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Whales killed in Penn Cove roundup may provide insight

By Lukas Velush

The long buried bones of a handful of orca whales that died in one of the ugliest chapters of Whidbey Island's history may be unearthed, giving scientists information that could help save the local pods. In the 1960s and '70s, as many as 45 orca were captured and separated from their family pods in Puget Sound, according to orca experts. More captures took place in Canadian waters. The orca, often called killer whales, were boxed up and hauled off to aquariums across the country. At least 13 died during the captures, according to historical accounts. Now their bones, buried for 37 years, may help save the struggling species, officials say.

Orca roundup
The worst captures happened in Whidbey Island's Penn Cove, where three pods of orca were trapped in pens, the most recent in 1970. "They used steel bombs, planes and boats to get them into Penn Cove," said Susan Berta, program director for the Orca Network, a group based in Whidbey Island that tracks orca movement in Puget Sound.

Young orca were separated from their mothers in nearby pens, Berta said. They could be heard calling to each other for hours. "When they let the others go, they stayed right there until the last whale was taken away in a truck," she said. "All of them did."

Berta said four to five of those that died during the catch were buried on the central part of Whidbey Island near Coupeville. Now, orca experts are trying to dig up their bones. They say they could provide clues to save a species listed as endangered in 2005. Berta used witnesses' accounts to locate three spots where orca likely are buried. One paved-over location is inaccessible - not so at the other two locations.

Early search fruitless
On Feb. 21 the bone hunt was dealt a blow when a preliminary dig at what looked like the best location failed to turn up even a sliver of bone.

He's participating in the volunteer search because finding such bones would help him learn about the historical eating patterns of orca in this region. "We were pretty disappointed after we spent this whole day after years of preparation," he said.

Now the search depends on photos that the backhoe operator took all those years ago. The hope is that they will show a landmark that pinpoints the burial site. If not, the football-field-size area where at least one orca was likely buried is simply too big to have any hope of finding bones. "Other than that, it's the needle in the haystack," Etnier said.

The orca searchers plan to look for bones at another nearby site in the water, but the fear is that the porous bones may have dissolved.

Sound's orcas unique?
DNA samples and eating histories of the long-dead killer whales could help prove that the Puget Sound orca are different enough from other orca to validate their listing as endangered, Berta said.

Builders and other pro-growth groups fighting the listing argue that local orca are no different than other orca populations and should not be protected. They are wary of restrictions to protect a species that are almost exactly the same as orca all over the world.

Hanson said the local orca population was listed as a distinct subspecies of orca because the mammal doesn't appear to breed or communicate with other orca.

The federal government at first refused to list the local orca population as endangered and only did so after ordered by a federal judge to reevaluate its decision not to list them.

Roundup's last survivor
Only one orca captured during that era remains alive: Lolita, who lives in the Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

For decades some orca activists have tried to free the whale that, at nearly 40 years old, is thought to be the world's oldest captive killer whale. Efforts to buy her release have been rebuffed over the years.

Her good nature and willingness to perform tricks in the smallest aquarium in the world holding a captive orca are thought to have contributed to her outliving all of her locally captured kin by more than decade.

Lolita shared her pen with another orca not from her Puget Sound family until 1980, but she hasn't seen another orca since then.

The effort to free her has evolved into a movement to preserve her family members still in the wild, Berta said.

Source: Heraldnet.com

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