“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will
take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new
meaning, some with dangerous implications.
Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits
light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects
in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is
the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine
mammals and other species that live under water.
The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use
low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an
entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to
locate their prey in dark waters.
“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is
their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with
the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.
“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale
research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about
16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where
he was doing research in 2001.
“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now
dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when
one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were
trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”
Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts
were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two
years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.
As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with
the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans.
Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world
with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training
and shoreline construction?
“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris
Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is
the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in
the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so
that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing
voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”
This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat
as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally
devastating to some species.
In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast
were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress
hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except
for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened
right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down
following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t
clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it
can’t be good. See
Duke University press release.
The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made
quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more
efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also
reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping,
people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm
to sea life.
The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be
a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course,
protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but
the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a
“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living
ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean
at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”
The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as
provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer
provided by Discovery Channel.
In the underwater world, where hearing can be more important
than sight, whales are being bombarded by a cacophony of sounds,
which started cluttering up their lives when the first steamships
were launched into the ocean.
Now, after 200 years, people are beginning to care about the
kinds of noise imposed upon marine mammals and other creatures. To
a limited extent, research can now answer this important question:
How are humans affecting marine life with noise coming from our
ships and boats, our ocean exploration and construction, and our
It is time to think about how we can apply new scientific
knowledge in a more meaningful way than current regulations, which
depend on putting a “safe” distance between one vessel and one
A month ago in
“Amusing Monday,” I featured the music of Dana Lyons, who wrote
a song about sound from the perspective of the whales. The song got
me to thinking about how the sailing ships of yesteryear must have
been so much more pleasant for the whales — assuming, of course,
that they weren’t whaling ships.
Scott Veirs, an oceanographer, joined forces with his dad,
physicist Val Veirs, to operate a hydrophone network based in the
San Juan Islands, where they study the sounds of whales, ships and
anything else that makes sounds in the waters of the Salish
“We are trying to get a statistically significant
characterization (of sound),” Scott told me. “For me, the question
is: Does this make a difference for certain species? To be honest,
I’m seeing lots of evidence in the emerging literature that ship
noise really does make a difference.”
Scott and Val, along with acoustics expert Jason Wood, recently
published a research paper in the journal “Peer J.,” in which they
describe their acoustic encounters with more than 3,000 ships
passing by their hydrophones. Through careful calibration of their
instruments, they were able to calculate sound levels at the source
— which can tell us which ships and boats produce the most noise
before attenuation of the sound through the water. Check out the
news release, or read the entire article.
It has long been known that cargo ships and other large vessels
produce low-frequency sounds that can travel great distances in
seawater. That adds to an overall background noise that seems to be
increasing over time. For baleen whales, who communicate with
lower-frequency sounds, this changing soundscape could be something
like the difference between a person living downtown in a busy city
and a person living in the country.
In an interesting but unplanned study after the 9/11 attacks of
2001, researchers were able to show that right whales in Canada’s
Bay of Fundy had lower stress hormone levels immediately after the
attacks. That’s when ship traffic — and noise — were significantly
lowered. The findings were limited to the short time frame that
ship traffic diminished, but the researchers were fortunate that
fecal samples from another study could be used to measure stress
hormones before and after 9/11. Review the paper:
Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.
It was not a big surprise that large ships can affect baleen
whales, but Scott and his colleagues were able to show that large
ships produce not only low-frequency sounds but also high-frequency
sounds in the hearing range of killer whales.
“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,”
Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to
He said the challenge for orcas is to hear the reflection of
high-frequency clicks sent out by an orca to locate chinook salmon
and other prey. The echolocation clicks are loud as they leave the
whale, but the return signal they are attempting to hear can be
faint unless the fish are very close, Scott said. If other high
frequency sounds, such as from nearby boats, interfere with their
hearing, then the whales may struggle to locate their prey, he
“My greatest concern is how much a single container ship might
decrease the range that a killer whale would be able to hear the
echo,” Scott said. “The impact in terms of decreasing their
foraging range is really kind of scary.”
