Category Archives: Sea life

Amusing Monday: Baby river otters must be taught how to swim

Baby river otters appear to be reluctant swimmers when they enter the water for the very first time. As you can see in the first video, the mother otter pulls, pushes and practically wrestles her offspring to begin a swim lesson at Columbus Zoo in Ohio.

The second video, from Oregon Zoo in Portland, features otter keeper Becca VanBeek, who provides us some details about the life of a young otter. Shown is a baby otter named Molalla. The mom seems a bit rough with her baby, but she’s just trying to teach a diving and breathing pattern.

If we want to be formal about it, what should we call a baby otter? A baby walrus is called a calf, and a baby sea lion is called a pup. So a baby otter is called a ______? If you said pup, you are right.

Now for the parents. If a male walrus is called a bull and a male sea lion is also called a bull, what is a male otter called? The answer is boar, but please don’t ask me who comes up with this stuff. Correspondingly, female walruses and female sea lions are called cows, while female otters are called sows.

Thirteen kinds of otters exist in the world. Some, such as the sea cat of South America, are so endangered that almost nothing is known about them Read about all 13 on the h2g2 website.

In the Northwest, many people confuse the sea otter with the river otter. Both are related to the weasel, and both have webbed feet and two layers of fur to maintain their body temperature in cold water. But there are many differences:

  • River otters spend more time on land than water. Sea otters almost never climb up on land.
  • River otters live in freshwater and marine estuaries. Sea otters live in seawater, including the ocean.
  • River otters generally grow to 20-25 pounds, sea otters to 50-100 pounds.
  • River otters swim with their bellies down and expose little of their back. Sea otters generally swim belly-up and float high in the water because of air trapped in their fur.
  • River otters have rounded webbed paws, front and back. Sea otters’ rear paws are elongated like flippers with webbing going to the end of the toes.

Sources: Sea Otter Recovery and Aquarium of the Bay

Other otter videos worth watching:

Below is one of the two live cameras in the sea otter exhibit at Seattle Aquarium. The cameras are in operation from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Otter Cams webpage to see both cams and read about the otters.

Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a live otter cam, which is in operation from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Sea Otter page for feeding times, when the otters are introduced to the audience and a live discussion takes place with otter experts.

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new meaning, some with dangerous implications.

Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine mammals and other species that live under water.

The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to locate their prey in dark waters.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.

“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about 16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where he was doing research in 2001.

“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.

As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans. Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training and shoreline construction?

“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally devastating to some species.

In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it can’t be good. See Duke University press release.

The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping, people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm to sea life.

The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course, protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a greater degree.

“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”

The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer provided by Discovery Channel.

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.

Amusing Monday: Artistic students inspired by endangered species

In celebration of national Endangered Species Day on May 20, students from across the country were invited to create artwork about species that could be headed for extinction. Although the number of entries was somewhat limited, I have been much impressed with more than a few of these pieces.

Chen

The Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest is sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Coalition, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and International Child Art Foundation. The contest was established to encourage students to learn about threatened and endangered species and to express their understanding and feelings through art.

Yang

Judges included Wyland, the well known marine life artist; Jack Hanna, host of television shows featuring wild animals; David Littschwager, a freelance photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine; Susan Middleton, a photographer and author who has produced several books of nature photography; and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution. Entries were submitted in February and March.

Sharonin

The painting of Southern Resident Killer Whales was created by 17-year-old Christopher Chen of Oak Grove, Calif. The artwork was named a semifinalist in the endangered species art contest. Of course, those of us who live in the Puget Sound area are at least somewhat familiar with the three pods of Southern Resident orcas, a population listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. See NOAA’s Species in the Spotlight.

Seven-year-old Rachel Yang of Belmont, Calif., was named the winner among a much younger group of students, those in the kindergarten-to-second-grade division. Her picture of yelloweye rockfish should also spark interest for Puget Sound residents, as these fish are listed as threatened in the Puget Sound region. See NOAA’s “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Kiernicki

The picture of Atlantic salmon, third on this page, by Katrina Sharonin, 12, took first place among the sixth through eight graders. I thought the hourglass was an important element, something to show that the species may be running out of time. Although we think of Atlantic salmon as farmed fish on the West Coast, remnant populations of wild Atlantic salmon can still be found in central and eastern Maine. Once abundant along the East Coast, Atlantic salmon are now one of the most endangered species in the U.S. See NOAA’s Species in the Spotlight. By the way, Katrina is another student from Belmont, Calif., which had a large number of excellent entries.

