Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

Amusing Monday: Film students find creativity in eco-comedy videos

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C., holds an annual “Eco-Comedy Video Competition,” based on a different environmental theme each year. This year’s theme to challenge student creativity was “Clean water, clean air.”

The winner of the Grand Prize and Viewers’ Choice awards this year was a video called “Dude, or the Blissful Ignorance of Progress” (shown in video player).

Other finalists:

More than 60 videos were entered in the contest. I was able to find only about a dozen or so on the web, but I found a couple other amusing entries worthy of note:

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking was founded on the belief that films are vitally important educational and political tools in the struggle to protect the environment, according to Professor Chris Palmer, who started the center. The goal is to train filmmakers to create films and new media that promote conservation in ways that are ethically sound, entertaining and educational.

All the contest entries can be found in the comments section of the YouTube webpage about the contest.

I found another video on the center’s website that was not involved in this particular contest but was both educational and amusing. It was a public service announcement called “Tap Water.”

Rainfall and aquifers keep drought away from the Kitsap Peninsula

UPDATE: April 24, 2015
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, says in his blog that it is too early to be predicting severe drought in Western Washington this summer because of possible late-spring rains:

“I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our ‘drought.’ We have NOT had a precipitation drought at all….we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures. The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.”

—–

The word seems to be getting around about the record-low snowpack in the mountains, which could create a shortage of drinking water and even lead to problems for salmon swimming upstream. Read about Gov. Jay Inslee’s expanded drought emergency, issued today, as well as the last update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CK

Kitsap Peninsula and the islands of Puget Sound are in their own worlds, fairly insulated from what is happening in the higher elevations. In these lower elevations, the key to water supplies is rainfall, not snow, and the outlook for the year is normal so far.

As you can see from the charts on this page (click to enlarge), this year’s rainfall has been tracking closely the long-term average. If the rains are light and steady, much of the water will soak into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most area residents get their water. The aquifer levels tend to rise and fall over multiple years, depending on the rainfall.

Hansville

Casad Dam on the Union River, which supplies a majority of Bremerton’s water, filled in January, well ahead of schedule, said Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city. The dam is scheduled for a normal drawdown, and Kathleen said she does not expect any water shortage.

“We filled the reservoir fairly early this year,” she said. “We are looking pretty good for the summer.”

Holly

October, the first month of the water year, was unusually wet, Kathleen said. December precipitation also was high. The other months were fairly normal for precipitation.

Precipitation in the Puget Sound region is expected to be below average for June, July and August, according to models by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Interestingly, large portions of the Central and Southwest U.S., Alaska and Florida can expect above-average precipitation. See U.S. map.

precip

Streams on the Kitsap Peninsula are fed by surface water flows and shallow aquifers. At the moment, most of the streamflows are near their historical average. That’s not the case for the larger rivers in the Northwest, which rush out of the mountains. Most are well below their normal flows, as shown by the map with the dots.

Low streamflows usually mean higher temperatures and stress for salmon. Low flows also can affect fish passage in some stretches of the rivers while also reducing spawning areas.

Streamflows

While things look fairly good on the Kitsap Peninsula now, things can change quickly. We have different vulnerabilities than elsewhere. Climate-change models predict that rains will grow more intense in the future without changing annual precipitation very much. That means more of the water will run off the land and less will soak in, potentially reducing aquifer levels over time. Managing those underground water supplies will become more and more critical.

Salmon managers reduce Puget Sound fishing
to protect chinook

I missed the annual trek to Olympia this year to meet with state and tribal salmon managers, recreational and commercial fishermen and others involved in setting fishing seasons. The event, held in March, is both a reunion and the official start of some serious talks about salmon.

Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store. Kitsap Sun file photo
Each year, fishermen head to the Skokomish River to catch chinook that have made it all the way through Hood Canal. This year, more restrictions are in store.
Kitsap Sun file photo

I’ve always enjoyed the discussions about the number of various salmon stocks expected to return to diverse areas of Puget Sound, the Washington Coast and the Columbia River. Years ago, I observed much more horse-trading — or rather salmon-trading — as experts made decisions about how far inland the fish should be allowed to swim before being caught.

Saving enough fish to make it back to the streams to spawn has always been the goal of the negotiating process, known as “North of Falcon” — so named because the discussions are focused on an area north of Cape Falcon in Oregon. I have to say, however, that the discussions began to change after Puget Sound chinook were declared “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and conservation measures became even more important.

Chinook recovery has not been going well, even after major reforms in harvest management, hatchery operations and habitat restoration. So the need to protect the salmon from fishing pressures grows ever greater and the opportunities to catch fish in particular areas continue to decline.

