Tucked away in southcentral Alaska lies Kachemak Bay, a 40-mile long body of water surrounded by mountains, glaciers, estuaries, and the small town of Homer, Alaska. It is a rich marine ecosystem that supports an abundance of life, including numerous orca populations. I started working for Rainbow Tours and Alaska Coastal Marine, two local wildlife tour and fishing companies, while I was in college studying marine biology. Armed with a telephoto lens and a desire to learn more these fascinating animals, I spent four years collecting photo-identification data on the orcas we encountered on our daily tours.
Written by Emma Luck / December 2020
Alaska’s orca populations have been monitored by the non-profit organization, the North Gulf Oceanic Society, for more than 30 years. Their photo-identification catalogs now span several generations of whales and without them, my photo-ID work in Kachemak Bay would simply not be possible. Though much of their fieldwork is based in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Fjords, the whales seen Kachemak Bay often travel to these regions, and so many of them are known thanks to the hard work of the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
The presence of orcas in the bay is not always consistent, nor certain. The orcas seen in Kachemak Bay do not reside here permanently and spend time in other areas in southern Alaska. They may stay in the bay for a few hours at a time before heading back into the Gulf of Alaska. In some years, the whales seem to be mysteriously absent, with locals reporting only fleeting sightings. In other years, however, orcas are seen regularly. Their unpredictable presence makes it extremely important that they are documented as it is never known when they might show up again.
Orcas from the southern Alaska resident population and the Gulf of Alaska transient population can be found in Kachemak Bay (note: The term “Bigg’s killer whales” is increasingly being used instead of “transient” to honor Dr. Michael Bigg, the founder of modern killer whale research. However, this term is not yet used for the Gulf of Alaska transient population, so for the sake of consistency with the scientific community, “transient” is used in this article when referencing this population). There was one single sighting of offshore orcas here in 2013¹, though they have not been seen since. Interestingly, some years are dominated by resident sightings and others, by transient sightings. In 2017 and 2018, I did not see a single transient orca during our daily tours and sightings were entirely of residents. The most common resident orca pods seen in Kachemak Bay in recent years are AP pod, AX27 pod, AD16 pod, AS30 pod, and AD11 pod.
The most frequently seen resident group in the last five years has been AP pod. This group of about 20 whales is not very well known and is not frequently encountered outside of Kachemak Bay. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 getting to know these whales. They are more inquisitive than other resident pods I have encountered and often followed certain travel patterns. They tended to come in on an incoming tide and foraged for salmon along Barabara Point, sometimes venturing into the Eldred Passage.
AP pod’s family history is poorly known. Over time, I was able to piece together possible family relationships based on their behavior. Their personalities also began to shine through after numerous encounters. AP3, a young mother, is perhaps the most curious of all the whales in AP pod. She would race towards our vessel with her calf, AP21, in tow when our vessel arrived on scene, cruising around the boat while the rest of AP pod continued about their business. I often wonder if her calf will grow up to be as lively as she is.
“They do not spend much time in other regions of southcentral Alaska where orcas are commonly seen, and where they go when not in Kachemak Bay remains to be seen.”
Interestingly, AP pod’s movements outside of Kachemak Bay remain relatively unknown. Researchers with the North Gulf Oceanic Society and University of Alaska Fairbanks published a paper in 2020 detailing the social behavior of multipod aggregations of southern Alaska resident orcas. One variable they examined was the presence of “rarely sighted” pods. They defined “rarely sighted” pods as those seen in less than five percent of encounters in their main study areas of Prince William Sound and the Kenai Fjords². AP pod is considered a rarely sighted pod with a total of zero encounters recorded by researchers from 2006 to 2015. They do not spend much time in other regions of southcentral Alaska where orcas are commonly seen, and where they go when not in Kachemak Bay remains to be seen.
The Gulf of Alaska is a huge body of water and Alaska’s remote coastline make it easy for whales to evade identification. Some groups of orcas are seen so rarely they do not make it into the North Gulf Oceanic Society’s photo-identification catalogs or cannot be assigned pod status based on their limited sightings. In 2017 and 2018, one of these unknown groups appeared in Kachemak Bay. They were never seen by themselves and were always accompanied by known pods, such as AP pod, AS30 pod, or AX27 pod. Many of the whales in this unknown group are very distinct and unique but cannot be found in the current photo-identification catalogs. So far, their identity remains a mystery.
