Category Archives: Marine mammals

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Amusing Monday: A quiz for you based on the ‘Puget Sound Fact Book’

Two years ago, I worked with a group of Puget Sound researchers and environmental writers to produce the “Puget Sound Fact Book” (PDF 27.6 mb) for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and Puget Sound Institute. The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a quick reference for anyone interested in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

I have pulled out some of the facts (with excerpts from the fact book) to create a 15-question quiz for this “Amusing Monday” feature. The answers and quotes from the book can be found below the quiz.

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth?

A. 300 feet
B. 600 feet
C. 900 feet
D. 1,200 feet

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago?

A. Vashon
B. Cascade
C. Blake
D. Olympia

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it?

A. Snohomish
B. Skagit
C. Skokomish
D. Puyallup

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 5 cubic miles
B. 10 cubic miles
C. 40 cubic miles
D. 80 cubic miles

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.)

A. Six
B. Eight
C. Ten
D. Twelve

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound?

A. 58 percent
B. 68 percent
C. 78 percent
D. 88 percent

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea?

A. 10
B. 20
C. 30
D. 40

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating?

A. Sharks
B. Squid
C. Plankton
D. Birds

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway?

A. Four
B. 12
C. 21
D. 28

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island?

A. 246 miles
B. 522 miles
C. 890 miles
D. 1,332 miles

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures?

A. 7 percent
B. 17 percent
C. 27 percent
D. 37 percent

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula?

A. 136
B. 236
C. 336
D. 436

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority?

A. 40 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 60 percent
D. 70 percent

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years?

A. Higher 24-hour rainfall totals
B. Higher peak flows in streams with more flooding
C. Α small change in annual rainfall totals
D. All of the above

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals?

A. Shellfish
B. Sharks
C. Salmon
D. Sea lions

Answers:

1. Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep. What is its greatest depth? Answer: C, 900 feet

“Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep, with the deepest spot near Point Jefferson in Kitsap County at more than 900 feet.”

2. It is said that Puget Sound was carved out by a series of glaciers. What was the name of the last ice glaciation some 15,000 years ago? Answer: A, Vashon

“Puget Sound, as we know it today, owes much of its size and shape to massive ice sheets that periodically advanced from the north, gouging out deep grooves in the landscape. The most recent glacier advance, about 15,000 years ago, reached its fingers beyond Olympia. The ice sheet, known as the Vashon glacier, was more than a half-mile thick in Central Puget Sound and nearly a mile thick at the Canadian border.”

3. One river is responsible for at least one-third of all the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound. What river is it? Answer: B, Skagit

“The annual average river flow into the Sound is about 1,174 cubic meters per second, and a third to a half of this comes from the Skagit River flowing into Whidbey Basin. It would take about 5 years for all the rivers flowing into the Sound to fill up its volume … “

4. How much water is contained in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all of the inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: C, 40 cubic miles

“Chesapeake Bay, which filled the immense valley of an ancient Susquehanna River, covers about 4,480 square miles — more than four times the area of Puget Sound (not including waters north of Whidbey Island). But Chesapeake Bay is shallow — averaging just 21 feet deep. In comparison, Puget Sound averages 205 feet deep… Consequently, Puget Sound can hold a more massive volume of water — some 40 cubic miles, well beyond Chesapeake Bay’s volume of 18 cubic miles.”

5. How many Washington counties have shorelines that front on Puget Sound, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waters around the San Juan Island? (That’s the definition of Puget Sound used by the Puget Sound Partnership.) Answer: D, twelve

“The Puget Sound coastal shoreline lies within 12 of Washington state’s 39 counties: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom. An additional two counties (Lewis County and Grays Harbor County) are also within the watershed basin, although they do not have Puget Sound coastal shorelines….”