Lei

Elizabeth Kiernicki, 17, of Pingree Grove, Ill., was the first-place winner among the students in grades 9 through 12 with her picture of the northern spotted owl. The spotted owl, listed as threatened, was once found in forests from Southwest British Columbia through Western Washington and Western Oregon and as far south as San Francisco Bay. Now, remnant populations are in decline in scattered areas, primarily remaining segments of old-growth forests, while a significant population survives on the Olympic Peninsula. See U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service webpage.

Chang

Other semifinalists include Matthew Lei, 11, of Portland, Ore., with his portrait of a mother gray whale and her calf, and Michelle Chang, 7, of Centrevile, Va., with her picture of a mother polar bear and her cub waiting on a chunk for broken ice.

To see all the semifinalists, visit the Flikr page showing semifinalists or you can scan through all the entries by going to the Flikr page organized by grade level.

Endangered Species Day will be celebrated with events organized by groups around the country. You can find registered events on the webpage “Celebrate Endangered Species Day,” although you may need to do an Internet search for details.

It’s not hard to find information about the Endangered Species Act or individual species with an Internet search engine, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives you a place to start with its Endangered Species Day website.

Endangered Species Day was designated by U.S. Senate resolution in 2006 to encourage teachers across the country to spend at least 30 minutes “informing students about threats to, and the restoration of, endangered species around the world” and to encourage organizations and business to help produce educational materials.

As far as I can tell, a 2012 Senate resolution was the last time that Congress officially recognized Endangered Species Day, although it has continued with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hope for Burley Creek rises with help from Army Corps of Engineers

Andy Nelson, who took over as Kitsap County’s public works director two years ago, quickly proved his worth to the local environment when he proposed federal funding for three major ecosystem-restoration efforts.

One project begins with a proposed $350,000 study of South Kitsap’s Burley Creek watershed — an important stream that probably has never received the attention it deserves. The other projects are in Silverdale and Hansville.

Burley Creek Photo: Kitsap County Public Works
Burley Creek // Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

I stumbled on Kitsap County’s proposal for Burley Creek buried within a U.S. Senate bill to authorize water-related projects across the country — the same bill that would authorize the $20-million Skokomish River ecosystem restoration in Mason County. (See Water Ways, April 28.)

How did a relatively small Kitsap project find its way into a massive public works bill? You could say it was because Andy was aware of a congressional effort to seek out local partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers. That effort, which began in 2014, came about in part as response to the elimination of old-fashioned earmarks, by which members of Congress could promote their favorite local projects.

Andy came to Kitsap County after retiring from the Army Corps of Engineers, where he held the rank of colonel and was deputy commander for the South Pacific Division. That’s the Corps’ regional office for California and the other Southwest states. (See Kitsap County news release.)

“Kitsap County is a great place, and we chose to come here because of Puget Sound and the nearby mountains,” Andy told me. “With the amount of saltwater shorelines, I anticipated there would be ongoing Army Corps work taking place in Kitsap County.”

In fact, there were no projects in Kitsap County proposed in partnership with the Army Corps. The Corps had previously done studies on Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and on Carpenter Creek in North Kitsap, but funding was never available for the actual restoration work.

Andy put his head together with staffers in Kitsap County Public Works (his department) and the Department of Community Development. They came up with three projects to be submitted to the Corps for consideration. In the end — and to Andy’s great surprise — these three Kitsap projects were the only ones submitted from Washington state during the first year of the solicitation.

The Burley Creek project is one that Tim Beachy, an engineer for Kitsap County Public Works, had been considering in a more limited way.

“We were looking at the replacement of a barrier culvert on Bethel-Burley Road,” Tim told me. “It looked like a bridge upstream on Fenton Road could be impacted by the culvert replacement, and there was a private bridge upstream of that.”

Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek. Photo: KC Public Works
Dan Wolfe of Kitsap County Public Works conducts an annual inspection of the Spruce Road Bridge over Burley Creek.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

A barrier culvert is one identified as blocking or impeding the passage of salmon. Replacing a culvert can alter the grade of the stream channel, affecting bridges and culverts upstream and/or downstream and potentially leading to unanticipated consequences for salmon migration.

It turns out that Burley Creek contains spawning beds used by Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It also contains important spawning and rearing habitat for other salmon species.

At Andy’s direction, a study was proposed to look at salmon passage at four bridges in close proximity on Burley Creek, to consider the effects of flooding and storm damage on the roads and bridges, and to propose further actions that might reduce pollution affecting shellfish downstream in Burley Lagoon.

County officials met with the Corps to discuss the idea. The Corps accepted it as a worthwhile project and proposed it for funding. Congress will have the final word on the study, which would be done by the Corps. If the project moves to construction, local and state funding — probably a 35 percent match — would be needed.

The Burley Creek study requires congressional authorization because it is somewhat unique and does not fit under the “continuing authority” that allows the Corps to investigate issues such as shoreline restoration, shoreline stabilization, ecosystem restoration or navigation, Andy told me. The Corps does not have authority to address water-quality projects per se.

The other two projects are still being evaluated, but they will not need congressional approval since they fall under existing authority of the Corps.

One would be a close look at Silverdale’s waterfront at the head of Dyes Inlet, including Clear Creek and the pocket estuary near Hop Jack’s and Silverdale Beach Hotel. The study would look at ways to restore ecological processes and biological diversity, including shorelines used by forage fish, salmon, resident and migratory waterfowl, and diverse species found in both freshwater and tidal marshes. The project would address stormwater alternatives and consider ways to improve passive recreation.

The last project — which was actually the first in a letter to the Corps — would involve the restoration of freshwater and saltwater marsh habitats in and around Point No Point County Park. The study would look at the longterm effects of sea-level rise, including flood control and potential damage to houses, roads, park facilities and the historic Point No Point Lighthouse. The project could create a more natural setting and enhance intertidal connectivity.

“Nothing prevents two or even all three of these projects from competing for funds and getting funded,” Andy said. “We may determine that the work is not for the Army Corps of Engineers, but we could still use the science and engineering that comes out of these studies. To get a Kitsap County creek in the (Water Resources Development Act) is a big deal.”

Elwha River:
a continuing march
on the way to renewal

It has always been a question to ponder: Will the most significant changes to the Elwha River ecosystem occur upstream of where two dams have been removed or downstream where the river enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca?

Photo: Olympic National Park
Photo: Olympic National Park

Soon after each dam was torn down in succession — the lower one first — salmon began migrating upstream, while more than 30 million cubic yards of sediment began moving downstream.

It could take a number of years to rebuild the extensive runs of salmon, including the prized chinook for which the Elwha was famous among salmon fishermen across the country. Will we ever see the legendary 100-pound chinook return to the Elwha, assuming they ever existed? That was a question I explored in a story for the Kitsap Sun in September 2010.

On the other hand, massive amounts of sediment have already spilled out of the Elwha River, building an extensive delta of sand and gravel, including about 80 acres of new habitat and two miles of sandy beach.

Reporter Tristan Baurick focused on the dramatic shoreline changes already taking place at the mouth of the Elwha in a well-written story published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The Coastal Watershed Institute, which is monitoring the shoreline near the mouth of the Elwha has documented increases in critical forage fish populations, including surf smelt, sand lance, eulachon (candlefish) and longfin smelt. See CWI Blog. These fish feed a host of larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Tristan describes the changes offshore, where an area starved of sediment is turning into prime habitat for starry flounder, Dungeness crab and many other animals. Rocky outcroppings that once provided attachment for bull kelp is giving way to fine sand, which allows for colonization by eelgrass and a host of connected species. I described some of the early changes in the flora in a Kitsap Sun story in March of 2013.

For people to view the restoration first-hand, I described a day trip to the Elwha in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2013. Along the way, you can check out the history, enjoy the vantage points and learn about the changes taking place. Tristan offers a suggestion worth heeding to ensure ongoing beach access.

