Category Archives: Marine mammals

‘Missing’ L-pod orcas spotted; all Southern Residents accounted for

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has confirmed that Paul Pudwell of Sooke Whale Watching located the five missing killer whales that have not been seen in U.S. waters this year. The whales were spotted July 15 off Sooke, B.C., which is west of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Photo: Paul Pudwell
L-54 near Sooke, B.C., last week
Photo: Paul Pudwell

Paul was able to get pictures of all five whales suitable for identification by Ken and company.

By my reckoning, this should account for all the Southern Residents. While four new orca babies are thriving, we have had just one death to mourn over the past year. That brings the population to 82, up from 79 last year at this time. That number includes Lolita, a Southern Resident being kept at Miami Seaquarium. For a full accounting of the population, see Water Ways, July 1 and Water Ways, July 7.

To see the ID photos, check out the Facebook page of Sooke Coastal Explorations.

By the way, nobody has come up with new words to my proposed song, “L-54, Where Are You?”

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

Amusing Monday: Bears, birds and more can be viewed live online

The beautiful and powerful brown bears have arrived at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and everyone in the world can enjoy the convenience of watching these giant bears and other amazing wildlife live from the comfort and safety of their home.

Lots of people have been going out to falls this year to watch the bears from nearby viewing platforms, but I get the feeling that far more people have been watching them from home via the live webcams. I say that because of the number of comments generated on the website. More than a few commenters seem to know the area well and even call the bears by their nicknames. (Park biologists use a numbering system, identifying each bear by coat and claw colors, scars, body size and shape, ear size and shape, sex, facial features and disposition.)

Brooks Falls is one of the first streams in the region where the bears have easy access to bright salmon soon after they leave the saltwater and before spawning. The falls provide a partial barrier to their travels, making fishing easier for the bears. By sometime in August, the fish runs will dwindle and the bears will be gone.

Operators of the multiple live webcams do a good job of zooming in when something interesting happens. Occasionally, so much is going on that they don’t know what to show. Other times, we wait and watch the beautiful scenery, which is especially dramatic at sunrise and sunset.

When the bears are actively fishing for salmon, I find it hard to break away and get back to daily life. One video trick I’ve learned: If you don’t see anything interesting in the live view, you can use your cursor to scan across the timeline to see what has happened for the past few hours and watch that instead.

Park officials have identified the various fishing methods used by the bears in an interesting Q&A section on the national park’s website.

Birds and marine mammal cams

Besides watching bears, it’s a good time of year to watch other wildlife as well via live webcam. Birds are typically active on their nests, raising their young.

Chesapeake Conservancy is featuring the osprey couple, Tom and Audrey, who perennially nest on Kent Island in Maryland. Audrey has taken up with a new “Tom” this year and produced three babies. They also received two foster chicks from nearby Poplar Island, according to information on the website.

Another good osprey cam was installed this year in Belwood Lake Conservation Area near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Canada. Three eggs reportedly hatched, but I see only two chicks in the nest.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has an osprey cam that updates still photos every 12 seconds.

A puffin cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine shows a fuzzy chick tucked into a burrow where its mother comes and goes to feed her baby. Other views shows puffins on a ledge where they often hang out. Wildlife biologists are trying to establish a new colony at this location after hunters wiped out the puffins in the 1800s.

Another live camera on Seal Island shows a guillemot in a burrow.

If you would like to see a colony of walruses, (also in video player below) check out the live camera installed on Round Island, Alaska. Sometimes only a few of the large mammals can be seen. Other times, like this morning, large numbers were pushing and shoving each other for space. The comments are often entertaining.

If you are interested in more live cams of wildlife, check out last year’s Water Ways entry from June 23, 2014.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Aquarium is featuring live cams from its displays of harbor seals and sea lions.

Will fake killer whale fool sea lions in Astoria — and what if it does?

I was eager to find out if a 32-foot fiberglass replica of a killer whale could scare off a huge number of sea lions crowded together on the docks in Astoria, Ore.

I kept telling my wife Sue, “It’s not going to work” — and I had not the slightest idea that the motorized orca might capsize during its attempt to frighten the persistent sea lions.

About 1,000 people were on hand last night when a human operator drove the orca toward the sea lions, according to Associated Press reporter Terrence Petty. A passing cargo ship created a wake that rushed toward the shore and capsized the fake killer whale. And that was that for now. You can read the story in the Kitsap Sun.