6. What percentage of the total Washington state population lives in counties with shorelines on Puget Sound? Answer: B, 68 percent

“As of 2014, the 12 Puget Sound coastal shoreline counties accounted for 68 percent of the Washington State population — 4,779,172 out of 7,061,530, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

7. Puget Sound is part of the Salish Sea, which extends into Canada. How many marine mammals are considered by researchers to be “highly dependent” on habitats in the Salish Sea? Answer: C, 30 marine mammals

“Thirty-eight species of mammals depend on the Salish Sea. Of the 38 species of mammals that have been documented using the Salish Sea marine ecosystem, 30 are highly dependent, 4 are moderately dependent, and 4 have a low dependence on the marine or intertidal habitat and marine derived food when present.”

8. Three types of killer whales spend their lives in and around the Salish Sea. “Residents” specialize in eating chinook salmon, and “transients” specialize in eating marine mammals. What do the so-called “offshore” killer whales specialize in eating? Answer: A, sharks

“Three ecotypes of killer whales (Orcinus orca) can be found in the Salish Sea. These distinct population segments or designatable units are classified as fish-eating Residents (both the Northern and Southern Resident populations), marine-mammal-eating transients (West Coast Transients), and fish eaters that specialize in sharks called Offshore Killer Whales.”

9. Rockfish are a long-lived species that live in rocky areas of Puget Sound. How many species of rockfish can found in the waterway? Answer: D, 28 species

“The Puget Sound has 28 species of rockfish. Rockfish are known to be some of the longest lived fish of Puget Sound. Maximum ages for several species are greater than 50 years. The rougheye rockfish can live up to 205 years.”

10. What is the length of shoreline in the main basin of Puget Sound, which includes all inlets south of Whidbey Island? Answer: D, 1,332 miles

“The coastline around Puget Sound is 2,143 km (1,332 miles) long. It would take about 18 unceasing days and nights to walk the entire shoreline if it were passable — or legal — everywhere. Note: this distance refers to Puget Sound proper and does not include the San Juan Islands or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

11. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring disrupt the ecological functions of natural shorelines. What percentage of the Puget Sound shoreline is armored with man-made structures? Answer: C, 27 percent armored

“The amount of artificial shoreline has increased by 3,443 percent since the mid- to late-1800s. For example, shoreline armoring — such as bulkheads and riprap — has been constructed on an average 27 percent of the Puget Sound shoreline, but as high as 63 percent of the central Puget Sound shoreline.”

12. How many dams could be counted in 2006 in the greater Puget Sound region, including the Elwha dams on the Olympic Peninsula? Answer: D, 436 dams

“As of 2006, there were 436 dams in the Puget Sound watershed. Dams alter the water flow of rivers and trap sediment, which affect deltas and embayments at the mouths of these rivers and streams. For example, there was nearly 19 million cubic meters of sediment trapped behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River ¬ enough sediment to fill a football field to the height of the Space Needle more than 19 times.”

13. Puget Sound Partnership tracks the attitudes and values of Puget Sound residents. What percentage of the population believes that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an “urgent” priority? Answer: C, 60 percent

“A related, ongoing survey has been gauging the attitudes and values of individual Puget Sound residents, beginning with the first survey in 2008. Since the survey’s inception, more than 60 percent of the population has held to the belief that cleaning up the waters of Puget Sound is an ‘urgent’ priority.”

14. Climate change can be expected to result in significant changes in the Puget Sound region. Which of the following is something we are likely to see over the next 40 years? Answer: D, all of the above

“Projected changes in total annual precipitation are small (relative to variability) and show increases or decreases depending on models, which project a change of −2 % to +13 % for the 2050s (relative to 1970-1999) ….

“More rain in autumn will mean more severe storms and flooding. Annual peak 24-hour rainfall is projected to rise 4 to 30 percent (depending on greenhouse emissions levels) by the late 21st century. Hundred-year peak stream flows will rise 15 to 90 percent at 17 selected sites around Puget Sound. In the flood-prone Skagit Valley, the volume of the 100-year flood of the 2080s will surpass today’s by a quarter, and flooding and sea-level rise together will inundate 75 percent more area than flooding alone used to.