“Access to the beach is granted by the dike’s owners. They could take that away if the area’s overwhelmed with trash, noise and other nuisances, so keep that in mind when you visit.”

If you’d like to see a video record of dam removal and ecosystem recovery, you may wish to view the film “Return of the River” to be shown at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre on Friday, March 13. The film will be followed by a panel discussion involving the film’s producers, John Gussman and Jessica Plumb. For details, check the Kitsap Sun website.

Amusing Monday: Entering the world of
a top ocean predator

I was quite impressed when I watched this video of a diver cutting away a thick rope that had been slicing into the flesh of a massive whale shark. The animal, spotted 300 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, remained calm throughout the operation.

Daniel Zapata, dive team leader aboard the Solmar V cruise ship, said the divers knew it might be dangerous to cut the whale shark free, but it was heartbreaking for them to watch while the animal was suffering.

“We talked about it for some time between dives,” Zapata said in a question-and-answer interview with Joanna McNamara of Project Aware. “When we saw the whale shark again, I knew I had to help. It felt so good to cut this whale shark free. I found a thinner section of the rope and cut through it. I unwrapped the rope from each side of the whale shark and finally she was free.”

The action may have saved the life of the pregnant female and her unborn offspring, according to observers.

This video was featured on the Smithsonian Channel as part of the latest series “Secrets of Shark Island.” The “secret,” according to promotional material, is that the Revillagigedo Islands, some 200 miles from the Mexican coast, is home to one of the greatest concentrations of fish in the world.

“This is the only natural juncture for miles in an otherwise empty Pacific Ocean and a crucial area for migrating sharks and other apex predators,” states the Smithsonian Channel website. “Enter a world where whitetip sharks, giant lobsters and moray eels share living quarters, humpback whales breed, and mantas and tuna feast on bait in this land of plenty.”

The Smithsonian Channel has been going a little crazy over sharks the past few years. But it isn’t just about sharks. It’s about the people who love them. Two years ago, we were introduced to “Shark Girl” aka Madison Steward, who grew up around sharks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and is as fearless as they come around the sharp-toothed creatures. See second video on this page.

“Sharks are misunderstood like no other creature, to the point where it is actually contributing to their slaughter,” Madison told Gerri Miller of Mother Nature Network. “I think it has a lot to do with media, but also that people cannot go and see them for themselves and learn the truth.

“Sharks are NOT what you think,” she continued, “and myself and many other people spend hours in the water with large sharks and feed them at ease on regular occasions. They are the apex predators, and nature doesn’t make animals like this for no reason. They are essential in our oceans. In previous years, the decimation of the shark population has caused the surrounding ecosystem to collapse. They are truly the ‘boss’ of our oceans.”

The third video is something of a personal manifesto from Madison Stewart, spoken in a voice-over as she swims in an awe-inspiring underwater world with ethereal music playing in the background.

If you think you know sharks, take a quiz from MNN.

Want to see more amazing sharks and stories from people involved with them? Check out these videos from Smithsonian Channel:

“Secrets of Shark Island” series

“Shark Girl” series

“Death Beach” series

“Great White: Code Red” series

“Hunt for the Super Predator” series

Also, “Shark Girl” Madison Stewart has produced some fine videos since she was 14 years old. Watch them on the Madison Stewart website, “Good Youth in a Bad Sea.”

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer whales.

The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating them.

It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I also wrote a story on the opening remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human behavior.

A team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least 10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450 presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb. 23.

The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly implicated in the death of the animal, according to a statement from NOAA officials.

Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of sadness and anger from others over the coming days.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said in a prepared statement.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” he said.

Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental, but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded darts.

The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body condition” and no clear sign of death. See the DFO news release for a few other details.

Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death.”

When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in health status.”

The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped. Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only 1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer whales.

“The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to reduce risk of this happening again.”

Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging program several years ago as officials were debating whether the endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that he should simply document any problems he sees.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified.”

The tracking studies have been used the past few years to document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also areas where they linger and forage for food.

NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the killer whales are outlined in a question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death of Nigel, L-95.

Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old, has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March 23 near Sooke, B.C.

Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the DFO statement.