Gulf of Alaska Transients
Resident orcas were scarce in Kachemak Bay in 2019. Almost all of our 2019 orca encounters were with Gulf of Alaska transients from a variety of different families. The Gulf of Alaska transient population is small––there are currently less than 150 individuals in the North Gulf Oceanic Society’s photo-identification catalog. They likely have a large, offshore range from Kodiak Island to Southeast Alaska and British Columbia³. Curiously, they also have been seen interacting with the separate West Coast transient population, something that is unusual for orcas³.
“If we spotted fins in the distance, it was easy to tell if they were transients or residents simply by how difficult it was to track them.”
Unlike the resident orcas, transients seem to prefer the upper parts of the bay when they visit. They frequent the areas around Halibut Cove, Glacier Spit, and China Poot Bay, possibly due to a higher abundance of seals in these regions. Gulf of Alaska transients are difficult to find and follow. True masters of evasion, I have watched them disappear right before my eyes as they lurked around the shoreline. If we spotted fins in the distance, it was easy to tell if they were transients or residents simply by how difficult it was to track them. Sometimes Gulf of Alaska transients can be found surprisingly close to shore; in 2019, I saw three transients, AT142, AT145, and AT184, traveling near the Homer Harbor, just a few feet away from the docked Coast Guard vessel the Hickory.
Some of the commonly seen groups in Kachemak Bay include the families of AT142, AT163, and AT132. AT163 is perhaps one of the easiest transients in the region to identify. In addition to her torn and ragged dorsal fin, she has bizarrely misshapen flukes that are U-shaped. The cause of this malformation is not known, but it has not slowed her down as she gave birth to a healthy calf in 2019.
In 2020, AT163’s family became somewhat famous in Kachemak Bay. Several water taxis had incredible encounters with these whales. AT163 and her family frequently “mugged” boats; mugging is a behavior in which a whale initiates an interaction with a vessel. This often involves the whale spending time in close proximity to the boat and sometimes even touching it.
One of these encounters went viral online. Coldwater Alaska, a tour and water taxi company, became involved in a sea otter hunt in July 2020. AT163 and her family were hunting sea otters when one otter frantically approached and boarded the vessel Granite Cape, much to the surprise of the captain, who filmed the incident4. As the otter hunkered down on the back of the vessel, one of the whales passed by closely, carrying the remains of what was likely another otter in its mouth. Astonishingly, another remarkable encounter occurred later that day. Another Coldwater Alaska boat encountered the group. This time, the young male orca, possibly AT193, pushed a piece of fresh kill––probably an otter––on his head towards the vessel, dropping it as soon as he reached the boat, as if he was presenting a gift4. Perhaps he was attempting to share prey as he would with a fellow whale, or maybe he was displaying play behavior. Whatever the reason, AT163 and her family certainly left an impression and long-lasting memories for those that encountered them in 2020.
Kachemak Bay, Alaska is a unique place to view orcas. They are unpredictable and their presence in the bay varies year to year. The whales found in Kachemak Bay tend to be those that are infrequently seen in other regions and collecting usable identification photographs is critical as some of these individuals can go years in between sightings by researchers. Every year, as summer approaches, local whale watchers and citizen scientists wait with bated breath to see if the whales return. Who might show up? Will any pods have new calves? Will it be a resident year, or a transient one? There is always something new and exciting to learn.
Emma Luck is a naturalist and educator who specializes in marine mammal science. She holds a degree in marine biology from the University of Alaska Southeast and has participated in killer whale research in Alaska and Norway. She also manages global killer whale photo-identification for the citizen science and research organization Happywhale.
1. Offshore orcas surprise whale researcher. (2013). Homer News. Retrieved from https://www.homernews.com/news/offshore-orcas-surprise-whale-researcher/
2. Olsen DW, Matkin CO, Mueter FJ, Atkinson S. (2020). Social behavior increases in multipod aggregations of southern Alaska resident orcas (Orcinus orca). Marine Mammal Science, 36, 1150–1159. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12715
3. Matkin CO, Durban JW, Saulitis EL, Andrews RD, Straley JM, Matkin DR, Ellis GM. (2012). Contrasting abundance and residency patterns of two sympatric populations of transient orcas (Orcinus orca) in the northern Gulf of Alaska. Fishery Bulletin, 110(2), 143-155.
4. Thomas, P. (2019). Orca presents gift to boaters in rare event caught on video. USA Today. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/07/orca-presents-gift-to-boaters-in-rare-event-caught-on-video?fbclid=