“At the other extreme, water will become scarcer in the spring and summer…. By the 2080s, average spring snowpack in the Puget Sound watershed is projected to decline 56 to 74 percent from levels 100 years earlier. The decline will reach 80 percent by the 2040s in the headwaters of the four rivers (the Tolt, Cedar, Green, and Sultan) serving the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett — reflecting the fact that their snowpacks are already very low, hence vulnerable. By the 2080s, April snowpack will largely disappear from all four watersheds, leaving Puget Sound’s major rivers low and dry in summer.”

15. Climate change also affects sea life through ocean acidification. Few species in seawater are expected to avoid impacts. Some of the greatest concerns are being expressed for which animals? Answer: A, shellfish

“Another factor has also made the Northwest a frontline for acidification: the importance of its shellfish industry, together with the special vulnerability of one key component, larval oysters. University of Washington researchers recently identified worrisome effects on other species with vital commercial or ecological importance. Acidification affects the ability of mussels to produce byssus, the tough adhesive threads that anchor them to their rocks against waves and surf — a life-and-death matter for a mussel. The native bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus) also loses byssal strength when water temperatures surpass 20 degrees C., whereas Mediterranean mussels (M. galloprovincialis) grow more byssus as the waters warm. This suggests a potential species succession, from native to introduced mussels, as Puget Sound becomes warmer and more acidic.

“Potentially more ecologically devastating are acidification’s effects on copepods and krill, small swimming crustaceans at the base of the marine food web….. Krill also inhabit deeper, more acidic waters than copepods, compounding their exposure. Their loss would be grievous for the fishes, seabirds and whales that depend on them.”

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Amusing Monday: Taking a wild ride on (or in) a killer whale or shark

I didn’t know anyone made a high-speed watercraft that resembles a killer whale until I saw Freeze List’s new video “8 Insane Water Toys that Everyone Must Try” (second video on this page).

This killer whale is built like a small aerodynamic submarine and is about the size of a real killer whale. It can race along on the surface, dive underwater, roll to the left or right, and even breach up into the air, as the operator adjusts aircraft-style controls.

The Killer Whale Y Model is one of three models of Seabreacher watercraft manufactured by Innespace Productions, based in New Zealand. The other two models are the smaller Shark X Model and the latest Dolphin Z Model, a revision of the first design.

If the videos of a speedy killer whale machine are not amusing enough, Seabreacher has produced a few oddball videos involving the watercraft. Check out the list at the end of this post.

The killer whale model is a two-seater with 360-degree viewing from within an enclosed canopy. It runs on a Rotax 1500-cc, four-stroke 260-horsepower motor. Features include a large whale tail, pectoral fins and a functioning blowhole.

As SeaWorld and other marine parks cease their killer whale performances — in which people often ride on the backs of live orcas — this manufactured whale can be built with grab handles and foot pegs to allow trained stunt people to do acrobatic feats on the outside of the machine.

Three years ago, writer Rohit Jaggi climbed into one of the Seabreacher cockpits on Shasta Lake near Redding, Calif. His goal was to write an article for the Financial Times of London. Riding with him was Rob Innes, a New Zealand boat builder who teamed up years ago with machinist Dan Piazza to create Innespace Productions.

“Drive it like you stole it,” Innes advised the reporter. “You can’t break it.”

“Obediently, I pull very hard on one of the two vertical levers in my hands, push on the other, and we switch instantly from a … straight line to a carving, steep turn to the left,” Rohit writes. “Keeping my right index finger tight on the trigger throttle, I reverse the positions of the levers and we are thrown into a tight right curve, banked so far over that water breaks over the transparent bubble canopy above our heads….

“I take a few minutes to dial my responses in, but it is not long before I am, indeed, driving it like I stole it… Rushing forward, planing on the lateral fins, I push the two levers forward and a wall of water rises swiftly up and over the canopy until the Seabreacher is underwater. All that remains above the surface is the midship-mounted vertical fin, which contains a snorkel for the engine air intake, slicing through the water at up to 40 kph.” (That’s about 25 miles per hour under water, or about half the maximum surface speed.)

The third video, at right, shows TV news reporter Avijah Scarbrough of KHSL in Los Angeles taking a spin on Shasta Lake, where Rob Innes has opened a division of Innespace.