Studies of various ships might identify what is causing the
high-frequency sounds and lead to a technological solution to the
problem, Scott said. Military ships are designed to be quiet, and
some of that technology could be transferred to commercial vessels.
If the noise from just 10 percent of the noisiest vessels could be
reduced, it could lead to a significant improvement in the noisy
The question of how much high-frequency noise reaches the killer
whales was the focus of a study conducted by researchers from the
University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. Researchers used
suction cups to temporarily attach digital acoustic recording tags,
or d-tags, to killer whales to measure the level of sound. They
also used laser-positioning equipment operated from a research boat
to measure the size, speed, location and type of vessel emitting
“The goal was to understand this missing but assumed link
between what we see at the surface and what the whales experience
at depth,” said Juliana Houghton, a recent UW graduate and lead
author of the study, who was quoted in a
UW news release.
A key finding was that the number of propellers on a vessel
influenced the sound volume, but the most important factor was the
speed of the vessel — with higher speeds producing significantly
more high-frequency noise. The findings were published in the
journal PLOS ONE.
Taking these and other studies together could help chart a path
toward quieter vessels, less noise around whales and ultimately a
better outcome for marine mammals dependent on underwater
communication and echolocation.
Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia has taken these ideas
one step further with a hydrophone listening station installed in
the inbound shipping lanes in the Strait of Georgia north of the
U.S. border. The listening station is part of a program called
Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO). The listening
station will monitor the noise of identified ships passing through.
news release from the port.
The video below shows the deployment of the listening station in
the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.
From what I know about the system, it could potentially lead to
an individual sound profile for each ship entering Canadian waters,
and authorities could investigate whether slowing certain vessels
could reduce noise for whales in the area.
“The ECHO program’s long-term goal is to develop mitigation
measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential
threats to whales as a result of shipping activities,” Duncan
Wilson, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Port
Metro Vancouver, said in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver
“These mitigation measures may include incentives for the use of
green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of
ocean-going vessels, a certification program for quiet vessels,
and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the
port,” he added.
2013 report by World Wildlife Fund–Canada (PDF 2.6 mb) makes
the case for developing tools to better manage noise. The 96-page
report, which came out of a 2012 workshop on ocean noise in Canada,
concluded that the ability to profile individual ships could lead
to these ideas for reducing noise:
“Use existing data on noise output from different sizes and
classes of vessels, and establish percentage criteria below which
ships should fall. Vessels above the criteria would face pecuniary
consequences, e.g., higher port fees…
“Shipping noise should not be allowed to reduce whale
communication space beyond a certain percentage … Masking is a
significant threat to marine animals.
“Establish a cumulative noise exposure level…, rather than only
maximum event-based exposure criteria for individual
“Develop a report card system that identifies the noisiest 10%
of vessels passing over a noise monitoring station. In the absence
of legislation, letters could be sent to vessel owners advising
them of their noisy ships, and a list of worst offenders could be
published. Letters could also be sent to the owners of quiet ships,
congratulating them on their reduced contribution to the
“Ports could adopt maintenance requirements for noisy ships, as
poor vessel maintenance is the source of extraneous noise on
approximately 10 percent of merchant ships.
“A mandatory phased-in program could be established to
incentivize quietening technologies for retrofitted vessels.
Proposed new projects could require quietened ships.”
Although the United States began regulating the effects of ocean
noise earlier than most countries — as early as the 1980s — U.S.
agencies have been slow to keep up with the best available science,
according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, who wrote a chapter in the WWF report,
Be honest about estimating effects: U.S. sound
thresholds for marine mammals assume that 120 decibels of
“continuous” noise or 160 decibels of “intermittent” noise have an
adverse behavioral effect, while noise above 180 decibels is
considered injurious. But these numbers fail to account for
differences in species, bias in observed impacts and masking
effects. This makes the thresholds “outdated” and “insufficiently
Think cumulatively: Regulators and managers
should look beyond the effects of a single sound exposure to the
effects of noise over time on the population of animals from all
sources of noise.
