Category Archives: Marine mammals

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month later than normal.

As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula. The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands, then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September. Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if that’s all they can find.

In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).

On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as reported by Orca Network.

“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca Network’s sighting report from Sunday.

“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and this was the first October to come and go without the Southern Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs, and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of chum!”

On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L pods continued north, and J pod headed south.

Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”

The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon in other areas besides Puget Sound.

Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.

This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island, passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are somewhere around Kingston.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along above and below the surface.

We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something else.

Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:

The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a 38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a 6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a 5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.

While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four of her offspring.

The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82: 28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.

The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

A quiz, based on the new ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

A new publication called “Puget Sound Fact Book” has been released online by the Puget Sound Institute, an affiliation of the University of Washington, Environmental Protection Agency and Puget Sound Partnership.

Fact book

Like its name suggests, the fact book contains detailed information about Puget Sound — from the geology that created the waterway to creatures that roam through the region, including humans. The fact book has been incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Working for the Puget Sound Institute, I became part of a team of about 25 researchers and writers who compiled the facts and produced essays about various aspects of Puget Sound. I wrote an introductory piece titled “Overview: Puget Sound as an Estuary” and a conclusion called “A healthy ecosystem supports human values.”

One can download a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound webpage.

Just for fun, I thought I would offer a multiple-choice quiz from the book. Answers and scoring are at the bottom.

1. Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast covers about four times the area of Puget Sound. The total volume of water in Chesapeake Bay is roughly how much compared to Puget Sound?
A. Twice the volume of Puget Sound
B. Equal to the volume of Puget Sound
C. Half the volume of Puget Sound
D. One-fourth the volume of Puget Sound

2. Puget Sound was named by Capt. George Vancouver, honoring one of his officers, Lt. Peter Puget. Where was the northernmost boundary of the original Puget Sound?
A. The Canadian border
B. The northern edge of Admiralty Inlet near present-day Port Townsend
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows

3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget Sound?
A. 86 meters = 282 feet
B. 186 meters = 610 feet
C. 286 meters = 938 feet
D. 386 meters – 1,266 feet

4. Washington State Department of Health has classified 190,000 acres of tidelands in Puget Sound as shellfish growing areas. How much of that area is classified as “prohibited,” meaning shellfish can never be harvested there without a change in classification.
A. 36,000 acres
B. 52,000 acres
C. 84,000 acres
D. 110,0000 acres

5. In the late 1800s, experts estimate that Puget Sound contained 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) of mud flats. Development has reduced that total to how much today?
A. 79 square kilometers = 30 square miles
B. 95 square kilometers = 36 square miles
C. 126 square kilometers = 49 square miles
D. 151 square kilometers – 58 square miles

6. How many bird species depend on the Salish Sea, according to a 2011 study?
A. 45
B. 102
C. 157
D. 172

7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon. What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
C. Birds
D. Sharks

8. Most fish populations in Puget Sound have been on the decline over the past 40 years. What type of marine creature has increased its numbers 9 times since 1975?
A. Rock crabs
B. Jellyfish
C. Herring
D. Dogfish sharks

9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget Sound?
A. 8
B. 18
C. 28
D. 38

10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what weight?
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds

1. C. Chesapeake Bay contains about half the volume of Puget Sound, some 18 cubic miles compared to 40 cubic miles.
2. D. Tacoma Narrows.
3. C. The deepest spot in Puget Sound — offshore of Point Jefferson near Kingston — is 286 m, although one spot in the larger Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) reaches a depth of 650 m. or 2,132 feet.
4. A. 36,000 acres are prohibited shellfish beds
5. C. Total mudflats today total 126 square kilometers
6. D. 172 bird species
7. B. Transients eat marine mammals.
8. B. Jellyfish
9. C. 28
10. D. 600 pounds is said to be the record, although more typical weights are 50 to 100 pounds.

Most of these questions are pretty tough. If you got five right, I would say you know Puget Sound pretty well. Six or seven right suggests you have special knowledge about the waterway. More than seven correct answers means you could have helped compile the facts for this new book.