Innespace Productions started in 1997 with a focus on high-performance submersible watercraft. More than 10 years of engineering and testing went into the Seabreacher models, which are custom built with a variety of options. Typical costs are between $80,000 and $100,000, according to “Frequently Asked Questions” posted on the company’s website.

One promotional video shows 109 different looks created for the three models, although some may have been shown more than once. I advise you to use the pause button to take a closer look at these machines. A large collection of related videos can be found on the Innespace Seabreacher Channel on YouTube.

A few amusing (or perhaps silly?) videos featuring the Seabreacher:

Bears have gathered for their annual feast at Alaska’s Brooks Falls

In plain view of one live camera, a bear waits patiently as leaping salmon fly all around. The bear is content to wait for for a big fish to leap into his paws or his mouth.

In front of another live camera, a group of bears forage downstream in the river, going underwater to get their salmon meal. One chews vigorously while standing upright in chest-deep water.

These are a couple of the scenes I’ve been watching this morning at the Brooks Falls overlook in Katmai National Park. I have never been to the national park, but I have enjoyed these live video feeds for years. It seems incredible that we can observe brown bears doing what they do naturally while remaining out of sight and hearing of the bears.

All four bear cams can be viewed at once from the Explore website. Scroll down the page to read comments from the camera operators and other folks watching remotely.

Park officials estimate that more than 100 bears use this mile-long stretch of Brooks River to feast on what they say is the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. These bears are part of a population of 2,200 that live in the park. It is said that bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula.

Another group of live webcams are poised to capture the movements of Northern Resident killer whales in Blackney Pass, one of the primary travel routes for the whales during the summer months. Again, scroll down to view comments. The cameras are coordinated by OrcaLab, Paul Spong’s research station on Hanson Island in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait.

For other critter cams, check out what I posted in April (Water Ways, April 24, 2017).

Can you identify these marine mammals seen in South Puget Sound?

Who the heck are these guys featured in this video posted on Facebook by meteorologist Nick Allard of KIRO-7 TV?

Pacific white-sided dolphins? Common dolphins? Dall’s porpoises? Harbor porpoises?

Based on the conflicting comments on Nick’s Facebook page, as well comments on reposts, a lot of people are insisting that they know what these animals are. But even some longtime Puget Sound residents got it wrong.

Annie Douglas of Cascadia Research took a look at the video, posted here with Nick’s permission. These creatures, she said, are long-beaked common dolphins.

Last summer, after these common dolphins first showed up, Annie wrote a blog post about their usual travels, noting that they are normally seen in Southern California and Mexico. It appears that they survived the winter a long way from home and have stayed in South Puget Sound, where Cascadia researchers are keeping track of their movements.

Rare long-beaked common dolphins have been spending time in South Puget Sound.
Photo courtesy of Nick Allard

They appear to be generally healthy, Annie said. She has heard reports of their feeding on small fish, and their energy level remains high as they “porpoise” out of the water and do other acrobatic feats.

Before this group showed up last year, the only previous confirmed sighting of long-beaked common dolphins was during the summer of 2003, when several individuals were seen in various locations, including the Boston Harbor area near Olympia, Dalco Passage near Tacoma and Whidbey Island.

Here’s how Annie describes the species:

“In appearance, they have a distinct black cape that extends into a saddle below their dorsal fin, a light underbelly, and a distinct dark eye to pectoral fin stripe. Their average length is 6-8.5 feet and they can weigh up to 500 lbs.

“They can be distinguished from harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise — the two species of porpoise commonly encountered in Puget Sound — by morphology, pigmentation, shape and behavior. Both porpoise species have fairly triangular dorsal fins, whereas the long-beaked common dolphin has a more ‘traditional’ falcate-shaped (curved) dorsal fin. Dall’s porpoise are all black with a white patch on their sides, and harbor porpoise are all gray-brown.

“Neither of the porpoise species expose much more than their back and dorsal fin when they surface, although Dall’s porpoise will often create a noticeable ‘rooster tail’ splash when swimming at top speed.

