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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Celebrating freedom for the Elwha River

Monday, September 1st, 2014

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Elwha Prigge

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I want to recognize the Kitsap Sun’s editorial cartoonist Milt Priggee for capturing the feeling of the moment last week when the final piece of a dam on the Elwha River was blown up. See Water Ways, Aug. 27, 2014.

The video below was recorded on that same day by Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute while snorkeling in a kelp bed in western Freshwater Bay, not far from where the Elwha River flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Watching this video and the large number of herring gives me a feeling of optimism, although I recognize there is no scientific basis for this. Someone please tell me the herring are doing better.

“We couldn’t think of a better place to be the day the last dam went down,” Anne said in an email to members of her listserv.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has been monitoring the nearshore area, where the Elwha River has been dramatically transforming the delta. Sediment, unleashed by dam removal, pours out of the Elwha and builds up in the estuary.

Tom Roorda, an aerial photographer, has been documenting the transformation with thousands of pictures he has taken over the past several years.

Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. Photo by Tom Roorda

Tom Roorda of Roorda Aerial photography captured this image showing the ongoing buildup of sediment at the mouth of the Elwha River. // Photo by Tom Roorda


Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

Monday, July 7th, 2014

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.


For humpback whale, so many fish, so little luck

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, which keeps moving away. Photos by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, but the fish keep moving away.
Photo by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck, probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached, the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the water.

“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and clear water probably did not favor it.”

In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued, the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see, he said.

“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”

The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon before their release.

The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in Prince William Sound.

Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.

The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s, large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said. Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully recovered.

“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he said.

As stated in an announcement by ADFG:

“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days (south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head), and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”

Another good source of information on herring is the Prince William Sound Science Center.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the fish, as it surges to the surface.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the herring, as it surges to the surface.


Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
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A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures


Amusing Monday: scenes and sounds of imagination

Monday, April 14th, 2014

A couple years ago in Water Ways, I described how I used to spend a great deal of time recording and mixing sounds. As a child, I was fascinated with sound effects, and I’ve always loved music.

A website called Go Mix It allows you to create sound compositions and add photos like this one. Go Mix It photo library

A website called Go Mix It allows you to create sound compositions and add photos like this one. / Go Mix It photo library

At the time I wrote the blog entry, I had been playing around with a website called Nature Sounds for Me.

I encouraged everyone to create their own sound compositions, and provided some examples of what others had done, including myself.

I recently discovered what seems to be a related website that allows you to add photos to the mix. The site is Go Mix It. (Notice how the web domain is used in both links.) The site contains most of the same nature sounds, but includes a “photo panel” for choosing pictures to watch while the sounds are playing.

I think it would be better if I could toss my own photos onto the screen. I can’t find a way to do that, but there are many photos to choose from in the library, which can be searched by topic and added to the sound compositions.

Take a look at the site, and feel free to share your compositions in the comments section. A couple I threw together quickly are called Majestic Forest and Wild Ocean.


Amusing Monday: Surprises from a drop of water

Monday, April 7th, 2014

I find myself returning again and again to videos that surprise me with scientific phenomena, such as a droplet of water bouncing at least three times before it gets absorbed into a glass of water.

Using videos to reveal something visually exciting is a thousand times more rewarding than watching a science teacher explain the properties of matter. I wish that teachers would have had some amazing videos available when I was growing up. But considering today’s technology, maybe teachers find it more challenging to surprise their students.

Anyway, check out the first video on this page, which shows a couple of goofy guys fascinated with the idea that water can bounce. The value of this video lies in the fact that these two “Slo Mo Guys,” Gavin Free and Daniel Gruchy, seem to be having a good time exploring this feat of nature.

That first video is fun and all, but is it enough? If you’re like me, you want a little more. You know that this relates to the surface tension of water, something the goofy guys never seem to mention. So I found another video, which has even better photography — plus a mathematician able to explain what’s going on. Check out the second video by Molecular Frontiers, a nonprofit group of scientists dedicated to spreading an appreciation of science. Maybe they’re a bit more professional than the Slo Mo Guys.

If you would like to delve further into the surface tension of water, I recommend a couple articles in Wikipedia, one on surface tension and the other on hydrophobic properties.

Finally, getting farther afield from where I started, a company called Ultratech has created two amazing videos about its super-hydrophobic product called Ultra-Ever Dry. It shows how treated products cannot get wet or dirty. See Ultra-Ever Dry 1, Nov. 12, 2012, and Ultra-Ever Dry 2, Jan. 31, 2014.

Ultra-Ever Dry is a product based on nanotechnology, and the formulation is mostly proprietary. As amazing and useful as nanotech products can be, I should point out that some concerns have been raised about potential long-term effects on the environment if they were to come into common use.

