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
“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
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
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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
One can download
a copy of the fact book from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound
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
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
C. The southern edge Whidbey Island
D. The Tacoma Narrows
3. How deep is the deepest part of Puget
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
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?
7. Resident killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon.
What do transient killer whales mainly eat?
A. Pink salmon
B. Marine mammals
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
D. Dogfish sharks
9. Rockfish are among the longest-lived fish in Puget
Sound. How many species of rockfish can be found in Puget
10. Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus is the largest
octopus in the world. The record size has been reported at what
A. 200 pounds
B. 400 pounds
C. 500 pounds
D. 600 pounds
– ANSWERS 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 — 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.”
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
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
“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
“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, who has spent most of his life studying whales,
returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and
I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“Whale of a Purpose.”
The so-called orca “baby boom” continues with the birth of a new
calf in L pod, first spotted this morning near Sooke, British
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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