“Long-beaked common dolphins often leap out of the water so that much of their bodies are exposed, and they are also more likely to play in the wake of a boat than either of the local porpoise species. Pacific white-sided dolphins commonly found along Washington outer coast are occasionally found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They behave similar to the long-beaked common dolphin; however, they have a larger dorsal fin and more complicated black, gray and white pigmentation.”

Annie asks that people report sightings to Cascadia and send along any photos and videos to ABDouglas(at)cascadiaresearch.org. Sightings also can be reported by phone, (360) 943-7325.

Annie reminds boaters to stay at least 100 yards from marine mammals (200 yards for killer whales). It is illegal to harass, chase, feed or otherwise interfere with them, as provided by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Springer, once a lonely orphan, gives birth to her second baby orca

Springer, the killer whale, has borne a second calf some 15 years after she was rescued as a young orphan swimming alone near Vashon Island in Puget Sound.

Springer with her new calf in Canadian waters.
Photo: Lisa Spaven, DFO, Canada

Springer’s rescue and return to her family in British Columbia is one of the all-time-great orca stories. It was a privilege to be a news reporter in 2001 when I was able to break the news of the lonely orca and follow the rescue effort in Puget Sound.

After Springer was found swimming dangerously close to the Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry lanes, officials with NOAA Fisheries and other organizations put together a rescue plan. The young animal was identified as a member of the Northern Resident killer whales, a group that never comes as far south as Puget Sound. Experts believe that Springer’s mother had died and the young animal wandered all the way to Puget Sound.

Springer was captured and placed under medical care at NOAA’s Manchester Lab in South Kitsap. She gained weight and became healthier before she was moved by jet catamaran some 300 miles north to Telegraph Cove near the northern end of Vancouver Island, B.C. After her release, she was soon reunited with other members of her family, as later described in a NOAA video (posted on this page).

Orphan Orca, Saving Springer from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

“Springer’s story is an inspiration on many levels,” said Paul Spong of OrcaLab in a news release. “It proved that an orphan orca, alone and separated from her family, can be rehabilitated and returned to a normal productive life with her family and community; and it showed that disparate parties with diverse interests can come together and work together for the common goal of helping one little whale.”

Springer’s newest calf was spotted June 5 by folks at CetaceaLab on B.C.’s north central coast. The birth was confirmed by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Springer and her first calf Spirit, born in 2013, remain healthy, observers say. They are most often seen in northern British Columbia, visiting Johnstone Strait at times during in the summer.

News of the new birth comes just in time for the 15th anniversary celebration of Springer’s rescue. The event, called “Celebrate Springer,” will be held next weekend in Telegraph Cove. The public is invited to the festivities, including a slide show, “Springer’s Story,” Saturday at 11 a.m. featuring members of Springer’s rescue team. A panel discussion will follow. A new Telegraph Cove Whale Trail sign will be dedicated at 4 p.m., followed by a salmon dinner on the boardwalk at 5:30 p.m.

“We can hardly believe it has been 15 years since Springer was reunited with her family,” said Mary Borrowman, director of the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove. “The most exciting news is the confirmation that Springer has had another calf, and we hope we will be fortunate enough to see this famous mother with her family this summer.”

Lynne Barre of NOAA’s regional office in Seattle said partnerships developed during Springer’s rescue are enduring and demonstrate how federal agencies can work with state, tribal and nonprofit groups to help both Northern and Southern Resident killer whales.

“The Springer success story continues to be an inspiration for all of us working on conservation in the Salish Sea,” Barre said.

“Springer’s reunion is an unqualified success — the only project of its kind in history,” said Donna Sandstrom, director of The Whale Trail and co-organizer of the “Celebrate Springer” event. “To get the little whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as organizations, agencies and nations…. We hope her story inspires people to join us in working on issues facing our endangered Southern Resident orcas today, with the same urgency, commitment, and resolve.”

For additional information, check out the Springer Facebook page.

As much as Springer’s story is one of cooperation and success, her rescue will always be linked in my mind to the tragic death of Luna, another young orca who was orphaned at the same time.

