Category Archives: Sea life

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.

Amusing Monday: Fighting climate change with a silly school play

A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,” have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school students across the country.

The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring climate-saving ideas home with them.

The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows an NBC News story from 2011.

The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be shared with kids and their parents.

The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools across the country, though most are in California. See the list at “Participating Schools and Troops.”

An article on the Green Schools Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:

“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”

Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no- or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly trading cards.

Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.

How to help crabs survive when you
lose a crab pot

A simple alteration to recreational crab pots could save thousands of crabs from going to waste each year, all because crabs are unable to escape from lost crab pots that keep on working, according to a new study.

Paul Rudell of Natural Resources Consultants, left, and Jason Morgan of Northwest Straits Foundation place crabs into a trap to test the escape system. Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation
Paul Rudell of Natural Resources Consultants, left, and Jason Morgan of Northwest Straits Foundation place crabs into a trap to test the escape system.
Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation

The Crab Pot Escapement Study, commissioned by the Northwest Straits Foundation, is the first to measure how well crabs use the escape routes provided in the design of every crab pot sold in Washington state.

The findings were somewhat of a surprise, according to Jason Morgan of the Northwest Straits Foundation. Jason told me that he is eager to get the information out to recreational crabbers, who could voluntarily take steps to reduce crab mortality. The findings might even lead to revised regulations for crab pots.

Of course, the best thing that crabbers can do is to avoid losing their pots in the first place. For tips, check out the brochure from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (PDF 2.9 mb) or the Northwest Straits website. About 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in Puget Sound, representing the wasteful deaths of nearly 200,000 crabs, according to a revised estimate derived from the new study.

The study, in partnership with Natural Resources Consultants, placed live Dungeness crabs into six common types of crab pots, using 13 various configurations. After the seventh day, the biodegradable escape cord (“rot cord”) was severed to provide an opening through which the crabs could escape — at least in theory. The researchers then measured the time it took for the crabs to get out, if they could.

An escape ring tied with escape cord allows crabs a way out. Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation
An escape ring tied with escape cord allows crabs a safe exit.
Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation

One thing the researchers learned was that crab pots with hinged doors tended to keep the crabs trapped, especially when the door was located away from the edge of the pot. The doors simply stayed closed after the escape cord broke free.

A modification of the doors with a bungee cord significantly increased the number of crabs that could escape. The doors were modified to spring open when the escape cord broke.

The best configuration of all involved the use of escape rings — a circular opening at least 4.25 inches across. These rings are required by law in all crab pots to allow females and under-sized males to get away before the pot is brought to the surface or in the event that it becomes derelict.

Many crab pots sold today tie the rings into the crab pot with escape cord. When the cord breaks, the ring falls away to provide a larger opening for the crabs to get out.

“It’s still a small opening for the crab to crawl out,” Jason said. “We did not expect it to be effective at all, but it works very well.”

In some crab pots, the required rings are welded into place on the iron cage. It would be easy enough for people to cut the rings out with a strong pair of wire cutters and then tie them back in with escape cord, Jason said.

Manufacturers of crab pots have become interested in the study, Jason told me, and he expects some will quickly convert to tying the rings in place rather than welding them. The difference in cost, if any, should be small, he said, and drawbacks seem minimal.

Requiring this method of escape for future crab pots sold in Washington could be another result of the study, but nothing is proposed at this time, Jason said. The next round of studies is likely to look at commercial crab pots, which are generally larger but still require an escape route in case they become lost.

A related issue that needs attention is the escape cord, which is made of cotton and designed to deteriorate in a reasonable period of time when left in saltwater. Cords that last longer are likely to cause more crabs to die. Studies have shown that approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate, with most people selecting larger cord that can last toward the longer end of that range.

“That is certainly something that we are not happy with,” Jason said. “We would like to see regulations that would require escape cord to be smaller.”

A smaller cord would break sooner and allow more crabs to survive when a crab pot is lost, though it would require crabbers to change the cord more often. That would seem to be a small inconvenience to avoid the kind of waste often seen in photos of derelict crab pots filled with dead and dying crabs. Even longtime experienced crabbers can lose a pot now and then, Jason said.

Northwest Straits Foundation is working on one or more videos to help people see the benefits of providing escape for crabs and to demonstrate how to modify their crab pots.

According to the study, the right modifications to crab pots could allow 99 percent of the crabs to get free when a crab pot is lost in the depths of Puget Sound.

