The Sociable Orcas of Kamchatka ...and the Russian Students Who Care for Them

by the far east russia orca project

Kawoof!" is the sound of an orca, or killer whale, spouting. It seems to echo off the big snow-capped Viluchinsky volcano in Avacha Gulf, southeast Kamchatka, Russia. Three researchers on our team, sitting in an inflatable boat, turn their heads. Where there is one orca, there are usually many more, for these are highly social mammals.

As almost a dozen orcas from the Avacha clan explode in quick sequence at the surface and their spouts drift toward the boat, our team takes their photographic identification shots. Another part of the team sitting in a boat nearby drops a hydrophone into the water to record the dialects of this orca pod—and to try to puzzle out the meaning of the orcas’ complex communication.

For several years, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has helped support the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), a group of university students in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. Our project was the vision of Russian marine mammal researcher Alexander Burdin, Japanese researcher Hal Sato and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society Senior Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. Beginning with a pilot project in 1999, the team has grown with every summer, extending the chance to Russian students to work with a species that had never been studied in Russia. In the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, there is little support for whale research.

Through the project, three of our students have received Master’s degrees (including Tanya Ivkovich, pictured at top left), and two (Olga Filatova and Karina Tarasyan) have received Ph.D.s. More are in progress. The team has separately identified and catalogued more than 400 individual orcas using digital dorsal fin photographs, found important feeding habitat, and identified fish-eating resident and seal-eating transient-type orcas similar to the different ecotypes found in the well-studied orca populations in the eastern North Pacific off the United States and Canada.

Our acoustics expert Olga Filatova has also identified sound dialects, with each pod or family group having some unique sounds passed down through the mothers—similar to the dialect system found in the eastern North Pacific, albeit with Russian accents. We spend a lot of time with the mothers and calves, as well as the big bulls, who, despite their size, stay beside their mothers for life. We have come to know them and have given them names, including Humpy, Hookie, Jeka, Brodyaga, Misha and Stepa.

In 2003, the project changed from a simple science project to a strongly conservation-minded science project. Our original thinking was that it was necessary to train Russian biologists to work in their country, both in terms of science and conservation; otherwise, all would be lost. We knew that killer whales in Russia were under threat of capture for aquariums in Japan, China, the United States and other locations. In September 2003, a few days after we left our camp, two young female orcas we knew were taken and killed by aquarium captors. One suffocated in the nets during capture. The other was transported on the ship to a makeshift pen and then flown nine time zones to the Black Sea, where she died 13 days later from an infection. We were devastated.

Since then, we have worked to reduce and marginalize the quotas. The captors are no longer allowed to work in our study area off eastern Kamchatka. There have been no successful capture attempts since 2003, although some permits are still being granted. At the same time, we have published articles in local newspapers and magazines, and we have talked to people about "our" orcas. We feel that if people could get to know orcas as individuals, the way we know them, things would be different. We are looking forward to the day when there will be no quotas and killer whales will be celebrated in Russia.

The Wildlife Paradise of Kamchatka

Our study site for the Far East Russia Orca Project off southeast Kamchatka is a marine wildlife paradise. Based on a small rocky island just off the coast, our team lives among tens of thousands of seabirds. Sometimes we rescue and help save tufted puffins or other small birds who get into trouble. We also encounter common murres and pigeon guillemots. Largha seals live all around the island and are frequently curious neighbors who watch us in the evenings as we clean our cameras, eat dinner, and prepare for the next day.