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.