Evolve beyond the near field: The traditional
approach has been a “safety zone,” in which sound sources are
powered down when marine mammals get within a specified range. The
U.S. has begun to move beyond this simple idea to habitat-based
management, including area closures for important habitats when
marine mammals are likely to be present. Also under review are
technical alternatives to reduce noise from ships, airguns (used in
seismic studies) and pile-driving equipment.
The Ballard Locks is a great place to visit, especially in the
late summer and fall when the salmon are migrating into Lake
Washington. I’ve been taking out-of-town friends and family there
for years to observe the multitude of boats using the locks and to
peer at salmon through windows of the fish ladder.
I never thought much about all the mechanical equipment that
keeps the locks functioning. But during a recent visit, I was taken
to a darker and more dangerous side of the facility. I walked down
a spiral iron staircase some 60 feet deep into an abandoned pumping
plant. Rusty iron pipes and pumps were still in place, having been
shut down three years ago out of concern that a pipe might burst
while someone was down in the well.
Growing concerns about the safety and maintenance problems
inspired me to write a story about the locks for the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, along with a sidebar about salmon
in the Lake Washington watershed that migrate along a treacherous
route through the locks.
The locks were completed in 1916, and much of the antique
equipment is still in operation — including gears, pulleys and
chains. The mechanical works and the big steel doors with their
neatly aligned rivets remind me of the art and aesthetic design of
(Wikipedia), a style with its own dedicated page on Pinterest.
A dam-safety study and growing awareness of the outmoded
equipment could help bring money for a major renovation, which
could cost $50 million or more. President Obama’s budget, recently
submitted to Congress, includes funding for replacing the pumping
plant I mentioned above but not much more. By the way, while I was
at the locks in early January, contractors were beginning to remove
the old pumping plant equipment — even though replacement is not
My trip to the locks and my follow-up reporting have given me a
new perspective on a place I thought I knew fairly well. In
reality, I knew very little about the inner workings of the Ballard
Locks, officially known as the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks. I hope
you can learn something about the facility by reading my story.
Meanwhile, officials at the locks are planning a major
centennial celebration. Although the first ship went through the
“Government Locks” in August of 1916, the opening celebration was
delayed until the Fourth of July in 1917. (Check out Friends
of the Ballard Locks.) At the time, it was a major event,
including fireworks and other festivities. More than 100,000 people
attended, according to reports.
I’m told that supporters will roll out various activities
throughout next year, in part because July 4 is now associated with
many other events. For information, see ballardlocks.org.
I will try to keep up with the various centennial plans and
report details of the events as information becomes available.
For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a
satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast,
presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those
travels in a moment.
NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for
eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern
Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly
recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest
risk of extinction.
Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts
through enforcement, education and evaluation: This
includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise
and other problems to be identified.
Target recovery of critical prey: Because
chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the
whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to
healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic
threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time
in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places
that are important to them.
Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale
health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales
are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to
reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.
And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named
Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal
fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all
of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.
The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in
winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any
behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go
and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be
assessed on the water.
Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the
whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20.
NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport,
Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales,
assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and
fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.
Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can,
as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect
coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible
expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled
for next year.
“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big
part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending
time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”
The researchers are trying to account for differences among the
pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various
conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers
would like to see whether the whales are going to different places
or acting differently.
Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the
researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to
record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings
are collected at the end of the season.
In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key
actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales
and provide information about hormone levels and other indications
of general health.
Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his
companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed
their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino,
Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s
Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time,
they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan.
Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north
from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew
on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned
back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were
Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong
currents rising up from the underwater chasm.
The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for
the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching
Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long
but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
on Jan. 29.
From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up
the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off
the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going
as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan.
Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days,
mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching
the edge of the continental shelf.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going
all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about
a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the
coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport
(not yet depicted on the map).
Did you enjoy this year’s Super Bowl commercials? Maybe it is
just my personal taste, but I don’t believe they were as good,
overall, as they have been most years.
Still, these are some of the most creative commercials we will
see all year. For this blog, I found enough water-related
commercials and funny bits for me to revisit a few. Later, I will
share some opinions from actual television reviewers, who have
ranked the best and the worst of this year’s flock of Super Bowl
The most dramatic water-related commercial was a spot for Death
Wish Coffee, sponsored by Intuit. In a fierce, dark storm, Viking
rowers are battling the waves and preparing to die when the
surprise comes for the viewer.
