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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Archive for the ‘Marine mammals’ Category

K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

Monday, April 14th, 2014

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.


International court rules against Japanese whaling

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Japanese whalers who hunt whales in the Antarctic can no longer justify their actions as “scientific research” and must stop their annual whale roundup, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

The court ruled today that Japan’s so-called “research” does not meet ordinary scientific standards. The court ordered Japan to stop killing whales under the guise of its research program, called JARPA II. As stated in a 73-page finding (PDF 649 kb) supported by 12 of the 16 judges:

“Taken as a whole, the Court considers that JARPA II involves activities that can broadly be characterized as scientific research, but that the evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.

“The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not ‘for purposes of scientific research’ pursuant to Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the Convention (the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling).”

In the legal action brought before the United Nations court by Australia, the judges carefully scrutinized the JARPA II methods and procedures. They found that the sampling procedure and lethal take of minke, fin and humpback whales falls short of legitimate scientific study in many regards:

“The fact that the actual take of fin and humpback whales is largely, if not entirely, a function of political and logistical considerations, further weakens the purported relationship between JARPA II’s research objectives and the specific sample size targets for each species — in particular, the decision to engage in the lethal sampling of minke whales on a relatively large scale.”

A news release (PDF 174 kb) issued by the court does a fair job of summarizing the findings:

“Examining Japan’s decisions regarding the use of lethal methods, the court finds no evidence of any studies of the feasibility of or the practicability of non-lethal methods, either in setting the JARPA II sample sizes or in later years in which the programme has maintained the same sample size targets. The court also finds no evidence that Japan examined whether it would be feasible to combine a smaller lethal take and an increase in non-lethal sampling as a means to achieve JARPA II’s research objectives.”

After the ruling, Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s representative at the court, addressed reporters at the Peace Palace in The Hague. According to a report by Australian Associated Press, Tsuruoka stated:

“Japan regrets and is deeply disappointed that JARPA II … has been ruled by the court as not falling within the provisions of Article 8. However, as a state that respects the rule of law, the order of international law and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the decision of the court.”

He said Japanese officials would need to digest the judgment before considering a future course of action. He refused to discuss whether a new research program could be crafted to allow whaling to resume.

Australian officials were careful not to gloat over the victory as they emphasized the need to maintain favorable relations with Japan. Bill Campbell, Australia’s general counsel in the case, was quoted by the AAP:

“The decision of the court today, important as it is, has given us the opportunity to draw a line under the legal dispute and move on.”

The ruling was welcomed by environmental groups, including Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sent ships to the Antarctic to directly confront the whaling ships and interfere with their whaling activities, as seen on the television show “Whale Wars.” Capt. Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global had this to say in a news release:

“With today’s ruling, the ICJ has taken a fair and just stance on the right side of history by protecting the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the vital marine ecosystem of Antarctica, a decision that impacts the international community and future generations. Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books.”


Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

Friday, March 21st, 2014

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, is asking federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the death of L-112, a young female orca who died two years ago of mysterious causes.

Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb

Ken maintains that an underwater “blast” remains the mostly likely cause of death for the whale, who was known as Sooke — or Victoria, as Ken originally named her.

A draft final report (PDF 2.3 mb) by the National Marine Fisheries Service, dated Feb. 24, states that “blunt trauma to the head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”

See Water Ways, Feb. 25, for a discussion of the final report and links to other stories.

The official investigation could find no military operations in the area off the Washington/Oregon coast, where the young whale was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012. In looking for a cause of the trauma, the report essentially rules out several underwater explosions set off by the Canadian Navy a week before, on Feb. 4, 5 and 6 off Vancouver Island. These activities occurred too far north — and prevailing winds and currents were in the opposite direction, according to the report.

But Ken Balcomb argues that the report fails to fully consider how L-112 could have ended up south of these military exercises. Currents are not certain, he said. They can change, and eddies can even flow in the opposite direction from prevailing currents. Ken also raises the prospect that a dead or dying orca calf could be carried a great distance by other members of the pod.

“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario, rather than one that may be more realistic,” he wrote to NMFS, the federal agency in charge of protecting marine mammals.

Ken’s 12 pages of comments (PDF 1.1 mb) address numerous statements in the report, and here are a few:

On the brain:

Report: “The absence of right cerebral hemisphere and right cerebellum of the brain was secondary to loss of tissue during disarticulation of the head. Significance is uncertain based on imaging alone, but unilateral loss of brain tissue is unusual.”