I understand that the fake killer whale might be deployed again against the sea lions in August, when their numbers are expected to be high again. I still doubt that it will work — unless the operators can find a way to aggressively approach the sea lions and stay with the effort for an extended time. It might help to play recordings of transient killer whales — the kind that eat marine mammals. But my understanding is that transients don’t make many sounds when they are in their hunting mode.

I readily admit that I’m not a killer whale expert, but let me tell you why I believe that any sort of limited effort with fake orcas will fail. It’s not that sea lions don’t fear transients. In fact, if sea lions can be convinced that they are being approached by a real killer whale, their fear level could be quite high.

I’ve heard from homeowners who live on Hood Canal, Dyes Inlet and other shorelines that when transient killer whales are around, seals and sea lions head for shore, climb up on docks and even attempt to board boats to get away from them.

So I don’t know if the fiberglass orca will fool the sea lions in Astoria, but does anyone think that these marine mammals are crazy enough to jump into the water if they believe a killer is there waiting for them?

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Sea-floor mining brings deep concerns about environmental effects

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a a new deep-sea observatory being built off the West Coast. I noted that Washington and Oregon researchers are thrilled to monitor the eruption of an underwater volcano called Axial Seamount.

Smoker

Soon, new equipment and a fiber optics cable will allow these researchers to widely share discoveries involving the unique geology and unusual plants and animals living at the bottom of the ocean. People will be able to watch in real time via the Internet. See Water Ways, May 6.

Now, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has me thinking about the commercial value of the deep ocean. Can society safely mine the seafloor for valuable minerals used in a wide variety of consumer products? Can huge mining equipment operate in water two or three miles deep without destroying the unique ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean?

For decades, researchers have been aware of high concentrations of minerals lying on and beneath the sea floor. But nobody was worried about the environmental damage of mining, because the costs of commercial recovery were too great.

That has been changing, however, thanks to the combination of five factors, according to a 2013 study “Towards the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Polymetallic Nodule Exploitation” (PDF 1.1 mb). They are:

  1. A dramatic increase in demand for metal;
  2. An equally dramatic rise in metal prices;
  3. The high profitability of mining sector companies;
  4. A decline in the tonnage and grade of land-based nickel, copper and cobalt sulphide deposits; and
  5. Technological advances in deep seabed mining and processing.

The new technology involves giant robotic machines that either excavate the seafloor or scoop up clumps of polymetallic nodules. Over the past few years, 26 permits have been issued to mining corporations, mostly for operations in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

“Deep-sea mining is an emerging threat to our oceans that has the potential to irreparably harm underwater ecosystems before we even have a chance to fully study its impacts,” declares the Center for Biological Diversity, adding:

“Life on the deep ocean floor is still a mysterious realm that scientists have only just begun to fully understand and inventory… What mountaintop-removal coal mining has done in Appalachia, deep-sea mining has the potential to do in the Pacific Ocean, affecting the ecosystem and food web in ways that scientists say they don’t yet fully understand.”

Last week, the environmental group filed a lawsuit (PDF 162 kb) against the U.S. government for issuing exploratory permits without the requisite environmental studies. Said Emily Jeffers, the attorney who filed the case:

“Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier. We need to protect the ocean wildlife and habitat, and the United States should provide leadership for other nations to follow before more projects get underway.”

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges two exploratory permits issued to OMCO Seabed Exploration, LLC, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. The original permits for work in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone expired in 2004. Jeffers says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should have considered the environmental effects of the mining plan before renewing the permits in 2012.

Said Jeffers in a news release:

“If we aren’t careful, this new gold rush could do irreparable harm to the basic building blocks of life. The federal government has a moral duty, as well as a legal one, to understand the full environmental impacts before the mining industry scrapes away our deep-sea resources.”

Besides tearing up the sea floor, mining operations can stir up sediment, which can smother organisms living on the bottom, according to the lawsuit. Cloudy water can reduce productivity, and clouds of sediment may contain toxic metals that reduce reproductive success of sea life. Light and noise from ships and vessels can disrupt seabird behavior and affect whales and other marine mammals, the suit claims.

Other permits have been issued to various countries in Europe and Asia by the International Seabed Authority, which hopes to approve environmental standards by the end of next year. The U.S. is not subject to those rules and cannot demand compliance from other countries, because the U.S. has not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that establishes the International Seabed Authority.

