Far East Russia Orca Project

Until WDC Research Fellow Erich Hoyt, together with Russian scientist Alexander Burdin and Hal Sato from Japan, founded the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) with a pilot project in 1999, orcas, or killer whales, had never been studied in Russian waters. Now, with field seasons every summer since, our expanding team of Russian students has come to know more than 700 individuals in Eastern Kamchatka waters through photographic identification and sound recording.

Map showing WDC projects in the North Pacific

Our FEROP team has spent thousands of hours with orcas over the years, discovering that the Russian pods have individual dialects and that they can be divided into fish-eating residents (whales that spend most of their lives in one area) and marine-mammal eating transients (whales that are always "on the move") — similar to the well known orcas in the eastern North Pacific.

Some of our orcas travel to Kamchatka from long distances. We have matches between Kamchatka and our other main study area in the Commander Islands, about 800 km away, although most orcas in the two areas are different. A few orcas carry cookie-cutter shark scars hinting at possible travels into more tropical waters.

Studying Russian orcas

FEROP is fundamentally a Russian project which has succeeded in training a generation of young students in photo-ID, acoustic recording and other research techniques, with eight students having obtained MSc’s and three students PhDs through the project at Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University. These students have become good scientists as well as strong conservationists.

data anlysis

In 2003, two young female orcas from one of our popular resident pods were captured and killed by aquarium captors in our study area. One suffocated in the capture nets, while the other was taken on board the capture ship, kept in a pen, then shipped a third of the way around the world to the Black Sea where she died 13 days later. Since then, the team has put pressure on the government and captors at meetings and conferences to stop the captures. Quotas are still being granted but not in our prime study area; this has made it more difficult for the captors. You can watch video of the 2003 capture here in the Film about our orcas (part 2)

Orca group in Kamchatka

Our FEROP work has been partly supported every year by the Animal Welfare Institute and Humane Society International, both in the US. British and European sponsors such as the Rufford Foundation, the Sacher Trusts and the Klüh Prize have helped in other years. The continuation of this work depends on your donations.

Our work has been widely reported by BBC News and many other publications around the world. The main papers published by the team in international journals can be seen and downloaded on the Russian orca website.