Ken’s comment: “UNUSUAL! The right cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed and there was evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings of brain damage from a blast impact. The observation is consistent with blast trauma.”

On the ear bones:

Report: “The CT results showed no evidence of bone fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones. These results do not conflict with gross observations and the proposed cause of acute or peracute death by blunt force trauma; however, blast- or seismic-related injuries cannot be
entirely discounted.”

Ken’s comment: ”Upon gross dissection both tympanic bullae were found to be dislocated from their fragile bony pedestals anchoring them to the cranium. While it may be accurate to say that no evidence of fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones on the CT scans, it is misleading to infer that no damage was evident to the ears (see page 11 of Necropsy report).”

On possible attack by another marine animal:

Report: “The primary signs of injury reported from aggressive attacks are rake marks, musculoskeletal and/or intra tissue trauma (bruising, tearing) attributed to ramming and sometimes death. Contrary to the cases reported in the literature, L-112 was a juvenile animal (older and larger than a calf or neonate), and the examiners did not document tooth rake marks associated with the signs of hemorrhage they observed during the gross examination. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that L-112 suffered injuries from an aggressive attack, such as ramming, by a larger animal.”

Ken’s comment: “The presumed hypothesis suggested by the last sentence is absolutely preposterous, given the evidence of a massive single traumatic event causing the mortal injury. To not rule out the attack hypothesis while ruling out blast trauma is ludicrous.”

On currents:

Report: “Because of prevailing currents and eddies it is unlikely that L-112 died in Canadian waters or the Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted south, but instead likely died in the Columbia River plume or farther to the south along the coast of Oregon. Given the state of decomposition at the time of stranding the body was either carried by eddies for several days or may have drifted a substantial distance from the south before being trapped by the eddies and cast ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula.”

Ken’s comment:
“The drift patterns can be quite different from year to year, as well as from season to season, or even week to week. It is regrettable that drifters were not deployed near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in February 2012. There was a NOAA cruise in these waters at that time, and I asked the chief scientist to deploy drifters or some identifiable devices to ascertain the real time drift pattern at that time. One can surmise from the temperature regimes that were documented real-time that there was an anomalous cold water regime moving in a southerly direction in February 2012, but there were no current measurements.”

On the possibility of transport by another orca

Ken’s comment:
“I further request that the investigation team thoughtfully consider the relevant cetacean epimeletic behavior … (He mentions two studies.) Hoyt (1981) in ‘Orca, the Whale Called killer” on page 92 states: ‘Among cetaceans, and especially the dolphin family (including orca), care-giving behavior to sick or wounded family members seems exemplary. Moby Doll was supported by members of his family after he was harpooned in 1964. On another occasion off the B.C. coast, a young killer whale was hit by a government ferry boat, the propeller accidentally slashing its back. The ferry captain stopped the boat and watched a male and a female supporting the bleeding calf. Fifteen days later, two whales supporting a third – presumably the same group — were observed at the same place.’”

Ken concludes his remarks with this: “These comments are dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate mother/offspring pair of whales I have ever seen. Rest in peace, L112. We miss you.”


Mystery of L-112′s death may never be solved

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It appears we’ll never know what killed L-112, known as Victoria or Sooke, found dead at 3 years old, after she washed up on an ocean beach in Southwest Washington.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February 2012, and the cause of her death remains a mystery.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

If you recall from two years ago, much speculation swirled around the notion that the female orca was killed by military operations, such as sonar or an explosion. The Royal Canadian Navy confirmed the use of sonar and small underwater detonations west of Vancouver Island. But that was far from Long Beach, where the orca washed up, and ocean currents suggest she was killed even farther south. For a quick history, see Water Ways from Feb. 18, 2012, followed by an entry on May 16, 2012.

The latest report concludes, as early ones did, that L-112 died from “blunt force trauma.” But the cause of the trauma could not be determined. No sonar activity or explosions were identified in the area where her death probably occurred, although a physical examination was not able to totally rule out those causes.

A new bit of information emerges from the long-term acoustic recorders that listen for sounds off the coast. Calls identified as coming from L pod were reported near Point Reyes in California on Jan. 30, off Westport in Washington on Feb. 5, and near Newport in Oregon on Feb. 20. L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11 after floating for several days. It appears likely that the young whale was with her pod at the time of her death.

As the report states:

“This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the source of the blunt trauma despite gathering and evaluating all available information on the whales, the environment, and human activities. We evaluated the sighting history of the whales to provide insight into the circumstances of the stranding.

“Autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California indicated that the main group of L Pod, possibly including L-112, was off California in late January, heading north, and possibly off Westport, Washington in the first week of February and detected near Newport, Oregon after the stranding…

“A major source of trauma from sonar, explosives, or a seismic event would likely have affected multiple individuals traveling together as killer whales are known to do. All other members of L-112’s family group were sighted following L-112’s stranding. No other members of the L4 sub-group were reported missing, injured, or stranded between the time of the L-112 stranding and the summer of 2012.

“This observation leads us to believe that the trauma suffered by L-112 was likely borne individually and was not an event that covered a large area or that directly impacted the young whale’s most likely traveling companions in the L4 sub-group. For these reasons, we do not believe that L-112 succumbed to blast injuries or exposure to other high intensity sound.”

So was L-112 struck by a ship? Did she encounter another aggressive whale or large shark? Or was she hit by another unknown force or object? We’ll probably never know, as the mystery goes on and on and people continue to ask, “Who killed L-112?”

To review a copy of the report, go to the website “Wild Animal Mortality Investigation: Southern Resident Killer Whale L112 Final Report.”

Reporter Phuong Le covered the story today for The Associated Press.


Attack by orcas scatter dolphins near Nanaimo

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

John Buchanan of Squamish, British Columbia, was in the right place at the right time when a group of transient killer whales mixed it up with hundreds of fleeing white-sided dolphins.

John said it appeared that the orcas had formed a line to herd the dolphins into shallow water in Departure Bay near Nanaimo.

“The only way they could escape was going through the orcas,” he told me. “I was wondering if they would swim right into the ferry. The ferry may have made the escape a little narrower for them.”

John happened to be on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay on Vancouver Island when the wild encounter occurred on Monday.

“I was just traveling on the ferry to meet someone at Nanaimo,” said Buchanan, who is active in the environmental groups, including Squamish Stream Keepers. “I always have my camera close by.

“We were just coming into Departure Bay. Someone spotted the orcas, then the water just exploded with all these dolphins in the bay. The orcas had them pinned in.

“I bet there was all kinds of action going on under the water,” he said. “It was spectacular, especially when one orca was breaking in one direction and another was breaking in the other direction.”

John recorded that exciting shot of a double breach on his camera, which you can see toward the end of the video.

Later, he was informed by a biologist at Vancouver Aquarium that breaching is often how the whales celebrate a kill. Although he noticed a lot of chasing at the time, he never spotted any dead or dying dolphins nor was any blood in the water.

John posted the video on YouTube on Monday, the same day he recorded the dramatic encounter. As of this morning, the number of views was approaching 100,000.

CBC News posted the video on its webpage, and John has been approached by people who would like to purchase the footage, but he plans to keep it available for public viewing.

“I’ll never see anything like that again,” he said.

At my suggestion, John sent photos to Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. Ken reported that the orcas included T-100s. According to the book “Transients” by John Ford and Graeme Ellis, they are a group of killer whales seen mainly in Southeast Alaska.


Amusing Monday: Animal antics and football feats

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I’m sharing a silly animal video with you today in honor of Eli, the orangutan who successfully predicted the Seattle Seahawks’ win in yesterday’s Super Bowl.

The video at right is a compilation from the BBC’s TV series “Walk on the Wild Side,” which first aired in 2009. If you would like to see more, there’s a second compilation, “Animal Crackers 2,” as well as a collection of short segments in “The Inspiration Room.”

As for the Super Bowl prediction, it can be seen in the second video. As you may observe, Eli, who lives in the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, ran over and decisively knocked down a blue paper-mache helmet bearing a Seahawks logo. He ignored the orange helmet representing the Denver Broncos.

Eli has now correctly predicted the Super Bowl winner seven times in a row without missing yet. That’s a record that the harbor seals in Connecticut’s Maritime Aquarium can only hope to match. They have now picked the wrong team three times in a row.

Orange, the name of one harbor seal who participated in the selection, may have chosen the Broncos’ colors to match his name. But anyone who has spent any time around harbor seals knows how unreliable they can be. Check out the video of the seals trying to predict a winner with a couple footballs and associated team colors.

For more animal predictions, review the piece by Time magazine, which gives you an idea how little puppies, pandas and manatees know about football.


Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.


View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”


Will ‘endangered’ status change Lolita’s plight?

