Category Archives: Boaters, shippers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offshore killer whales gain attention from Canadian government

The Canadian government is calling attention to the special needs of offshore killer whales in a new document, “Recovery Strategy for the Offshore Killer Whale in Canada (PDF 3.8 mb).”

Report

Offshores are a mysterious, little-understood group of orcas that roam the West Coast. They are related to the more familiar resident and transient killer whales, but they are genetically, physically and socially distinct. The name “offshore” sort of tells the story; they often remain miles off the coast, out of sight and out of mind for most researchers as well as the public.

Scientists cannot tell us if their population is increasing or decreasing, though it appears to be generally stable. It is not clear whether human activities are disrupting their behaviors. And without good data, these animals remain in a kind of limbo status, while the highly studied Southern Residents of Puget Sound remain solidly on the Endangered Species List with widespread concerns about their welfare.

While it is true that regulations protecting Southern Residents also protect offshores to a degree, more studies are needed to ensure the future of these unique orcas. As the new recovery strategy points out:

“Offshore killer whales face both anthropogenic and natural threats, limitations or vulnerabilities, including reductions in prey availability; contaminant exposure from prey; spills of substances harmful to the marine environment; acute and chronic acoustic disturbance; physical disturbance; interactions with commercial fisheries and aquaculture; direct killing; climate change; disease agents; fixed dietary preferences and natural decreases in prey supply; inbreeding depression; tooth wear; and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

“The small population size and typically large groupings of offshores makes the population particularly vulnerable to stochastic events.”

Whale watchers aboard the Manute’a in Southern California experienced an amazing encounter with offshore killer whales in 2012. Some have questioned whether the boat's skipper was too close.

Offshores were first identified in Canadian waters in 1988. Since then, they have been confirmed in about 240 sightings in the U.S. and Canada, and their population has been estimated at roughly 300 animals. Although the full extent of their range remains a mystery, they seem to have moved to inland waters more frequently in recent years. The report notes:

“Although it is thought that their seemingly recent presence in inshore waters may reflect a shift associated with oceanographic conditions and/or distribution of prey, the data are also confounded by gradually increasing survey effort and public interest.”

Like the resident killer whales (Southern and Northern Residents), the offshores appear to be primarily fish eaters, with a specialization in eating sharks. They are known to prey on Pacific sleeper sharks, blue sharks, North Pacific spiny dogfish, chinook salmon and Pacific halibut — with sharks making up a significant portion of their diet.

Sharks are a good source of the fats needed for the high metabolism of orcas, but sharks live longer and tend to contain more contaminants. Consequently, offshores tend to have higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants than salmon-eating residents. Studies have revealed that PCB levels appear to be closer to those of transient orcas, which eat marine mammals. Offshores have significantly higher concentrations of DDT and PBDEs (toxic flame retardants) than either residents or transients. From the report:

“A high DDT to PCB ratio is found in offshores, characteristic of waters and sediments off the California Coast, where DDT comprises a more significant portion of contaminants and where prey may be exposed to elevated concentrations of contaminants relative to higher latitude waters; this shared characteristic ratio is thought to be an indication of offshore killer whales’ frequent occurrence off California.

“There are many sources of these persistent substances, often from urban and agriculture runoff, along the West Coast of North America. Runoff
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large urban centers…”

“Of particular concern is offshore killer whales’ apparent targeting of the liver of at least one of their preferred prey, the Pacific sleeper shark. The liver is a lipid-rich meal, but is also a reservoir of heavy metals. All three shark species known to be consumed by offshores have a high mercury content, likely increasing the severity of heavy metal consumption and accumulation in offshore killer whales.

“Killer whales are thought to have evolved the ability to detoxify heavy metals such as mercury; however, it is unknown whether detoxification in offshore killer whales functions effectively enough to deal with their apparent diet preference for livers from intermediate-to-high trophic level prey, and exposure to an elevated contaminant environment.”

While shark populations along the West Coast appear to be stable at the moment, the number of sharks may have been greater historically, according to the report. In addition, basking sharks may have been an important prey source historically, and a steep decline in basking sharks may have affected the offshore orca population.

One of the greatest risks to the offshores is a spill of oil or other harmful substances. Killer whales have no sense of smell and make no apparent effort to avoid spills. The report notes:

“As described previously, the threat of oil spills and discharges holds risk for offshore killer whales, due to their grouping behavior. With multiple current proposals involving increased marine transport of petroleum products and other hazardous substances to and from British Columbia, an increase in large vessel traffic (e.g. tankers) in these waters heightens the risk of potential spills of substances harmful to the marine environment, and to offshores and their prey.”