Have you ever watched a commercial and wondered at the end,
“What the heck are they trying to sell?” That was not the case with
Death Wish Coffee.
In my advertising classes in college, I learned that you need to
make the viewer remember the product. But I don’t believe that is
the top priority for Super Bowl commercials, in which the
producers’ goal may be to get people to remember the commercial,
irrespective of the product.
I guess all the rules go out the window when advertisers are
paying close to $5 million for a 30-second spot, a price reported
“Business Insider” magazine.
The next water-related commercial wasn’t about a product at all.
It was about the use of water, yet the name Colgate nevertheless
Jay Busbee and Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo Sports rated the Colgate
commercial highly for its social marketing effort. Here’s what they
“The toothpaste titan used its 30 seconds to remind those of us
with access to clean water to turn off the faucet while we brush.
We admire their effort to spread a message of conservation and for
resisting the urge to shame us for also forgetting to floss.”
I’ve chosen to recall three non-water commercials that I
enjoyed. The first is Butterfinger’s “Bolder than Bold” that uses
camera angles to take us deep into the adventure of sky diving with
one surprise following another in short order.
The next one, an ad for Avocados from Mexico, shows space beings
from the future visiting a museum, where familiar objects from the
2000s — including Scott Baio —are seen in a whole new light.
I also laughed at the Steven Tyler commercial for Skittles,
which features a singing portrait of the musician, a portrait that
ultimately explodes all over the floor. Not everyone thinks this
commercial is funny, as you may see from at least one of the
If you’d like to see more commercials with commentary check out
the story by
Busbee and Kaduk, who offered grades for the ads, and another
Robert Chan of Yahoo TV, who listed “The good, the bad and
I don’t know if so-called experts know any more than the rest of
us when it comes to which commercials are good or bad. Even though
the writers mentioned above are all from Yahoo, their opinions on
individual commercials are quite distinct. Even more divergent is
the top 10 as offered by
Which one was your favorite? Post a comment, and I’ll track down
the video and post it, assuming it is available.
When it comes to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, human
beings really do matter — in some ways that are obvious and in some
ways that are fairly subtle.
The Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the
restoration of Puget Sound, acknowledged this fact yesterday when
adopting a new set of ecosystem indicators to measure how Puget
Sound influences the health and well-being of humans.
It’s often said that people have damaged the Puget Sound
ecosystem through years of abuse. They say it will take years of
restoration — by people — to return things to a healthy condition.
But why do we care? Are we spending millions of dollars on
restoration just to benefit fish and wildlife, or are we doing it
The answer, which comes from studies of economics and human
behavior, appears to be that helping fish and wildlife — by putting
the ecosystem back together — also benefits humans in a variety of
When the Washington Legislature told the Puget Sound Partnership
to go forth and lead the way toward restoring Puget Sound to
health, our lawmakers understood that people would be the primary
beneficiaries. The first two goals assigned to the partnership, as
articulated by RCW
A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound
that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem;
A quality of human life that is sustained by a functioning
Puget Sound ecosystem;
The other three goals are related to native species, habitats
and water supplies.
Sometimes goals related to human values conflict with goals to
restore ecological functions. For example, one cannot build a house
on undeveloped land without altering the ecosystem in some negative
ways. Sometimes human values are aligned with ecological values,
such when we reduce pollution to clean up streams and drinking
water. In any case, these new ecosystem indicators will help people
understand the tradeoffs and opportunities of various actions.
As I pointed out last month in
Water Ways, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council has completed a
plan and associated website
that highlights connections between human well-being and natural
resources in the Hood Canal region. Hood Canal became a pilot
project for the indicators approved yesterday for all of Puget
Sound. Some of the same folks — including social scientist Kelly
Biedenweg of the Puget Sound Institute — were involved in creating
nine new “vital signs” with indicators to track human-related
changes in the Puget Sound ecosystem.