Carl Safina explores animal culture plus
orca-salmon links

Carl Safina — scientist, teacher, author and documentary filmmaker — will speak Wednesday on a topic of interest to many killer whale observers, “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest.”

The talk, sponsored by the group Orca Salmon Alliance, will be held at the Seattle Aquarium, but it appears the event has been sold out. (Brown Paper Tickets)

Following his speech, Safina will join a panel of experts on salmon and killer whales to discuss the connections between these two iconic species and what it will take for the survival of the species. The experts are Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, Howard Schaller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries.

Safina’s newest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” is winning acclaim for its description of animal culture and even emotions in creatures such as elephants, wolves and killer whales.

“We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe, but clearly we are not alone on earth,” wrote Tim Flannery in his review of “Beyond Words” in the New York Review of Books. “The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of ‘Beyond Words’ we need to reevaluate how, and why.”

“Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion,” Flannery continues. “Prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this?”

Previously, in a PBS series “Saving the Ocean,” Safina explored the effort to restore chinook salmon to the Nisqually River. During a two-part segment, he interviewed numerous biologists and talked to tribal leader Billy Frank before Billy’s untimely death.

The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance is a consortium of environmental groups focused on supporting the recovery of orcas and salmon. Proceeds from Wednesday’s event will support the organization.

“We can’t recover the highly endangered population of orca living off the Northwest coast without also restoring their primary food source, the chinook salmon,” said Deborah Giles, Science Advisor for OSA.

Erich Hoyt returns to Puget Sound; whale sign goes up near Hansville

Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales, returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle.

A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park. Photo: The Whale Trail
A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville.
Photo: The Whale Trail

I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this region. (See Water Ways, May 3, 2014.) We talked about the ongoing capture of killer whales in Russia, where government officials refuse to learn a lesson from the Northwest about breaking up killer whale families and disrupting their social order.

“Much of the rest of the world has moved on to think about a world beyond keeping whales and dolphins captive,” Erich wrote in a recent blog entry. “Not Russia. Not now. It’s all guns blazing to make all the same mistakes made years before in other countries.

“Of course, it’s not just Russian aquarium owners and captors,” he continued. “China, too, is about to open its first performing killer whale show, and Japan aquariums continue to go their own way. There are people opposed to captivity in Russia, China and Japan, but they are not in the majority.”

Erich’s talk in Olympia on Oct. 10 is titled, “Adventures with orcas in the North Pacific.” He will speak again on the topic the next day in Tacoma. On Oct. 13, he goes to West Seattle to speak on “Ants, orcas and creatures of the deep.” For details and tickets, go to Brown Paper Tickets.

The three talks are produced by The Whale Trail, an environmental group, in partnership with local sponsoring organizations. Donna Sandstrom, founder and director of The Whale Trail, said Erich comes to Puget Sound after the births of five new orcas in J, K and L pods. This provides five more reasons to restore the Puget Sound killer whale population, she said.

“The collaborative nature of the Orca Tour demonstrates our shared commitment to restore salmon, reduce toxins and create quieter seas,” Sandstrom said.

Among other things, The Whale Trail is known for promoting shoreside viewing of whales to reduce interference with their activities. The group maintains a map of the best places to watch whales from shore.

With the approval of Kitsap County, the organization has erected a new sign at Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville, a good spot to watch all kinds of wildlife. The sign offers specific information about Point No Point as a viewing site and provides tips for identifying marine mammals.

Thousands vote to name four new killer whales

Interest in Puget Sound’s killer whales continues to grow, as demonstrated recently when more than 3,000 people from throughout the world helped name four new baby orcas.

The new babies are named Scarlet, Nova, Sonic and Windsong. I’ll tell you more about these new names in a moment, but first I’d like to describe the naming process and how it might change.

