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Originally published August 26, 2011 at 3:25 PM | Page modified August 27, 2011 at 6:19 AM

Orca thought struck by boat might simply be pregnant

A whale reported to have been struck by a boat on the west side of San Juan Island wasn't hit after all, a whale researcher said late Friday. But she might be pregnant.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Whale experts were trying to figure out the reason for an orca whale's unusual, listless behavior on the west side of San Juan Island on Friday.

Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the agency received reports of the whale being struck by a private boat, and that officials at various agencies were investigating.

But a Friday Harbor-based whale researcher said after looking at the whale Friday afternoon that it wasn't in distress and may just be pregnant.

"There's no evidence on the whale of any strike, and behavior-wise it's acting as it has been in the recent past, sort of moping around," said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist of the Center for Whale Research.

"It looked like a normal day to us, and the whale was unscathed," Balcomb said.

It is possible the 18-year-old female — who has never given birth — is pregnant, Balcomb said. Researchers have been wondering about that for some time, based on her somewhat "mopey" behavior.

When they went out in a boat to look at her Friday afternoon, he said, "she did look a little fatter and possibly we will have another whale." The whale "doesn't appear to be in any kind of distress," Balcomb said.

Gorman said later the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state Fish and Wildlife Department were investigating and had not ruled out the possibility of a boat collision with a whale.

According to Gorman, witnesses said the whale was breathing abnormally and staying on the surface, behaviors that are consistent with an injury.

Two kayakers said they had watched as a speedboat went at high speed through a group of whales.

"This boat went flying through, right over the top, where the whales had just breached," said Evelyn Wilson, of Stanwood. " ... It was sort of horrifying."

Wilson said they didn't see the boat strike a whale or other object.

Officials confirmed other whales are keeping watch, but could not confirm the family relationships.

The whale might be L-90, a female just entering her breeding years. The southern resident killer whales form three pods, J, K and L, that frequent Puget Sound; orcas were seen cruising Elliott Bay Friday morning.

The whales are listed for protection as an endangered species, so any injury to them is a serious matter.

The federal government had just enacted a regulation for boaters on the west side of San Juan Island in an attempt to better protect the whales during the busy whale-watch season. The regulation doubled to 200 yards what had been a guideline of 100 yards before.

Boat strikes on orca whales are infrequent. The animals are skilled navigators, diving under boats and deftly avoiding them.

However, federal regulators are concerned about not only boat strikes but the harassment that boat traffic causes. Underwater noise is one of the factors NOAA listed in adopting its new regulation requiring boaters to keep their distance.

Underwater vessel noise may interfere with the orcas' ability to find food by echolocation, using up precious energy and costing them calories. Orcas also prefer to eat chinook salmon — itself a threatened species in Puget Sound — adding to their survival challenge.

The report of a boat strike came a few hours after another group of orcas swam into Elliott Bay during rush hour, delighting West Seattle Water Taxi passengers and other observers. The West Seattle Blog posted its first report of whales between Harbor Island and West Seattle at 8:15 a.m., followed by other reports and photographs.

By 9 a.m., the 20 to 30 whales had left Elliott Bay and were heading south past Alki Beach.

The whales, a mammal-eating group of "transient" orcas, continued south through the Tacoma Narrows by midafternoon, said Jeff Hogan, executive director of the nonprofit education group Killer Whale Tales.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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