An inside look at the Kodiak Killers

Kate Wynne, mammal specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gives a presentation at the Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium Monday. (Louis Garcia photo)

A presentation on Monday afternoon at the Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium gave an in-depth look at the Kodiak Killers, a pod of transient killer whales that have been observed in the Kodiak harbor periodically and repeatedly since the early 1990s.

Killer whales that come around Kodiak this time of year eat an eclectic mix of food, University of Alaska Fairbanks marine mammal specialist Kate Wynne reported.

“Their diets are very different,” Wynne said. “There are some that eat only mammals, some that eat only fish, and a third group that eats apparently offshore pelagic fish like sharks, tunas, things like that.”

The difference in diet is due to at least three different ecotypes that are genetically different enough that they haven’t interbred for thousands of years.

The fish eaters like one particular meal: king salmon.

“That’s their favorite salmon. They don’t love pink salmon at all,” Wynne said.

The whales even eat gray whales and humpbacks, with the tongues being a particular area they go for.

“It’s usually gray whales like this guy who washed up on Pasagshak in 2006, where it looked like the killer whales grabbed him by the flippers and just peeled him like an orange, basically,” Wynne said. “We know that every year usually calves and both gray and humpbacks get killed, and partially consumed around Kodiak.”

Another interesting tidbit shared was how different killer whales sound.

“The fish eaters, if you put a hydrophone in the water, they sound like dolphins,” Wynne said. “If you’re around mammal eaters, these guys are silent hunters. You put a hydrophone in the water and you won’t hear a thing until you hear a kill and then there’s this crunching sound.”

As interesting as the information is, it’s extremely hard to come by, as the animals are difficult to study. The mammal hunters — which includes the Kodiak Killers — visit areas sporadically and tend to scatter when bugged in their hunting grounds.

“It’s really hard to actually pinpoint what they eat, how much they eat,” Wynne said.

Part of this is because just seeing a whale tear into a Steller sea lion — a particular favorite of the whales who hang around the Kodiak harbor — isn’t enough for the rock-hard data needed. DNA data is used to record the information as an official kill.

Most killer whale data comes by opportunity, and not from formal studies. Fishermen, the Coast Guard and even the public help gather information on these kings of the food chain.

Because of the public, a lot of yearly information is gathered on the Kodiak Killers. The transient killer whales that pass through Kodiak are instantly recognizable. One, “Bentley,” has a large bent-over dorsal fin, and the matriarch has chunks missing from hers.

“This is the best thing about a small town. On the radio, KMXT says killer whales are in the harbor and everyone runs down there,” Wynne said. “It’s like a sporting event. It’s really helpful and important for us just to know how many whales there are.”

The Kodiak Killers come right into the harbor because the sea lions are plentiful here. They scavenge fish, get fed fish by the docks and hang out at Dog Bay on a float. Wynne said it also helps that they’re not too bright.

“What happens is — I don’t know if they’re not that smart or what — the sea lions will come off their secure land site, jump in the water and go growl at the killer whales,” Wynne said.

She went on to say that the tactic of proving toughness employed by the sea lions usually doesn’t end well for them.

The Steller sea lion population was discussed as the first item of the marine mammals section Monday afternoon, and Wynne briefly touched on the impact killer whales have had.

“It’s hard to quantitatively document mortality, like what impact do killer whales have on the sea lion population?” she said. “We may not get there. We may not have the numbers.”

During Whale Fest, taking place through April 24, people will be able to call a hotline to report killer whale sightings by dialing 486-3181.

Wynne said she is happy to have photos of the whales, but reminded people not to get too close to the whales so as to not disturb them.

Mirror writer Louis Garcia can be reached via email at lgarcia@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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