Map

Amusing Monday: Winning photo to grace national parks pass

Cameron Teller's winning photograph in the "Share the Experience" contest shows a young polar bear reaching up to its mother. National Park Foundation
Cameron Teller’s winning photograph in the “Share the Experience” contest shows a young polar bear reaching up to its mother.
National Park Foundation

Cameron Teller of Seattle, a former Kitsap County resident, is the Grand Prize winner in the “Share the Experience” photo contest — which means his touching photo of a polar bear and her cub will receive prominent display on next year’s annual pass for entrance into national parks and other federal lands.

Cameron’s photo was among 22,000 images submitted last year in the annual contest, which provides a $10,000 prize to the winner.

Cameron snapped the shot from a boat a good distance away, just as the cub reached its mother. The amateur photographer had gone out on the boat as part of a six-person tour to Alaska’s remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the group was focused on seeing polar bears and Northern Lights.

“I love going on trips to faraway places and taking photographs,” Cameron told me.

The group had flown from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska, then onto Kaktovik, the only village inside the wildlife refuge. A guide took them out on a fishing boat, where they spent the day photographing wildlife and scenery.

“The captain was a local resident,” Cameron said. “We went out early in the morning. It was awfully foggy that morning, then it started clearing up. The sun came out and it was a great day for scenery.”

Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., received a second-place award in the Share the Experience photo contest with his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. National Park Foundation
Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., received a second-place award with his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. // National Park Foundation

The trip occurred at the beginning of winter last year, just as the sea ice was freezing up. In fact, he said, the ice had grown so thick around the dock where the group departed that the captain had to choose a different landing site to get the group back to shore.

Cameron said there is nothing like seeing mothers and their babies, and it was a special moment when the polar bear cub walked over and reached up to its mother.

“I still can’t quite believe I won,” Cameron told me. “There were some amazing photos that were entered. I think one of the reasons this appealed to the judges is the whole topic of global warming and protection of the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge.”

Of course, polar bears have become a symbol of the melting ice caps in the polar regions, where the bears are threatened with extinction because of declining habitat.

Cameron moved to Bremerton from Kansas City about 13 years ago to work for Parametrix, an engineering firm with an office on Kitsap Way. He lived in Manette a short time before moving to Bainbridge Island, where he resided for 11 years. For the past two years, he has lived in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, captured third place with his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. National Park Foundation
Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, captured third place with his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. // National Park Foundation

Cameron said the $10,000 prize will help fund his ongoing adventures. He visited Kenya about two years ago and plans to travel to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido next January.

It has been a good year for Cameron, who also won “Outdoor Photographer” magazine’s “American Landscape Contest” with a photo of El Capitan, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park.

The polar bear photo will be featured on next year’s America the Beautiful pass, an annual pass that gets visitors into more than 2,000 public recreation sites on federal land. About 300,000 people purchase the pass each year.

The annual “Share the Experience” contest is sponsored by the National Park Foundation, Active Network, and Celestron in partnership with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Photographs are now being accepted for next year’s contest, which requires pictures to be taken during 2015 and submitted by the end of the year. Winners will be announced by May 1, 2016. Weekly winners are recognized.

Other winners announced last week in the “Share the Experience” contest include Eric DaBreo of Chico, Calif., second place for his photo of the Golden Gate Bridge taken at sunset from Marshall Beach, and Jordan Moore of San Marcos, Texas, for his photo of a bison at the edge of Yellowstone Lake.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said she hopes the contest helps inspire people to enjoy the country’s “unrivaled public lands and waters” and share the feeling with others.

“Taking pictures is one of the many ways to enjoy the splendor of our nation’s stunning landscapes and share those treasured moments with friends and family, as well as inspire others who may have never visited to get out and explore their public lands,” she said in a news release.

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

Mystery of the orca moms rekindled by birth of another J-pod whale

A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.

A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
A newborn calf (on the near side) is seen swimming with J-16, while a 3-month-old calf swims on the other side, adding to the mystery of the orca moms.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, printed with permission.

The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.

Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf, which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a 3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling with J-16, a female named Slick.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose. “But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer (Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”

The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart. Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation period of 15 to 18 months.

If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See Water Ways, Jan. 22.

At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth, since this age is normally associated with menopause.

After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote this in his notes following one encounter:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced. While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.

Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby, designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be her likely offspring.

Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have survived if a nursemaid had been available.

I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and he noted that some deceased females have been found with two fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered twins.

Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)

“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there were really 71 whales.”

Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of another female whale or its baby?

“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones. Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms will continue.