Another significant risk is disease among offshore killer whales. Their high toxic loads can reduce their immune response, and their highly social nature increases the risk of disease exposure. According to the report:

“This highly social nature heightens the risk of rapid, pervasive infection and pathogen dispersal throughout the entire population… With an extensive geographic range adjacent to many large urban centers and intensive agricultural activity, offshore killer whales are exposed to numerous sources of emerging pathogens particularly near river and runoff outlets, where concentrations of infectious agents may be introduced into the marine environment.”

Offshore killer whales also are known to have extreme tooth wear, probably caused by their preference for eating sharks with their sandpaper-like skins. In some cases, teeth are worn to the gum line, which could open a route of exposure for infection.

Other risks include noise generated from human operations, including military sonar and seismic surveys, as well as chronic noise from shipping operations. Because of the close grouping among offshores, noise is likely to disrupt their feeding and social behavior.

The Canadian report articulates recovery strategies, primarily focused on learning more about the needs and threats to offshores — including studies on their population and cultural attributes, prey availability and toxic exposure, and response to various types of noise.

Comments will be taken on the new report until April 27. For information, go to Offshore Killer Whale Recovery Strategy.

In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any special stock status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused study.

New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).

Journal

The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.

Map

The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Amusing Monday: Super Bowl commercials offer voices from the past

Suzanne Vranica of the Wall Street Journal thought she noticed a trend in this year’s Super Bowl TV commercials. More of them, she said, seemed to be “sobering and heartfelt” rather than funny.

Maybe so, but some of the ads were funny. At our house, we got the biggest kick out of Liam Neeson playing Clash of Clans, an ad for the mobile video game by Supercell.

But I noticed another minor trend among the commercials: the use of historical voice-overs connected to meaningful images. It began with the first commercial after the game started. That ad, for Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines, seems especially appropriate for this blog, because it deals with the human connection to the ocean.

We hear President John F. Kennedy’s voice as he talks about our connection to the sea:

“We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch —we are going back from whence we came.”

The commercial contains wonderful images, as you can see in the first video on this page. The second video shows Kennedy giving that speech at a 1962 dinner in Newport, R.I, where the president spoke about the America’s Cup Challenge. It was the year Sir Frank Packer became the first Australian challenger for the cup, with his crew aboard the 12-meter yacht Gretel. The dinner was given by the Australian ambassador. A transcript of the speech is available from the website of the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Fitting with Kennedy’s tone, I found “41 quotes about the ocean that will make you want to live on the beach forever.” The inspiring quotes were pulled together by writer Catie Pendergast for the blog “Thought Catalog.”

The commercial for Carnival apparently was selected from among five contenders in an online contest to determine which video would be played during the Super Bowl. The runners-up were also pretty good:

The voice-over approach was continued in the first quarter in a Toyota commercial featuring Amy Purdy, the celebrity who lost her legs to meningitis when she was 19. Amy’s father donated a kidney so she could survive. She then went on to compete in snowboarding in the Paralympics, perform in movies and on television, and take second place in Season 18 of “Dancing with the Stars.”

The commercial shows Amy running, snowboarding and dancing, but especially driving a Toyota. The company claims on its website that “our story is about much more than our vehicles.”

The voice you hear on the video is Muhammad Ali, talking about his upcoming boxing match with George Foreman in 1974. You can see him talking in the fourth video on this page, which offers a dark shot of the speech that some call his greatest ever.

There was another voice-over in a commercial for NO MORE, a campaign against domestic violence by the Joyful Heart Foundation. The audio comes from an actual 911 call, which speaks for itself. The version played during the Super Bowl was 30 seconds long, but I’ve posted the longer 60-second version, because it contains a more accurate editing of the call.

If you’d like to view any or all the Super Bowl commercials, arranged in order, go to iSpot’s “Super Bowl Ad Center.”

County officials identify 18 problem boats; three considered ‘derelict’

A two-day survey of Kitsap County’s shoreline identified 90 boats moored on buoys, at anchor or aground — and 18 of them were found to have some kind of problem, according to Richard Bazzell of the Kitsap Public Health District.

Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program. Photo: Department of Natural Resources
Contractors demolish an old boat turned in as part of a new state program.
Photo: Department of Natural Resources

The survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, is considered a key step in Kitsap County’s new Derelict Vessel Prevention Program, which I described in a Kitsap Sun story (subscription) last May. The idea is to identify neglected vessels that could pose a risk of sinking if not given some attention.

Of the 18 vessels with problems, three were declared “derelict” boats with a high risk of sinking or polluting the water, based on criteria developed by the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Owners of those boats will get an official warning, and the state could take control of the boats if the owners fail to make them seaworthy.

Richard told me that he has the greatest concern for a 30-foot power boat moored in Port Gamble Bay. The other two boats are sailboats. Because of their condition, they could be considered illegal dumping and managed under the county’s solid-waste regulations, as well as under the state’s derelict vessels laws, he said.

