) were drifting near the northern group and photo-identified many of its members. Based on an initial examination of still photographs taken of the combined groups, Dave Ellifrit of the CWR noted that L84, L41, L90, L72, L55, L82+calf, L25 with L41, and Raggedy (K40) were present. Any additional photo-identification (and associated) debate is welcome!

An interesting aspect of this event, first pondered by Tom McMillen (and later discussed with Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit?), is that it approximately coincided with the last time that the matriarch L32 was seen. Earlier in the day (about an hour before the ceremony began?), Tom observed L32 with son L87 and noticed that she was emaciated and had a weaker-than-normal blow. CWR photographs confirm that L32 had a sunken blowhole area (“peanut head”) that day. L32 was not observed after the ceremony and L87 was observed the next day (or maybe 2 days later?) without L32, so L32 is now presumed to be dead. Could we have witnessed a “goodbye” ceremony?

Perhaps, but the CWR photographs reveal that the ceremony also involved foraging (birds hovering over orcas at surface) and sexual activity (sea snakes). Beam Reach video shows traveling behavior, milling, tail lobs, and pectoral fin slaps. There was a lot of acoustic activity prior to the meeting of the two groups, including abundant echolocating and intermittent calls, and an amazing coordinated acoustic event in which many individuals call simultaneously (without an obvious cue).

I’ve created this movie that juxtaposes the best of the Beam Reach video and underwater sound. Please note, however, that I was unable to synchronize the sound and video. I am tempted to associate the simultaneous calls with the dynamic lunge of the two groups together, but (I regret) there is currently no way to know whether that is right. Video footage was acquired by Beam Reach students Brett Becker and Courtney Kneipp. Acoustic data is from 2 ITC hydrophones mounted 1.4m apart on a horizontal pipe at 4.4m depth. (The engine noise at the beginning of the movie is from the Beam Reach research vessel.)

Please don’t hesitate to comment, email, or start a discussion thread if you have information or ideas about this fascinating behavior of the southern residents.

7 Responses to Southern resident “ceremony” 10/4/05 (video, photos)

  1. Rachael Griffin

    More photos and notes from the event:

    One group of whales grouped up along shore and made some loud surface whistles. They traveled north while another group turned and lined up in front of them. The two groups slowly traveled towards each other in lines. When they met, they dove and made some beautiful underwater vocalizations. The groups joined up again and one went north and the other south. Lime Kiln, San Juan Island – October 4 / 2005 (17:00)

  2. Incredible website! Great information…. I live on San Juan, unfortunately I did not witness the "Goodbye" ceremony… however… what about posting the picture with the trellace in the newspaper here? Or in the Whale Museum?
    Once again… thank you for this great site!

  3. Courtney Kneipp

    Rewatching the video and listening to the whale dialogue brought tears to my eyes all over again. All observations aside, I still remember a sort of prevailing sadness throughout the entire ceremony. A spirit of sorrow maybe.The experience and the feelings I had during it are hard to explain, yet the presence of the whales (as I remember) did not seem overly joyful. I had tears of astonishment and unexplainable sadness during the mystery ceremony. Throughout my entire Beam Reach experience I felt as though I had a sixth sense, one that allowed me to really listen to the whales. Perhaps it is this sixth sense that also tells me it was a goodbye ceremony. I would guess that most people that experience the presence of the whales also experience an unexplainable connection to them.

  4. Wilfredo Santiago

    Watching again the video, seeing the pictures and listen the audio, gives a more inside feeling that this wasn’t a greeting ceremony. I remember that day I was on the cockpit recording the sounds while my peers and instructors were on the bow watching the event, i was listening carefully to the audio. Yes the whales were a lot vocal and making so many sounds but the sound (at least at my interpretation) didn’t showed a happy tune. You can feel by the recording that the whales were kind of gathering by a some sad or grief reason. Also I noted that echolocation clicks were very low. I asked several people at my university and friends to listen the audio and almost all of them have the same opinion: It sound like a sad moment or something related. I remeber that a couple of days later we witness a older female with all her pod, a day later we just been informed that she wasn’t seen again. So my question is, could this "ceremony" was a goodbye between pods?

  5. I looked back over my photos to see what I had for 10/4/05. I took only 1 picture for documentation purposes, to show that orcas were present. That photo is in the gallery. I took it from Land Bank (the property between Edwards Point and Lime Kiln) at 3:52 pm. The orca looks like it is relaxing. I can’t remember what time I was watching the whales from above Hannah. I think it was around 5pm. I do remember that I did not see the greeting ceremony. What I could see from the cabin above Hannah looked like the whales were all grouped up and rolling around. It wasn’t until I heard the marine radio transmissions that I realized something else was happening. I continued to watch the whales after you left, and it wasn’t apparent from the distance that I was viewing them from that anything unusual had happened–altho’ clearly any time a matriarch is lost the occasion must be momentous for the whales. The vocals that you captured were certainly more subdued than I ordinarily hear when that many whales are vocalizing. I wonder exactly what was happening toward the end of the audio when the whales seemed to get pretty excited with their vocalizations. Is that the last time you saw L32? (I noticed in your video that the calf of the group continued to engage in "typical" calf behavior, whatever was happening beneath the surface.)

  6. Incredibly odd, I thought, were the sounds heard above before diving under. I had no idea their voices could be heard so strongly out of the water.
    The greeting ceremony is a demonstration of higher function in a species not understood and the chatter heard was unbelievable. I remember the strange feeling when all of the whales dissapeared into the depths for a short period of time. I wasn’t listening to the whales live at that time, but I could only wonder what was happening under the water and what might happen next.

    It was amazing to be on the water, witnessing a personal moment between families, but I feel that we didn’t belong there. While our curiousity to understand has led us to examine killer whale life and culture, the harm done by us (humans) to them in the process of our own discovery may be too great of a risk to orcas. My selfish desires to attach human emotions to killer whales and experience them may only be a sort of nuisance that inhibits their well-being.

  7. Pingback: Beam Reach - » Orca “logging” for hours at Lime Kiln!

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