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

The legal stage was already set for Lolita, the last killer whale from Puget Sound to survive in captivity.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Putting Lolita on the Endangered Species List, along with her wild relatives who were already listed, follows a pattern established over the past decade, going back to a 2001 court ruling about salmon. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service intends to include Lolita among the listed Southern Resident killer whales. See “Petition to list the killer whale known as Lolita….”

But what the endangered designation will mean for Lolita herself is yet to be seen and is likely to be the subject of further legal battles.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed the petition along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, hailed the latest decision by NMFS. The group said in a news release that the decision “opened the door to the eventual release of Lolita.”

Jarred Goodman, who handled the case for PETA, told me that it is PETA’s belief that holding Lolita in a small tank at Miami Seaquarium constitutes “harm and harassment,” which are violations of the Endangered Species Act.

After NMFS completes changes to the listing, PETA has several options, he said, although he is not authorized to discuss specific strategies. Calling on NMFS to take action on behalf of Lolita or filing a citizen lawsuit are among them.

Nothing in the NMFS findings would change anything for Lolita, however. The bottom line is that NMFS could find no legal justification in the Endangered Species Act (PDF 147 kb) or related court decisions for separating the captive orca from wild Southern Residents when it comes to identifying which ones are at risk of extinction.

As NMFS stated in the Federal Register (PDF 273 kb):

“While the ESA authorizes the listing, delisting, or reclassification of a species, subspecies, or DPS (distinct population segment) of a vertebrate species, it does not authorize the exclusion of the members of a subset or portion of a listed species, subspecies, or DPS from a listing decision….

“The ESA does not support the exclusion of captive members from a listing based solely on their status as captive. On its face, the ESA does not treat captives differently. Rather, specific language in Section 9 and Section 10 of the ESA presumes their inclusion in the listed entity, and captives are subject to certain exemptions to Section 9.”

In other words, the original decision not to include captive killer whales in the population at risk of extinction was a mistake.

In finding that Lolita is part of the endangered population, NMFS noted that agency officials agreed with a 2001 court ruling in which a judge determined that hatchery salmon should be considered part of the salmon population at risk of extinction.

Following that logic, the NMFS included captive fish in the listing of endangered smalltooth sawfish and endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year that captive chimpanzees should be included among the wild population listed as endangered.

The ESA does allow captive animals to be treated differently, provided they were in captivity at the time of the listing and “that such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the fish or wildlife was not in the course of a commercial activity.”

For Lolita, NMFS has stated that continued possession of captive animals does not require a permit under ESA and that Lolita can continue to be managed under the Animal Welfare Act. (See “Questions and answers …”)

Advocates for Lolita say NMFS may not have taken a position on Lolita, given the latest findings. The notice only says that holding an endangered animal in captivity is not a violation of the ESA per se.

I’ll continue to follow the case as it moves forward. Meanwhile, here are some past of my past observations about Lolita in Water Ways:

April 24, 2013: Lolita, the captive orca, could gain endangerd status

Oct. 24, 2012: Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

Nov. 20, 2011: Legal actions swirl around orcas Morgan and Lolita

Aug. 8, 2010: Thinking of Lolita, the captive killer whale

July 15, 2010: Lolita’s fate could become linked to Gulf disaster


Amusing Monday: Mermaids are called to the job

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Movies about mermaids — notably “Splash” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” — apparently inspired a bunch of little girls who wished to become mermaids themselves. For some, the feeling never went away. And for a select few, the idea of being a mermaid has grown into a full-time occupation.

Perhaps the most impressive of these professional mermaids is Mermaid Melissa, whose training and job skills include actress, animal trainer, scuba diver and professional free diver. She is able to hold her breath for more than four minutes while swimming, which adds reality to her underwater performances as a mermaid.

The first video on this page shows Melissa swimming with fishes and marine mammals. The background music gives this video a surreal quality. (It is a little longer than I would prefer.)

But if you want to learn about the journey of the girl who would become a mermaid, check out the second video, or read her brief autobiography on her website, mermaidmelissa.com. Melissa’s blog also features some interesting videos and commentary, including her decision to legally change her name to “Mermaid Melissa” at the end of last year.

A new video by singer/song writer Sean Dennison features Melissa as the subject of the song “Mermaid.” Click on the last video at the bottom of this page.

Other professional mermaids, all with their own interesting stories, include:

And if those are not enough mermaids for you, check out MerPalooza, the international mermaid convention held the past two years in Tampa.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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