Such was the case this year, when salmon managers decided to forego fishing for chinook in the popular fishing area known as Area 10 between Bremerton and Seattle. Other salmon can still be caught there, but all chinook — even those reared in a hatchery — must be released.

I was not around to observe how the negotiations went this year, having retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun in October. (I’m now doing some in-depth reporting for the Sun and currently covering the Legislature for InvestigateWest.) It appears that recreational and commercial fishers believe that the salmon managers could have carved out some fishing seasons in the area without risking survival of the species.

“We fought hard just to keep what we had last year, and then to get the rug pulled out from under us is totally incomprehensible,” said Tony Floor of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, quoted in a story by Seattle Times reporter Mark Yuasa.

“With increasing (licensing) fees and the declining fishing opportunities, it makes it really difficult,” said Karl Brackmann, a Puget Sound Anglers board member, quoted in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick.

Even though sophisticated computer models try to determine how many salmon will be coming back to a given area, it’s still a guess. Deciding how many fish can be safely caught is always a judgment call. I guess this year managers have concerns not only for the wild chinook but also the marked hatchery chinook. The hatchery chinook, marked by removing the adipose fin, are normally considered free for the taking as long as unmarked wild chinook are released.

Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said fishing reductions were especially painful for tribal and state managers this year, but the cutbacks were necessary. Salmon returns were poor last year, she said, and managers were concerned about ocean conditions and a low snowpack that could lead to increased stream temperatures.

“Because of these conditions we may see an increase in pre-spawning mortality of salmon this year, which required the tribal and state co-managers to be extra cautious in setting seasons,” Loomis said in a news release.

Anglers will still have good opportunities to catch coho, pink and Skagit River sockeye, according to Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound recreational fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Fishing for pink salmon should be excellent in Puget Sound, including in Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay,” Lothrop said in a news release.

For details on the fishing seasons, check out the North of Falcon webpage, which will be updated as new information becomes available.

Amusing Monday: Videos capture beauty, allure
of national parks

I recently discovered a series of 58 fascinating videos that capture the highlights of the diverse national parks in the United States.

The five-minute videos, by photographer Dennis Burkhardt of Oregon, take us on trips into some of the most amazing wilderness areas in the world. The scenic photography and accompanying narration make me yearn to visit every park to see them for myself.

I’ve posted on this page three of the videos, including the one that describes our familiar Olympic National Park. The complete set of can be viewed on the YouTube channel “America’s 58 National Parks.” Be sure to go full-screen.

I’m sure every park has a story to tell, and these videos briefly tantalize us with the possibilities of exploration. I recall stumbling upon a rich history and some amazing tales while researching a Kitsap Sun story for the 75th anniversary of Olympic National Park. It is called “At 75, Olympic National Park has grown amid push-pull of forces.”

In 1872, our first national park was born when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law creating Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was followed by Mackinac in 1875, then Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. Mackinac was converted to a state park in 1895 — one of seven national parks to go out of existence in the national park system.

National parks are selected for their natural beauty, unique geological formations, rare ecosystems and recreational opportunities. In contrast, national monuments, also administered by the National Park Service, are selected mainly for their historical significance.

California has nine parks, the most of any state, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five and Colorado with four. Washington has three — with North Cascades National Park created in 1968.

New parks are still being created, with Pinnacles National Monument in Central California becoming a national park in 2013. (Pinnacles is the 59th national park and is not included in the list of videos.) The largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, is larger then nine entire states. The smallest is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

A handy list of all the parks with links to more information can be found on Wikipedia.

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Amusing Monday: Dogs and other animals join
in madness of March

With the NCAA basketball tournament coming into the home stretch, I thought it might be fun to show some animals sharing the hoop dreams.

Petey, a border collie previously known as the volleyball dog, has the best shooting ability of any dog I have seen. You’ll find him practicing his skills in the first video on the page.

It appears that most dogs, in fact most basketball-playing animals, require a lower basketball hoop to make a basket. That’s the case with Zeke, who can dribble, catch and shoot, as you’ll see in the second video player on this page.

If you would like your dog to learn to shoot baskets from a low hoop, check out this seven-minute video called “Teach your dog to play basketball.” In similar fashion, dogs can be taught to jump and dunk the ball into the basket, as in “Murphy: Dog Playing Basketball.” Who can forget Buddy’s amazing talent for both acting and basketball in the 1997 movie “Air Bud.” One scene in the movie shows Buddy revealing his unique talent for the first time.

With all this talk about dogs and basketball, I thought it would be only fair to include cats. As any cat owner will tell you, cats do things in their own time and with their own methods. As you’ll see in the third video player, they also play basketball in their own unique way.