The Slo Mo guys, featured in the opening video, have also played around with a super-hydrophobic surface, as well as tiny particles of metal in a liquid. Believe it or not, they were invited into General Electric’s Global Research Lab in New York, where they felt free enough to bring along their playfulness for a video they made there.

These two guys also got invited to use a more advanced camera to watch what happens when they shoot a gun underwater. In the video of the bullet launch, the prime segments come between 2:20 and 3:30 and between 5:25 and 6:32.

If you want to see more of the Slo Mo Guys, check out the video of them bouncing on a giant water balloon — or visit their YouTube Channel.

The bottom video shows collisions taking place among droplets of liquids that are heavier than water.


Amusing Monday: Celebrating World Water Day

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

I’m posting this “Amusing Monday” entry two days early, because today is officially World Water Day, as declared by the United Nations.

Photo by xxxx. Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

Photo by Murli Menon.
Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

I guess the timing is not that important. After all, I don’t expect anyone to go out and march in a World Water Day parade, or fire off water pistols in celebration, or even drink water in excess and then sleep in the next morning. But if you are inclined to celebrate, you may as well celebrate the essential value of water.

The photos on this page are the top choices of Facebook voters in a contest sponsored by World Water Day.

The picture of the white tiger, called “Water Preserves the Earth,” is said to demonstrate that all creatures need water, yet the tiger realizes that this water is polluted and hesitates to drink it.

Photo by Joseph Galea Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

Photo by Joseph Galea
Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

The second photo, called “Water Gives Energy,” illustrates the hope of a future when all children have access to a safe supply of water.

A slide show of the best photos submitted in the context can be found on the World Water Day Flickr page.

Finally, the two videos below provide a strong contrast between technologies available to produce a clean supply of water for everyone.


Amusing Monday: Puzzling in the underwater world

Monday, March 10th, 2014

It’s been awhile since I brought you some puzzles, so I thought I’d mention a couple good jigsaw puzzle sites and offer a few interactive animations.

Yellow tan and clown fish puzzle. (Click to solve.)

Yellow tang and clown fish puzzle. (Click to solve.)

TheJigsawPuzzles.com site contains nearly 300 jigsaw puzzles of underwater scenes, including the one on this page. In addition, there are at least two dozen other categories to choose from.

You pick a scene and watch it crumble into 100 or more pieces. Online jigsaws often have special features, such as a quick sort of the edges. If you want a little more control, such as the ability to use your own picture in forming the puzzle, check out Jigsaw Planet and click on “create.”

Three funny little animated puzzles can be accessed for free on Learn 4 Good. I was surprised to find that the site asks you to pay for the fourth puzzle, given all the free puzzles on the web.

Finally, there’s a bartender game, “The Right Mix,” in which you mix drinks, one at a time, then shake and serve. The best part is the bartender’s reaction after he tastes the concoction. Unfortunately, the exercise does not improve one’s skill as a bartender.

Bartender


Attack by orcas scatter dolphins near Nanaimo

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

John Buchanan of Squamish, British Columbia, was in the right place at the right time when a group of transient killer whales mixed it up with hundreds of fleeing white-sided dolphins.

John said it appeared that the orcas had formed a line to herd the dolphins into shallow water in Departure Bay near Nanaimo.

“The only way they could escape was going through the orcas,” he told me. “I was wondering if they would swim right into the ferry. The ferry may have made the escape a little narrower for them.”

John happened to be on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay on Vancouver Island when the wild encounter occurred on Monday.

“I was just traveling on the ferry to meet someone at Nanaimo,” said Buchanan, who is active in the environmental groups, including Squamish Stream Keepers. “I always have my camera close by.

“We were just coming into Departure Bay. Someone spotted the orcas, then the water just exploded with all these dolphins in the bay. The orcas had them pinned in.

“I bet there was all kinds of action going on under the water,” he said. “It was spectacular, especially when one orca was breaking in one direction and another was breaking in the other direction.”

John recorded that exciting shot of a double breach on his camera, which you can see toward the end of the video.

Later, he was informed by a biologist at Vancouver Aquarium that breaching is often how the whales celebrate a kill. Although he noticed a lot of chasing at the time, he never spotted any dead or dying dolphins nor was any blood in the water.

John posted the video on YouTube on Monday, the same day he recorded the dramatic encounter. As of this morning, the number of views was approaching 100,000.

CBC News posted the video on its webpage, and John has been approached by people who would like to purchase the footage, but he plans to keep it available for public viewing.

“I’ll never see anything like that again,” he said.

At my suggestion, John sent photos to Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. Ken reported that the orcas included T-100s. According to the book “Transients” by John Ford and Graeme Ellis, they are a group of killer whales seen mainly in Southeast Alaska.


Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.

Here’s Jim’s message for the year:

“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”

I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

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Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.

A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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