Watching Our Water Ways

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


Final explosion frees Elwha River at Glines Canyon

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

I believe it is important to commemorate the final day of the Glines Canyon Dam — even though only a relatively small chunk of the structure had been left in place since February, when flows in the Elwha River covered over the last 30 feet.

In a massive explosion on Tuesday, that last 30 feet of concrete was blasted away. Almost immediately, the river began to flow freely, at basically the same elevation it was before the dam was built in the 1920s.

The video above was shot by John Gussman, who has done an amazing job documenting the restoration of the natural river. See John’s Facebook page and check out a preview of the film “Return of the River.”

Olympic National Park officials say it will take several weeks to clear away the rubble dislodged by the final blast, but dramatic changes have been taking place downstream of the former Glines Canyon Dam — the second dam on the river, built eight miles upstream of the Elwha Dam.

Researchers are carefully monitoring sediment distribution and salmon migration, officials say. During the past three years, the Elwha River has experienced unusually low flows, so experts are waiting for more typical winter flows to move around some of the larger boulders in the stream.

Since last fall, salmon have been swimming upstream of the Elwha Dam site. The dam, built without a fish ladder, blocked salmon migration into some 70 miles of near-pristine habitat. Now, biologists expect all five species of Northwest salmon to recolonize the river.

In a story in today’s Peninsula Daily News, reporter Arwyn Rice quoted Robert Ellefson, restoration manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe: “It’s a good day… It has been the dream of tribal members for a hundred years.”

The tribe will have something special to celebrate come next July, when members hold their annual welcoming ceremony, acknowledging the return of chinook salmon to the Elwha River.


Amusing Monday: Dolphin becomes friend with dog

Monday, August 18th, 2014

I have been intrigued by some unusual animal friendships, which I’ve reported here in Water Ways: a baby hippo and a 130-year-old tortoise, a cat and a crow, an orangutan and a hound, an elephant and a dog. See Amusing Monday, Nov. 12, 2012.

But somehow I missed the tantalizing story of a dolphin named Duggie and a dog named Ben on Tory Island, Ireland. The television show “National Geographic Wild” is now telling the story of this unusual friendship, which began in 2006.

That seems like a long time ago, and I’m trying to find out whether the friendship might still endure or whether the National Geographic people used old footage in their telling of the story.

I like the National Geographic clip (first video on this page), because it includes a discussion by Cesar Millan, known as “the Dog Whisperer.” But I have a greater appreciation for the inquisitive approach taken in an earlier production for BBC’s “Countryfile,” a program mostly about places in and around Ireland (second video).

Additional information was filled in by reporter Anita Guldera in The Independent. She tells us that Tory Islanders believe the female dolphin’s friendship with Ben came about after she lost her mate. It all started about the time a male dolphin washed up dead on the island.

I stumbled across the dolphin-and-dog story after someone emailed me a lovely video about a dolphin saving a dog from a shark attack. The video, called “Dolphin and Dog,” was put together by a Dutch woman named Ine Braat. I say the video was “lovely” because the music creates a mood around this dolphin-and-dog friendship. But it’s fiction, mostly based on clips from the movie “Zeus and Roxanne.”

You may wish to check out some of Ine’s other lovely compilations posted on her website.

Another story about a dog and a dolphin is a more gripping tale, because it involves a human whose life was in real danger. Lynn Gitsham of Carrickalinga, Australia, says she was rescued by a pod of dolphins after falling into the ocean while trying to get to her dog. Reporter Michelle Vella tells the story for Australia’s Seven West Television (below).


Amusing Monday: Orca surprises fishermen

Monday, August 11th, 2014

I’m on vacation this week, but I wanted to revisit a video I first presented in June of last year. We see fishermen playing a fish while a killer whale plays the fishermen. I interviewed the excited man in this video soon after the fishing trip to explain some of his comments. The video has now been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

Frank Sanders is an experienced hunting and fishing guide, yet he screamed with excitement when he reeled in his fishing line to find a killer whale at the other end.

The video, posted two weeks ago by Frank’s deckhand Charlie Barberini, has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. That doesn’t count the number of times people watched the original Facebook post and videos copied from the original.

The video has raised numerous questions, such as why Frank is showing his ring to the camera and looking for someone named Jason. I was able to reach Frank in Hawaii, where he was on a fishing trip, and he filled in some of the blanks.

Frank, Charlie and others were fishing for halibut near Ninilchik in Cook Inlet in Southern Alaska. They had seen a couple killer whales go by a few times but not close to the boat. I think Frank told me the orcas were eating sockeye salmon that were in the area. Suddenly, out of the depths, a killer whale appeared following the fish on his line.

You need only to see and hear the video to know how much excitement that generated.

Frank told me the orca did not appear to want the fish. It was playing with the fishermen in the boat, grabbing the fish, pulling the line out about 200 yards, then bringing it back. The whale circled the boat a few times, he said, tangling fishing lines played out from other poles. This went on for at least 10 minutes before the whale went on his way.

The whale, of course, had the strength to bite the fish through and take it away or snap the line any time he chose, Frank said. But it didn’t.

About his ring, Frank explained that he travels a lot for his business, Alaska Trophy Hunters. In fact, he is away from his wife about as much as he is with her, so he sends her hunting and fishing pictures from all over Alaska and displays his ring for her.

As for Jason, I didn’t get the full story, but I heard enough to understand that this, too, was an inside message. Jason is Frank’s best friend and the best man at his wedding. Jason was in a four-wheeler accident and suffered a severe brain injury. He was in a coma for a month but then was getting better. Jason set up a personal website on “Caring Bridge” to share information back and forth with his friends and family. Frank wanted Jason to understand that he was thinking about him during this adventure and was showing him a special bracelet they shared. Unfortunately, Jason suffered a stroke and may not pull through. (Update, June 24, 11 a.m.: I just received word from Frank this morning that Jason passed away yesterday.)