Scarlet, J-50 Photo: The Whale Museum
Scarlet, J-50 // Photo: The Whale Museum

People were thrilled to get the chance to name some orca calves this year, considering that the past two years no new babies were around to be named, according to Jenny Atkinson, executive director of The Whale Museum.

The Whale Museum holds an annual vote on its website to name any new members of the Southern Resident killer whale community. Once the whales are named, people are free to “adopt” the young animals, contributing to the Whale Museum’s educational, research and orca-protection programs. Although any living whale is eligible for adoption, people are especially excited to become connected with little ones. Check out the orca adoption page.

What I never realized is that when someone adopts a baby orca and then renews the adoption year after year, he or she will receive annual reports and photos for as long as the whale survives. Since killer whales may live as long as humans, I bet more than a few people have some interesting scrapbooks of their whale adoptees.

Nova, J-51 Photo: The Whale Museum
Nova, J-51 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Knowing that a fair number or orcas don’t survive their first year, some people were surprised that orcas born as recently as March were being named now, Jenny said. Other people have never understood why it takes so long to name the babies.

Jenny explained that the current naming process is based on tradition and the idea that young killer whales should get a name and be eligible for adoption after making it through their first winter — the most trying period for young animals. This year, names were given to whales first spotted in December, February (two babies) and March — all surviving at least a portion of the winter.

Over the past few years, more observers — including naturalists associated with commercial whale-watching boats — have been able to identify individual orcas and notice changes in family structure. The information often goes to the Center of Whale Research, which conducts an annual census of the Southern Residents as of July 1. To stay on top of things, the Center for Whale Research has been confirming new births soon after they are reported.

Sonic, J-52 Photo: The Whale Museum
Sonic, J-52 // Photo: The Whale Museum

Just as the Internet has changed the reporting of news, we are now seeing an ongoing population count of the Southern Residents with very little delay in learning about new births in the population.

In a similar fashion, Jenny told me that she has begun to consider a change in the naming process. She said it has always troubled her that young whales sometimes die without being honored with a name, and it becomes somewhat arbitrary which orcas get names and which ones don’t.

Perhaps the original idea of naming whales after their first winter helps to spare people the emotional upset of losing a young animal that has barely been named and “adopted” by supporters of The Whale Museum.

“Is it really any easier to lose them if they don’t have a name?” Jenny pondered. “They may put on a great show, but this population is suffering. If you only tell happy stories, how can we expect things to change?”

Windsong, L-121 Photo: The Whale Museum
Windsong, L-121 // Photo: The Whale Museum

The three Southern Resident pods are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Until a recent “baby boom” starting in December, no new calves were born for more than two years. Six whales died during that time. The situation was bleak and is still quite worrisome.

Based on studies, we know that a nursing mother passes more toxic chemicals to her first-born than to subsequent babies. We also know that the risk of death for an orca calf is greater during the first few years of life. But I would not think that naming a baby orca and then reporting its death would be any more traumatic than reporting the death of an older whale that people have known over many years.

“I believe everything deserves a name,” Jenny told me, saying the process of naming newborn orcas more quickly will take some planning and a full discussion by the board of The Whale Museum. The current system coordinates with outside groups in choosing names for specific orca families, and the names of individuals within a family are often coordinated. For example, this is how the new names came about:

Scarlet: Born in December to J-16 or “Slick,” this young whale was designated J-50. She has “rake” marks on both sides of her body, believed to be caused when another orca used its teeth to assist in her delivery. “Scarlet” refers to the scars from the rake marks. Other proposed names outvoted in the naming process were Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration and strength; Hi-Yu, a Chinook word for plenty; and Fraser, the salmon river in British Columbia considered an important food source for the whales.

Nova: First seen in February, this male orca was designated J-51. He is the first offspring of J-41, named Eclipse. The name Nova, which relates to the celestial name of his mother, is the description of a star that flares into brightness before fading back to its original intensity. Other options outvoted were Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of sunlight; Twilight; and Moonshadow.