For the other boats needing attention, the approach will be a friendly reminder, Richard told me. Ten of the 18 boats were unregistered, which is an early sign of neglect for boats in the water. Other problems range from deteriorating hulls to weak lines to excessive algae growth. The greatest concerns are that the boats will spill toxic chemicals, such as fuel, or create a navigational hazard for other boats.

It was encouraging to find a relatively small number of boats with problems, Richard said.

“We were expecting to run into a lot more problems,” he noted. “Surprisingly, we didn’t, and that is a good thing.”

The county will offer technical assistance to help boat owners figure out what to do, and educational workshops could provide general maintenance information.

Boats with the most significant problems were found in these Kitsap County embayments: Yukon Harbor in South Kitsap; Dyes and Sinclair inlets in Central Kitsap; and Liberty Bay, Appletree Cove and Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap.

This week’s survey covered about 250 miles of county shoreline, where the health district’s efforts are funded with a state grant. Excluded are military bases, where private mooring is not allowed, and Bainbridge Island, where the city’s harbormaster is conducting similar work under the state grant.

The overall $250,000 grant for the prevention program is being coordinated by Marc Forlenza, who developed a procedure proven to be successful in San Juan County. Marc credits Joanruth Bauman, who operated the derelict vessel program in San Juan County, as being the brainchild of the prevention program.

Money for the prevention program came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The grant is managed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Seven counties, including San Juan and Kitsap, are involved in the regional effort. The other counties are King, Pierce, Snohomish, Mason and Jefferson. Thurston County is covered by the Pierce County grant.

Some counties have been up and running for months. Others, including Kitsap, are a little slow because of contract complications. San Juan County contracted with Kitsap County, which then contracted with the health district and Bainbridge Island. Those last contracts were approved earlier this month.

The whole idea, Marc said, is to work with boat owners to keep the vessels from becoming derelict in the first place. If boat owners can take care of the problems, it costs the county and state almost nothing. Once declared derelict, government officials are forced to spend money in an effort to keep boats from sinking.

When a boat sinks, Marc said, the cost of dealing with the problem rises 10-fold, and the resulting pollution can destroy marine life.

In San Juan County, early action on problem boats has reduced the cost of dealing with derelict vessels from $76,000 in 2012 to $23,000 in 2013 to zero in 2014, he said. That doesn’t include vessels taken by the Washington Department of Natural Resources under the new Voluntary Turn-In Program, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Marc has a good way of dealing with people. He seems to understand the needs and challenges of boat ownership, and he tries to nudge people in the right direction.

“You have to take time to talk to boat owners,” he explained. “I call it ‘boat psychology.’ Some of these people have held onto their boats for 20, 30 or 40 years. They have loved their boat. When I talk to them, some will say, ‘I guess it’s time to let ol’ Betsy go,’ while others will say, ‘Over my dead body.’”

For the latter group, Marc drives home the fact that a boat owner may be held criminally liable for maintaining a derelict boat — and the Attorney General’s Office is now prosecuting such cases. Beyond that, an owner may be held financially responsible if a boat sinks — including the cost of raising the boat along with any natural resource damages caused by pollution.

“That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases,” he said. “You try to appeal to people’s better sense.”

In Kitsap County, people who see a boat listing or potentially sinking should call 911. For nonemergency conditions, one can call Kitsap One, 360-337-5777, except for Bainbridge Island where people should call Harbormaster Tami Allen at 206-786-7627. Additional information and phone numbers for other counties can be found on a Puget Sound Partnership webpage.

The DNR’s Vessel Turn-In Program gives some people a way to take action with little cost. To qualify, boats must be less than 45 feet long and have practically no value. The owner must lack the means to repair or dispose of the boat. If approved by DNR, the owner must drive or tow the vessel to a disposal location and turn over ownership to the state. For details, check out the DNR’s website on the Vessel Turn-In Program.

Since the turn-in program started last May, DNR has disposed 19 boats, with another five lined up for disposal, according to Joe Smillie of the agency. The Legislature provided $400,000 for the new turn-in program, which is separate from the larger Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

The removal program targets vessels at risk of sinking. In emergencies, DNR or local agencies can take immediate action, but normally the owner is given at least 30 days to move or repair the vessel.

Since 2002, DNR has removed about 550 abandoned vessels throughout the state. About 150 others have been tagged as “vessels of concern.”

In 2014 alone, 40 vessels were removed, including the sunken Helena Star. The Helena Star was raised from Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway and salvaged at a cost of $1.16 million, requiring special funding from the Legislature. The owner of the vessel was later charged with a crime.

See the Washington Department of Ecology’s Helena Star website and other information from the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

Coast Guard seeks help in finding radio hoaxer

The Coast Guard is asking for help in tracking down one or more people who placed three emergency radio calls about two weeks ago. The calls turned out to be a hoax, but they resulted in emergency responses that cost more than $200,000.