Amusing Monday: Music in tune with salmon and orcas of the Salish Sea

Dana Lyons, known for his songs of humor and environmental inspiration, performed his tune “The Great Salish Sea” during Saturday’s Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island.

The lyrics are told from the perspective of “Granny,” an orca estimated to be 104 years old and the oldest whale among the Southern Residents. The song tells about how underwater sounds, as heard by the whales, have changed over time — from the Native American canoes and the sailing ships of yesteryear to the noisy tankers of today.

Dana performed the song solo, with only his guitar, on Saturday at the Ways of Whales Workshop, sponsored by Orca Network. The sound was wonderful, and Dana’s voice rang out clear, but the recorded version sounds richer with additional instrumentation, as you can hear in the first video on this page.

“The Great Salish Sea” is the title song is from Dana’s latest album, which includes the popular “Salmon Come Home.” I’ve posted the music video of the salmon song in the second video player on this page. Other songs on the album include “I Need the Water,” which speaks of the competition for this limited resource. To hear the songs on the album, go to “The Great Salish Sea” on Dana’s website., which also includes his full list of albums.

Dana has toured throughout North America and in many countries during his 30-year career. His current schedule includes upcoming appearances in Langley, Vancouver, B.C., and Port Townsend.

Dana was born in Kingston, New York, and graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He now lives in Bellingham.

Humor has long been a key part of Dana’s music, so I think we should revisit one of his most popular songs, “Cows with Guns,” viewed in the third video player (below).

Orca Network plans to ‘Livestream’ Ways of Whales Workshop

Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts, careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by nature.

Ways

Tickets will be available at the door. Go to “Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.

For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream the event live on the Internet. Connect with the Livestream network to join the event via computer.

In addition to speakers providing the latest information about orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita, or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the Salish Sea.

For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened that to “Toki.”

“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with indications that a combination of changing public attitudes, questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,” Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.

"Toki's retirement home," as Howard Garret calls it. Photo: Orca Network
“Toki’s retirement home” in the San Juan Islands, as Howard Garrett calls it.
Photo: Orca Network

A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government — but so far that determination has been of little consequence.

The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so the plan goes.

It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans — would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course, attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.

Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium (Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki to Puget Sound. (See Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?

Amusing Monday: What a man says while riding a rather large whale

Old Spice has gone crazy again, this time with a new character called “Legendary Man.”

This off-the-wall rival to the “most interesting man in the world” plays tennis while riding on the back of a whale. If that weren’t enough, he never gives a thought to his own safety (or abilities) while attempting to break the land speed record.

The campaign is designed to bring attention to the new Hardest Working Collection product line, including antiperspirant/deodorant and body wash. Scents include Lasting Legend, Pure Sport Plus and Stronger Swagger.

Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy of Portland, Ore., has created a “self-deprecating twist on the absurd bravado” that characterized previous Old Spice commercials, according to an analysis by Patrick Kulp in AdWeek magazine.

So what does “Legendary Man” think about life? Listen to what he says in the whale commercial, and see if you can make any sense of it:

Where does regular end and the extreme begin?
Mmm. Good question.
A wise man once said, “Sweat and body odor is your body’s way of saying, ‘Hey. Slow down. You need a break.’”
But thanks to new Dirt Destroyer, the most powerful Old Spice body wash ever made, my body will finally shut up and let me live.
Is there a limit to how much living I can live with my life?
How will I know if I’ve gone too far?
And why did I spend my life saving some sunglasses for a whale?
I shall find the answers to these questions.

If you are impressed, listen closely to what “Legendary Man” says in the second commercial on this page, called “Rocket Car.” Don’t forget to make these fullscreen by clicking on the box in the lower right had corner of the video player.

These newest Old Spice commercials, launched just this month, are included in a set of four commercials called “Smellegendary.”

Old Spice turns out new ad concepts more quickly than the change of the seasons.

In November, a series called ESPN Takeover includes a piece called “Bathroom Break.” See the third video on this page.

In August, the commercials were called “Make a Smellmitment,” including the commercial called “And so it begins,” which is the final video on this page.

K pod, tracked by satellite, heads quickly down the Oregon Coast

Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the Washington Coast into Oregon.

The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in Canada. See Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.

Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 7-12 // NOAA map

On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands, reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.

After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon. Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape Blanco in Southern Oregon.

Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map
Orca travels, Jan. 12-14 // NOAA map

“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See his 2013 blog and notes from this year’s tagging program.