After the video was posted, Frank reportedly told reporter Lydia Warren of London’s Daily Mail:

“Fishing gets kind of repetitive after 18 years, but this is one of the most exciting things that has happened to me.”


Three videos take us upstream, where it all begins

Friday, August 1st, 2014

John F. Williams of Suquamish, known for his brilliant underwater videos, has worked his way upstream from Puget Sound and into the freshwater streams of the Kitsap Peninsula.

His latest video project began somewhat haphazardly, John told me. But the end result is nothing less than an entertaining and educational series that anyone can enjoy. It helps that each video is just a little over four minutes. In such a short time, John was able to tell a story while packing in a lot of information.

“It all started,” John said, “when Ron (Hirschi) invited me to come film him taking some preschool kids down to the South Fork of Dogfish Creek. He thought that would be fun.”

Ron Hirschi, who grew up around Port Gamble, worked as a biologist for years before becoming a successful children’s author. He tells stories of nature in simple and endearing ways. In the first video on this page, you’ll see Ron reading from one of his books.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ron and I have known each other for more than 30 years. He was an early mentor for me as I was learning about streams and shorelines in Western Washington, and I still rely on him for advice from time to time. He was an important voice in the book “Hood Canal: Splendor At Risk.”

Anyway, it was nice to see the two storytellers — John and Ron — link up on a project together.

“At the time, we had no idea where this was going,” John said.

A member of the Kitsap Environmental Education Program, John learned that some money was available for education projects through the “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign.

“It occurred to me that what I was doing with the streams fit into what they wanted,” he said, “so I pitched the idea of doing several movies about streams and people’s interactions with them. I wanted people to understand that these streams, which are hidden behind the trees, are part of their lives.”

John completed the video with Ron Hirschi, showing a visit to a forgotten stream, Poulsbo Creek, as well as the well-known Dogfish Creek, both in North Kitsap. John also obtained leads for stories about Olalla Creek in South Kitsap and Chico Creek in Central Kitsap.

His contact in South Kitsap was teacher Lisa Wickens at Ollalla Elementary School. It so happens that I had worked with Lisa on a story about elementary school children building a rain garden to prevent dirty water from getting into Olalla Creek. Check out “Olalla students learn science with a rain garden,” Kitsap Sun, Dec. 13, 2013 (subscription).

John was blown away by the intellectual and scientific skills of this younger generation.

“I was sitting in Lisa’s classroom one day, and she was giving her second-graders an assignment to write a persuasion piece,” John noted. “She wanted them to persuade someone to take care of the Earth. I said I would love to come and film the kids reading their papers… It was so amazing.”

You’ll get a feeling for their abilities in the second video.

For the third video, John connected with Maureen McNulty, a teacher at Klahowya Secondary School who was organizing the students to build a rain garden. It turned out that older students were teamed up with younger ones on the project, so that everyone learned something.

John also traced the path of a stream from the school wetlands into the adjoining forest and encountered Frank Sticklin, the chief guru for Newberry Hill Heritage Park. Frank educated John about beaver dams.

“I had never seen beaver ponds, and he showed me these incredible things,” John said.

In reality, John probably had seen beaver ponds and beaver dams without knowing that beavers were responsible. After Frank’s tour, he went for a walk south of Port Gamble and encountered something that he immediately recognized as a beaver dam. Once you’ve seen one, you know what to look for.

“I think of this as a metaphor of what I do with my movies,” John told me. “I help people see things that they haven’t seen before and to look at the world in a new way.”

John’s videos have been recorded onto DVDs and distributed to nearly 200 schools and environmental organizations throughout the area.

He’s now working on some projects involving the Puget Sound shoreline. I’ll let you when they are done. Meanwhile, you may wish to check out his websites, Still Hope Productions and Sea-Media.org.


Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.


Amusing Monday: Baby turtles race for the sea

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The sand was smooth and still. Waves lapped at the distant shoreline. A sign, stuck in the sand, stated, “Do not disturb. Sea turtle nest.”

That was the scene on a beach in the Florida Keys for the past few weeks, as it was in June, when I posted a blog entry listing cameras that were capturing live action in bird nests as well as other wildlife locations. A quiet patch of sand was not much to look at, so I didn’t mention it.

On Friday, that patch of sand came to life, as you can see in the first video on this page. I thought it was time to share the brief action, as about 100 loggerhead turtles emerged from the sand and headed out to sea about 9 p.m. Check out the action in full-screen.

The camera on the beach uses infrared lights to capture the images, thus avoiding visible light that could confuse the young turtles. The project is supported by Save-A-Turtle, a volunteer non-profit group dedicated to the protection of rare and endangered sea turtles and their habitats in the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, some of the young ospreys shown in their nests back in June have fledged, but there is still plenty of action in the nest at Missoula’s Riverside Health Care Center, where the camera is operated by the University of Montana. Check out the images in full-screen, high-definition while you can, because these growing chicks will soon be gone.

Another still-active osprey nest is operated by Chesapeake Conservancy on Maryland’s eastern shoreline.

The Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine is picking up some excited feeding activity at the nesting area, where experts are establishing a new colony of puffins after hunters wiped them out in the 1800s.

Brown bears are now feeding on salmon along Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park, according to bloggers on the site. Check out the live video below to see if you can spot a bear, including a subadult mentioned by observers.

You may wish to go back to the June 23 “Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam” to see what other cameras are picking up activity. You can generally count on Pete’s Pond on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa, for some exotic animals coming to the watering hole.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.


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.


What we know and don’t know about killer whales

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


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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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