Sonic: First seen in March, this male orca was designated J-52. His mother, J-36 or Alki, has contributed to a large and thriving family that consists of three generations. Sonic, of course, relates to sound waves. Other options under consideration were Galiano, a Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; Thetis, another Canadian island in the area where J-52 was first seen; and Capilano, a historic family in the Coast Salish Community in British Columbia.

Windsong: Spotted by researchers off the Washington Coast in February, this young male is the second offspring of L-94 or Calypso. He is designated L-121. The name Calypso came from a song by John Denver about Jacques Cousteau’s ship. “Windsong” was the name of the album. Other options were Calliope, a musical instrument using compressed air as well as a muse in Greek mythology; Tango, a dance; and Alcyone, Cousteau’s second ship.

Another new baby was spotted two weeks ago. The mother is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. When this youngster will be named is not certain.

Will the Navy extend whale protections
to other regions?

UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and training operations. The document does not consider an option for avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is the news release (PDF 548 kb).

A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and throughout the country.

The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and reproduce.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups, saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.

“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself, represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with the conservation community. It took litigation to create this window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with science.”

Humpback whales, an endangered species. NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman
Humpback whales, an endangered species.
NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman

Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives. As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts — such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.

Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.

“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their military readiness objective.”

For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of this week’s settlement.

“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months to reach this agreement.”

In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically important testing and training.”

In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat vague.

“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back. “The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future proposed actions.”

Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species. NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whale, endangered.
NOAA photo

The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:

“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar systems).

“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”

Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar, explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales and other animals should include restrictions within biologically important areas, they say.

This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and Hawaii. For details, check out the signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps, or read the summary in news releases by NRDC and Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are getting special protection under the agreement.

Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s news release on the subject.

Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific Northwest.

Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.

“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing needs.”

Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and its failure to address the problem:

“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources…. Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially understates the potential effects, the activities would cause nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the 5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take permit.”

I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to see another lawsuit over routine testing and training operations.

Aerial images of baby orca and new studies with unmanned aircraft

The Center for Whale Research has posted aerial photos of the new orca calf and her mother. The pictures, taken as part of a research study, were shot from an unmanned hexacopter (drone) from an altitude of more than 100 feet, as required by permits and protocols of the research project.

Aerial photos of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby. Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.
Aerial photo of L-91, a 20-year-old female, and her newborn baby taken from unmanned hexacopter.
Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS Permit 16163 and FAA Flight Authorization Class G MOU: 2015-ESA-4-NOAA.

Researchers are using the unmanned aircraft to help assess the health of killer whales and other marine mammals and to keep track of their population and behaviors. The researchers are from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center. They are operating under permits issued by the U.S. and Canadian governments to cover both sides of the border.

I first discussed this new aerial technique in “Water Ways” nearly a year ago, when Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center told me that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, hold great promise for learning about killer whales. The small aircraft can get great shots from overhead without the cost and disturbance of large manned helicopters. Read more and watch a nice video of the project on “Water Ways,” Oct. 16, 2014.

The research so far has shown that UAVs can be used to gather valuable information about marine mammals. I found a conversation on video between researcher John Durban and NOAA science writer Rich Press to be especially informative. They talked about how to spot a fat and healthy orca versus one that was emaciated and apparently on the edge of death. Finding a pregnant orca was not as hard as I thought it might be. Check out NOAA Fisheries’ website and the video above.

Small unmanned aircraft also can be used to count and assess the condition of gray whales on their annual migration along the West Coast.

“We can’t put a gray whale on a scale, but we can use aerial images to analyze their body condition—basically, how fat or skinny they are,” John Durban said in a story about the gray whale project on the NOAA Fisheries’ website.

In other news about the newborn orca, naturalist Jeanne Hyde has posted a report of her experience, including photos. Jeanne was one of the first to spot the new calf. Read what she has to say on her blog, “Whale of a Purpose.”

Orca ‘baby boom’ continues with new calf born to mom in L pod

The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British Columbia.

Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91 or Muncher. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf L-122 with its mother L-91, or Muncher.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

The mother of the baby is 20-year-old L-91, known as Muncher. The newborn has been designated L-122. This is the fifth orca calf born to the Southern Resident pods since December of last year, following a two-year period in which no calves were born and survived.

The birth was confirmed by orca researcher Mark Malleson of Victoria and by Dave Ellifrit and Melissa Pinnow of the Center for Whale Research, according to a news release issued this evening by CWR.

“The mother and baby and other L pod whales spent the afternoon and evening in Haro Strait ‘fishing,’ and by day’s end were joined by J and K pod members,” the news release states.

Orca observers throughout the Northwest are understandably excited about the news of a new baby orca, particularly given that the four other calves born since December are reportedly healthy and thriving.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has been keeping tabs on the orca population, the greatest number of calves born in a single year was nine in 1977.

“We hope this year’s ‘baby-boom’ represents a turn-around in what has been a negative population trend in recent years,” says the statement from the Center for Whale Research.

Monika Weiland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute, added a note of caution on her Facebook page:

“While the whale community is understandably excited about the births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed,” Monika wrote, noting that NOAA Fisheries has listed the Southern Residents as among the species at most risk of extinction.

“The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed, and soon,” she continued. “Without an increase in abundance of their primary prey, chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population of whales is going to recover.”

Monika argues that one of the most important actions for the recovery of chinook is to breach the four lower Snake River dams, which have outlived their usefulness.

Meanwhile, researchers will be watching closely to see how mother and baby do over the next days, weeks and months.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 82 — or 83 if you count Lolita who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 27 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Amusing Monday: Listen and learn about all kinds of underwater sounds

Years ago, people living near Quilcene in Jefferson County reported an eerie humming sound that kept them awake at night. Since Quilcene is located near the Navy’s acoustic-testing range in Dabob Bay, some folks speculated that the Navy was up to something.

Plainfin midshipman Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Plainfin midshipman // Photo: Wash. Department of Fish and Wildlife

Some people thought it might be some kind of frog, and a few advanced theories of extra-terrestrials. Finally, an acoustic biologist heard a recording of the sound and concluded that it was a midshipman, a bottom-dwelling fish often called a bullhead. (Click on the arrow below to listen.)

      1. Plainfin midshipman

I have not been able to locate the story I wrote about the incident, but it appears the fish created similar confusion three years ago in Seattle, according to a story by Ryan Grenoble in the Huffington Post. I wonder how many other people have heard a similar humming noise that they could not identify.

What I’m leading up to is an amusing webside called Discovery of Sound in the Sea, which allows you to check out all kinds of underwater sounds. Did you know that some sea urchins can form a chorus of sound while grazing on vegetated rocks?

      2. Sea urchin

“Discovery of Sound in the Sea,” or DOSITS, is packed with information about the science of underwater sound, including jobs in the field and equipment used by researchers. There’s even a list of activities, which can be used to teach children about sound.

I find that the most engaging part of the website is the Audio Gallery, a list of recorded sounds that can be selected and played. The list consists of eight different baleen whales; 17 toothed whales, porpoises and dolphins; 10 seals and sea lions; a manatee; four invertebrates, including the sea urchin; 21 fish; seven natural nonbiological sounds, such as rain under water; and 12 man-made sounds from wind turbines to torpedoes.

The website is associated with the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and Marine Acoustics, Inc., of Middletown, RI. Contributors include independent researchers, school teachers and others. The U.S. Office of Naval Research has provided financial support.

Here’s a sample of some interesting sounds. I’ve included the sound of the fin whale, a species seen in Puget Sound last week for the first time in decades. Check out the report by King 5 TV. If you visit the DOSITS website, you’ll get details about each recording and what is making the sound.

A killer whale mother and calf calling to each other in Johnstone Strait in British Columbia

      3. Killer whale
Baleen whales
      4. Gray whale
      5. Humpback whale
      6. Fin whale
Man-made sounds
      7. Cargo ship
      8. Torpedo