Lilliwaup

The first call was placed on VHF-FM radio channel 14 about 11 p.m. on May 31, according to Coast Guard reports. The caller told the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service that five people were donning life jackets and abandoning the fishing vessel Bristol Maid, said to be on fire in Lilliwaup Bay in Hood Canal. You can hear a portion of the call:

1. First radio call     

The Coast Guard deployed two MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews from Port Angeles and sent a 45-foot response boat from Seattle. A boat crew from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office also searched the area. The search, suspended after five hours, cost an estimated at $138,000.

A similar call came in the following day about 9 p.m., reporting that two adults and a child were donning life jackets and abandoning a vessel between Hoodsport and Lilliwaup. The caller first said the vessel was Bristol Maid but later changed the name to Aleutian Beauty.

2. Second radio call     

Again, a Coast Guard helicopter, rescue boat and a sheriff’s office boat responded, along with a tribal fisheries boat. The search was called off after more than three hours, costing about $71,000.

Coast Guard officials believe the same caller placed a third false call a day later around 10 p.m., saying a body had been found.

3. Third radio call     

These kinds of calls must be extremely frustrating for emergency crews, who are on call around the clock to help people in distress. Personally, I would like to see this caller or callers caught and forced to explain themselves in court.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael W. Raymond, commander of Sector Puget Sound, said hoaxes are a major problem.

“The Coast Guard takes every distress call seriously,” he said. “False distress calls tie up valuable search assets and put our crews at risk. They impede our ability to respond to real cases of distress where lives may be in genuine peril.”

The Coast Guard would like to locate those responsible for the hoax, which is considered a federal criminal offense with penalties up to 10 years in jail and fines up to $250,000, along with possible reimbursement for the cost of the response. Boaters are reminded that they are responsible for radio use by their passengers.

Anyone with information about the caller or callers heard on the radio recording is asked to call the Coast Guard 13th District Command Center, (206) 220-7003. Here’s the original Coast Guard news release.

Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
—–

A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

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.”

Amusing Monday: Students create environmental art

This week, I’d like to share some student artwork from two contests.

One is a local event in which 10 Kitsap County students are honored in the Kitsap Recycles Day contest, sponsored by Kitsap County Public Works. The other contest is for students anywhere in the country. Called the Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, it is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.
Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, created one of the winning posters for Kitsap Recycles Day.

The first poster featured on this page is by Li-Nelshin Co, a fifth grader at Esquire Hills Elementary School, located in East Bremerton and part of the Central Kitsap School District.

Li-Neishin wrote this about the poster:

“Recycling is important because we are saving the world for future generations. My favorite thing to recycle is PAPER because this way we are not only recycling, we are also saving the trees that gives us fresh air, shade, preventing soil erosion.”

Other winning posters can be viewed on Kitsap Recycles Day webpage.

A couple years ago, the Kitsap Recycles Day poster contest was moved from November to February and expanded into a broader educational program. The delayed contest allowed teachers and/or parents to provide more information than could have been completed by America Recycles Day, celebrated in November. A new activity book, “Close the Loop” (PDF 16.7 mb), is part of Kitsap’s expanded program.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see the influx of posters we see on Kitsap Recycles Day,” said Kitsap County Recycling Coordinator Christopher Piercy in a news release. “You can tell each student has a passion for recycling, reducing waste, and the environment. It is especially fascinating to see the grasp they all have on the value of ‘closing the loop’ — not just recycling, but buying recycled content products.”

The other winners are Libby Parker, kindergartener at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Natalie Oathout, first grader at Emerald Heights Elementary School; Jeddison Miller, second grader at Crosspoint Academy; Kelsey Derr, third grader at Hilder Pearson Elementary School; Saige Herwig, third grader at South Colby Elementary School; Charlotte Halbert, fourth grader at Gateway Christian Schools, Poulsbo; Blake Warner, fifth grader at Crosspoint Academy; Drew Moar, sixth grader at Manchester Elementary School; and Gia Acosta, eighth grader at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic School.

The second poster on this page, a winner in the 2014 Keep the Sea Free of Debris contest, was drawn by Jessica D., a fourth grader in New York.

Jessica commented:

“Keep the sea free of debris. Debris is garbage, marine debris is garbage in the sea. Marine debris is very bad. Marine debris is mostly plastics, fishing gear and litter. Marine debris is very harmful and dangerous to undersea creatures. This pollution can ruin habitats. Marine wildlife can get hurt by marine debris. It also can cost a lot of money to fix. But you can help fix it by just cleaning beaches and not littering.”

The contest is sponsored by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, which asked contest entrants to create their “vision” of marine debris. All 13 winners and their comments can be seen on a Gallery Page on the Marine Debris Blog.