On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient (seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales. As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch the video on the website of the Center for Whale Research.

Healthy dippers follow salmon return to the upper Elwha River

The American dipper, a chunky songbird able to walk on the bottom of swift-moving streams, is one of the many species benefitting from removal of the Elwha dams, according to a new study.

You might see this bird bobbing up and down at the edge of a stream or pecking away at bugs in shallow water. They are memorable for repetitive diving or simply walking along as water rushes over and around them. Their transparent second eyelid allows them to search for tiny invertebrates and small fish, including juvenile salmon. They can close their nostrils under water, and their feathers produce extra oil to protect them from the cold water. (The video from YouTube does not say where it was filmed.)

As for dippers in the Olympic Mountains, the arrival of salmon far upstream from the Elwha dams could boost the population of these marvelous birds, said to be America’s only true aquatic songbird.

Since salmon put on most of their body mass in the ocean, the nutrients they bring back to their natal streams help feed an entire upstream ecosystem. Two new studies led by Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University demonstrate the rapid recovery of the American dipper in the Elwha — a faster recovery than anyone expected. It also offers hope for a quick turnaround from dam removal in other areas.

“It’s exciting to be able to show a real positive outcome in conservation,” Tonra said in a story by Misti Crane of OSU. “That these rivers can come back within our own generation is a really exciting thing.”

Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University bands an American dipper for future identification.
Christopher Tonra of Ohio State University bands an American dipper in the field.

Salmon seem to be the key, Tonra said. After spawning, their carcasses are consumed by many animals, while their nutrients feed a vast assemblage of freshwater insects, such as mayflies and caddisflies. To read more about freshwater benthic invertebrates, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

The studies by Tonra and his colleagues showed that American dippers with access to salmon contained more marine-derived nutrients. They were 20 times more likely to attempt multiple broods and were 13 times more likely to stay in one area year-round. Their adult survival rate was 11 percent higher than in areas without salmon.

Females with access to salmon had larger body mass, suggesting a healthier condition, and their female offspring also were larger.

The American dipper is considered an indicator species for freshwater quality, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF 4 mb). Where dippers are plentiful, the streams tend to be healthy.

The biggest surprise to the researchers was how quickly the salmon returned, providing a growth opportunity for many wildlife populations.

“It was pretty much as soon as the first dam came out and fish were beating up against the second, wanting to go,” Tonra said.

Tonra was previously associated with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Others involved in the project were Kimberly Sager-Fradkin of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Peter Marra of the Smithsonian, Sara Morley of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Jeffrey Duda of the Western Fisheries Research Center.

I found the following video on YouTube and had to share it. The video, taken at Vancouver Aquarium, shows an unusual interaction between a dipper and a baby beluga whale.

K pod turns back and heads up into Canada

A quick update on K pod and the current satellite-tracking project for the Southern Residents of the Salish Sea.

K-33's travels from Monday until today. NOAA map
K-33’s travels from Monday until today. // NOAA map

In the last report on Monday (Water Ways, Jan. 4), the tagged killer whale K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika, was milling around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean with three other whales in his family group. Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center predicted that all of K pod (possibly with J pod) would come together there or in the Strait.

By Monday evening, the whales entered the Strait and headed east. By Tuesday afternoon, they had passed through Haro Strait between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, where they were accompanied by J pod, based on hydrophone calls near San Juan Island.

Yesterday, the whales were in the southern portion of the Strait of Georgia, then they quickly headed north. This morning, they were in the northern portion of the Strait, an area where J pod has been known to hang out, according to Brad’s notes on the tracking project. This must be an area with relatively abundant salmon, given the time of year.

The project is designed to identify areas of importance to the killer whales and potentially expand the “critical habitat” that needs protection for the orca population to recover.

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of death has not yet been determined. For additional information, review the news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
—–

For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.

On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer whale.

Deceased orca calf

If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated people.

The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island says everything points to the whale being one of the seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles, research director for CWR.

Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing more than a dead marine mammal.

“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients. Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are expected within two or three weeks.

Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate, transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents. Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in 2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.

For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and struggling to survive along with the orcas.

Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011, when the population reached about 300, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote areas where they may not be seen by anyone.

Several older transients among this population have died in recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.

Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For details, check out the 2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).

More on tagging study

Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad Hanson.

This year’s data could provide additional information about how the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.

The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center for Whale Research.

Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the U.S. Navy.

Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”