Springer, as we’ve said, was born among the Northern Resident killer whales, which stay mostly in northern British Columbia. At the same time that Springer was lost and alone in Puget Sound, Luna, a Southern Resident, was lost and alone in Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, my initial report on the situation featured both young orcas in a front-page story in the Kitsap Sun. The coincidence of two orphans at once is next to unbelievable, considering that orphan killer whales are practically unheard of.

Much has been written about the failed rescue of Luna, which I covered at the time. A full-length documentary was later released by filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. See my review of “The Whale,” originally called “Saving Luna.”

Luna never made it back to his family. He eventually died after being sucked into the propeller of a powerful tugboat.

Before Luna’s death, Parfit wrote about Lunda for Smithsonian magazine. It was a story that I had pieced together over several weeks as a series of newspaper stories. Mike and Suzanne stayed around Nootka Sound to obtain a fuller story for their film.

The greatest lesson from the Luna story may be similar to the one we learned from Springer, that cooperation is the key and that every detail must be considered before the rescue begins.

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.

Erlands Point family thrilled during orca encounter in Dyes Inlet

It was the thrill of a lifetime when a group of killer whales headed directly toward the Johnson family sitting in their boat on Dyes Inlet. The screams of delight leave no doubt, as you can see and hear from one of the best orca videos I’ve viewed in quite a while.

It was Wednesday evening this week, and the Johnsons had just put their 23-foot runabout in the water for the first time this summer. The family lives on Erlands Point in Dyes Inlet, and it seemed like a good idea to drive the boat over to the Bremerton Marina for dinner at Bremerton Bar and Grill, Julie Johnson told me.

On the way home, the boat was passing under the Manette Bridge when the group spotted the orcas. Aboard the boat were nine people: Julie and her husband Dr. Jerrold Johnson, their five kids, a nephew and a friend.

The boat passed the whales at a safe distance, Julie told me, then the boat slowed to a stop and the motor was turned off.

“They were coming in our direction, and then they turned and started coming right at us,” Julie recalled. “It was a little intimidating.”

Just before the whales reached the boat, they turned sharply and crossed behind the stern.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “We all came home filled with excitement. We felt very lucky.”

Interestingly, the couple recently took a cruise in Alaska, thinking they would see killer whales. The only sighting was a group of whales far off in the distance.

As for Wednesday night, the boats on Dyes Inlet seemed to be keeping a safe distance from the whales, Julie said.

On Thursday, reports of boat traffic around the orcas were mixed, and Susan Berta of Orca Network said she received some emails with photos of boats that may have been violating the law. She forwarded the photos to federal law enforcement officers.

Federal law requires boaters to stay 200 yards to the sides of killer whales and more than 400 yards to the front.
Graphic: Be Whale Wise

“We kept getting complaints,” Susan said. “It is hard to tell from photos. One showed a boat that may have been close but was stopped. Some cases involved speedboats under full power following the whales and paralleling them close. It’s always hard to tell distances.”

When people are watching from shore, it is especially hard to tell how close the boats are to the whales, Susan said. It may look like boats are swarming around the whales when they may be at a safe distance.

People who have concerns about boater behavior can file a report directly by filling out a form on the Be Whale Wise website. The form goes to enforcement officers for NOAA Fisheries. One can also call the toll-free hotline, (800) 853-1964.

Federal regulations prohibit boat operators from approaching killer whales closer than 200 yards or to position a vessel in the path of a killer whale within 400 yards. A chart explaining the rules (PDF 8 mb) can be downloaded from the Be Whale Wise website.

The whales in Dyes Inlet this week were identified as marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales, probably part of a group of 30 to 50 transients spread around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands starting on Tuesday, the Fourth of July.

The orcas in Puget Sound appeared to be at least four different family groups, according to Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale sighting coordinator for Orca Network. At least half a dozen orcas came into Dyes Inlet on Wednesday, she said, including an older female (T-36) and her daughter (T-36-B) plus the offspring of her daughter. Other identifications will probably come later. Yesterday, another group (the T99s) were seen among the whales.

When whales come into Dyes Inlet, good viewing locations from shore include Bremerton’s Lions Park when they are coming in or going out. If they stay around, you may be able to spot them from Tracyton or Chico boat launches or from Silverdale Waterfront Park.