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Originally published Sunday, May 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hood Canal orcas lingering, feasting

Six orcas that have spent the past four months feeding on seals in Hood Canal are defying conventional opinion about killer whales that...

OLYMPIA — Six orcas that have spent the past four months feeding on seals in Hood Canal are defying conventional opinion about killer whales that don't belong to a territorial group.

Other small transient groups typically move on to a new area after two weeks or less, said Steve Jeffries, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

"This event is unprecedented," Jeffries said. "This length of stay by transients has never been documented anywhere in the world."

Officials say the orcas are among some 170 transient whales that range from California to Southeast Alaska. And while resident orca pods in Puget Sound eat fish, the transients generally dine on marine mammals.

Each whale is thought to eat about one seal per day. They have been in the canal since late January, and may be taking their toll on a seal population once estimated at about 1,200.

Harbor seals in the area have begun behaving differently as a result, Jeffries said. "You used to see them in the deeper open water — not now," he said.

Hood Canal residents don't seem to have much sympathy for the seals, which have caused trouble for years by contaminating shellfish beds with their droppings.

"Nobody seems too concerned about the harbor seals," said Elaine Wiley, who sometimes sees the whales in the water in front of her Ayock Point home.

Harry Louch, a retired state-parks manager from Union, Mason County, remembers fencing projects aimed at keeping the canal's seals out of the shellfish beaches at Dosewallips State Park.

"Back then, I remember I wanted orca whales to come into Hood Canal to reduce the harbor-seal population," he said.

The six orcas, ranging in age from about 5 years to more than 20 years, include two older females, their two daughters and the daughters' two offspring.

They normally move south during incoming tides and north on outgoing tides, between Dabob and Quilcene bays in the north and Belfair to the south.

Another group of 11 transient orcas spent nearly two months in Hood Canal in 2003.

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