Unlike the original human health and human well-being indicators
adopted in 2010, these new indicators have undergone an extensive
review by scientists and other experts to ensure their validity and
reliability. That is, these new indicators have real meaning in
connecting human beings to the ecological functions of Puget
In yesterday’s meeting, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the
Leadership Council, said the human dimension is often ignored in
favor of empirical science.
“This is a hard thing to do,” she said about developing the new
indicators. “This is sort of a brave new world, and I think it is
true that we live in this world whether we call it out like this or
Council member Stephanie Solien said she would like to see more
discussions about human health and well-being issues — not because
they are more important than species and habitats, but because they
make connections to average people.
“People are self-interested,” she said. “They care about their
health, their family’s health, the health of their communities. The
more we can draw those connections to Puget Sound and healthy
watersheds, I think we will be more successful in our work around
ecosystems and saving species.”
Here are the four new vital signs and associated indicators
related to human health:
1. OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Measured by 1) Percent of
swimming beaches meeting bacterial standards (one of the existing
indicators), 2) Average hours people spend having fun outdoors, 3)
Average hours people spend working outdoors.
2. AIR QUALITY: Indicators to be determined
from existing data.
3. LOCAL FOODS: Availability of wild foods,
such the ability to catch fish, collect shellfish, harvest plants
and hunt for game.
4. DRINKING WATER: Indicators to be determined
from information about water systems.
Here are the five new vital signs and associated indicators
related to human well-being:
5. ECONOMIC VITALITY: Measured by 1) Value of
natural resources produced by industry, including commercial
fishing, shellfish harvesting, timber production, agriculture,
mining and tourism; 2) Value produced by natural-resource
industries compared to gross domestic product of all other
industries in the region; 3) Number of jobs in natural-resource
6. CULTURAL WELL-BEING: Percent of residents
who feel they are able to maintain traditions associated with the
7. GOOD GOVERNANCE: Percentage of people who
feel they have 1) the opportunity to influence decisions about
Puget Sound, 2) the rights and freedom to make decisions about
managing natural resources, 3) trust in local and regional
governments to make the right decisions about Puget Sound, 4) been
well represented by government leaders, 5) access to information
about natural-resource issues.
8. SENSE OF PLACE: Percentage of people who
feel: 1) a positive connection to the region, 2) a sense of
stewardship for the watershed, 3) a sense of pride about being from
9. PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING INDEX: Percentage
of people who experience: 1) inspiration from being in nature, 2)
reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in nature, 3) Overall
life satisfaction based on criteria in national studies.
Leadership Council member Jay Manning, former director of the
Washington Department of Ecology, said he supports the indicators.
His only concern is that some are beyond the control of the Puget
Sound Partnership, and some may have nothing to do with people’s
connection to Puget Sound.
Jay makes a good point, but the social scientists who developed
the indicators stressed that there will be no targets or goals
associated with human values. What will be interesting to watch is
whether people feel better or worse about the restoration effort as
time goes on, and how the leaders choose to respond to any changes
in public opinion.
Much of the information that will fit into the new indicators
will be the result of phone surveys yet to be conducted. Other
information will be teased out of ongoing research studies. The
partnership has received funding from the Environmental Protection
Agency to hire a consultant to continue work on the human-related
indicators until the numbers are finalized.
None of the new information about human health and well-being
will be included in the State of Puget Sound report to be issued
later this year, according to Kari Stiles, staff scientist for the
partnership. But some information could go into the Vital Signs wheel within
the next year.
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
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?
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
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
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
“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
from urban areas is especially troubling in California, where
offshores are regularly sighted in the winter, often near large
“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
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
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
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
In the U.S., offshore killer whales are protected under the
Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they have not been provided any
status (PDF 493 kb) for additional protection or focused
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).
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
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.
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
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.
Water Ways from Feb. 24.
In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any
of the following characteristics:
Reproductive areas – Areas and times within
which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is
found with neonates or calves,
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,
Migratory corridors – Areas and times within
which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the
corridor is spatially restricted.
Small and resident population – Areas and
times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited
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
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.
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
“Get Away” was the
humorous video that did not make it to the TV screen.
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.”