When I first saw a video of a sea otter shooting baskets, I questioned why anyone would train a sea otter to do this. Then I saw the original video by Oregon Zoo in Portland. It describes how Eddie the otter is undergoing physical therapy for arthritis, and basketball is one way to get him to stretch his front limbs. The description says Eddie’s basketball feats are not put on display for the general public visiting the zoo. Check out the fourth video player on this page.

I’d also like to share a video of a monkey shooting hoops, and another video of two bears kind of slapping around a b-ball in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

Bremerton on top again in water contest called Mayor’s Challenge

UPDATE, April 23, 2015
Going into the last week of the National Mayor’s Challenge, Bremerton is struggling to regain the top spot. Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent has been encouraging people to take the pledge, and reminder cards are out at many businesses. Several schools are getting involved, according to Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton’s water resources manager, and a lot of people took the pledge yesterday at the Earth Day booth at Norm Dicks Government Center.
—–

UPDATE, April 12, 2015
Bremerton has slipped from first place to third place in the National Mayor’s Challenge, while Olympia has climbed from ninth place to seventh place. Seven of the 10 cites in Bremerton’s category are from California, as Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton’s water resources manager, pointed out to me. It’s probably not a coincidence that California is going through the worst water crisis in the state’s history.
—–

Once again, Bremerton is off to a great start in the National Mayor’s Challenge, a program sponsored by the Wyland Foundation to encourage people to conserve water and energy, reduce waste and do other conservation-minded things.

Bremerton

Bremerton won the challenge the past two years among cities across the country with populations between 30,000 and 100,000, and Bremerton is already running in first place this year. Olympia also is doing well in ninth place so far.

The challenge runs through April, and anyone can go to the National Mayor’s Challenge website, answer a list of conservation questions and boost the standings of any city you wish to support.

Each year, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and her staff make a special effort to get the word out about the challenge, and they must be doing something right. The major said in a news release:

“Water is Bremerton’s remarkable resource. I encourage all Bremerton residents to pledge to learn more about their water and energy use at home. This challenge, which runs through April, is an exciting opportunity to learn about water wise habits as we engage in a friendly competition with other cities across the nation to create a more sustainable environment.”

Prizes are awarded to selected individuals from the winning cities, along with daily prizes for anyone who enters. Top prizes this year are a Toyota Prius and a $1,000 shopping spree, but there are many smaller prizes. Last year, more than 40 Bremerton residents won a prize.

Besides Bremerton and Olympia, Seattle is the only city in Washington state to be in the top 10 for their size. Seattle is number 5 on the list of the largest cities (600,000 and over).

In Kitsap County, the other cities are: Port Orchard, ranked 46; Poulsbo, 263; and Bainbridge Island, over 500.

The video below shows support for the challenge from the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.

Amusing Monday: Wolves found to catch and eat wild salmon

I’m amused by this looping video, which shows a bear waiting for a fish to appear. In the background, a wolf reaches down nonchalantly, bites into a large salmon and carries it away.

Not long ago, it was widely believed that bears love salmon but that wolves prefer deer, elk, moose and related animals whenever they can find them. Now we know, from careful observations in Alaska, that wolves will go after salmon when they get the opportunity.

Researcher Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says wolves will seek out tidally affected streams where they can find salmon passing through shallow water and trapped in pools.

“They’re not as skillful as bears at fishing,” Person told Riley Woodford, reporting for Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. “Each year, they spend over a month in estuary areas, with the pups. It’s right in middle of pink and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the fish.”

Based on the video, I would have to say that wolves are pretty good at catching fish upstream as well.

Salmon may have gone unnoticed as a staple in the wolves’ diet, because the entire salmon, bones and all, are digested by wolves, leaving no signs of fish in their scat — unlike the bones and fur discovered after they eat a deer or other mammal.

Another Alaskan biologist, Shelly Szepanski, has been studying the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in wolf bones to see whether the bones are made of elements that come from the land or the sea. She found that salmon appeared to make up as much as 20 percent of the diet of wolves living in coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, compared to 10 percent of those living farther inland.

As I continued to look at the video of the bear and wolf fishing for salmon, I wondered if they ever interacted and how things might turn out in a head-to-head fight. I was able to find a video that demonstrates that a bear might get the best of a wolf in a one-on-one battle, but we can never forget that wolves often travel in packs. If you watch to the end, you will see who takes charge of the meal in question.

For another video showing wolves eating salmon, in which a bear plays a minor role, check out this video posted by Tinekemike.

Speaking of fights, I am still amazed at the video below, which shows a leopard swimming across a stretch of water, grabbing onto a crocodile and dragging it back into the water. I never would have guessed that a croc could be defeated in or around water like that — but it looks like he never saw the cat coming until it was too late.