Category Archives: Marine mammals

Curiosity and openness distinguish new video on captive killer whales

British broadcaster Jonny Meah assumes an attitude of natural curiosity as he takes a close look at the question of whether killer whales should be kept in tanks for public display.

In a video he produced and edited, Meah visits Marineland of Antibes in the French Riviera, where he lays out the best case possible for each side of the argument. “Inside the Tanks” is Meah’s first-ever documentary production, and he is not afraid to put himself in the middle of the debate, expressing his own feelings as he weighs each side.

“I was inspired to make this documentary and tackle this debate, despite it’s enormity, because I believe one way or another something needs to be done,” Meah told the Bellingham-based Lemonade magazine. “I truly believe that, in many cases, the issue has become less about animals and more about personal hatred, whether that’s towards an organization or a particular person; that goes for both sides, too…

“I think previous pieces on the topic have been really, really interesting, but I personally felt that there was a gap, and a need in one of these pieces for a view from someone in support of captivity as well. So that is where ‘Inside The Tanks’ comes in.”

In an opinion piece written for HuffPost, Matthew Spiegl, an advocate for whales and dolphins, admires Meah’s approach at revealing his personal transformation as he goes about discovering some common ground between “activist” and “keeper.”

Spiegl also credits Jon Kershaw, zoological director at Marineland Antibes. for his openness when commenting about the realities of running a marine park.

“When Meah asks Mr. Kershaw a question about an unusual crease in the dolphins’ necks (as pointed out by biologist Ingred Visser), he acknowledges he had never thought about it being due to the dolphins always looking up at the trainers and agrees that it is the dolphin’s posture which likely causes the crease and that such a posture is not something that would be seen in the wild.”

In March 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would no longer perform captive breeding of killer whales, following an agreement with the Humane Society of the U.S. (See Water Ways, March 17, 2016). Six months later, California outlawed the captive breeding of orcas. Last month, shortly after “Inside the Tanks” was completed, the French government followed suit by banning captive breeding. (The documentary makes a footnote at the end, including a further comment from Kershaw.)

Meah says he looks forward to his first encounter with killer whales in the wild, though he is not sure when that will happen, and he hopes to continue his journalistic endeavors on the subject.

Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

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Amusing Monday: All sorts of animals can be viewed live online

Millions of people watched and waited online for April the giraffe to give birth at Animal Adventure Park near Harpursville, N.Y. — although I am not sure how many were viewing live at the moment of birth. Of course, it is now recorded on YouTube for anyone to see.

As of yesterday, zoo officials announced on Facebook that a new camera will be installed to allow occasional viewing at times to be announced. For a $5 subscription, you can sign up for text alerts about the baby. This has become a real money-maker for the zoo. Frankly, I’m amazed at the level of interest, but it will probably decline now that the baby has arrived.

Each spring, I post an Amusing Monday piece showing where to find some of the best critter cams around the world. I’m pleased to report an ever-expanding number of cameras, not only those in zoos and aquariums but also those in outdoor locations where wildlife experts can study animals without disturbing them. Because of the Internet, we are able to essentially look over the shoulders of researchers and even watch the animals when official observers are not around.

Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, is becoming the go-to website for connecting people live with animals via webcams. As I write this, the number of live video feeds listed on the website totals 65, although the number changes frequently as a result of shifts in animal activity as well as technical issues. Scroll down below the video player for text messaging related to each camera for interactions between video operators and online observers.

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Canadians produce mariner’s guide to whales; can U.S. follow?

If knowledge is power, officials in British Columbia have taken a strong step to protect whales by producing a booklet that can help ship captains reduce the threats to marine mammals.

The “Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada” (PDF 39.3 mb) was compiled and published by the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, a branch of the Vancouver Aquarium. Financial support came from nearby ports.

The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who control the ships are willing to put scientific information into action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political battles.

“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”

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Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

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Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

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Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

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Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

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Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
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When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Sea Shepherd encounters Japanese whalers at start of summer season

It has just turned winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The Japanese whaling fleet has entered the Southern Ocean to kill up to a self-designated quota of 333 minke whales, and Sea Shepherd has given chase.

Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd's newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager
Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd’s newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager

We have heard the story before, and many of us have watched the drama play out during six seasons of the TV series “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet. This year, Sea Shepherd hopes to have an advantage with a ship declared to be faster than the Japanese whaling vessels, as I explained in Water Ways at the end of August.

On Dec. 3, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin left Melbourne, Australia, for the Southern Ocean for its 11th campaign against the whalers. The Steve Irwin was followed a day later by the new ship, Ocean Warrior. Yesterday, the Ocean Warrior located one of the Japanese harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru, inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Capt. Adam Meyerson, the skipper of the Ocean Warrior.

“The crews of the Ocean Warrior and the MV Steve Irwin have been battling through thick fog and ice to protect the whales in the Australian whale sanctuary,” Meyerson said in a news release. “The Yushin Maru was hiding behind an iceberg and came out on a collision course.

“Finding one of the hunter-killer ships hiding behind an iceberg in a thick fog means that the rest of the fleet is nearby,” he added. “We all hope to have whaling in the Southern Ocean shut down by Christmas.”

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