Category Archives: Research

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.

Maps judged to be wrong; Heins Lake should be Alexander

A pair of lakes long hidden within Bremerton’s vast watershed — Heins Lake and Alexander Lake — should have their names reversed on future maps, according to officials with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The switch-around is designed to correct a map error that apparently occurred in 1953.

The map correction, scheduled to be endorsed March 12 by the federal naming board, will fulfill efforts by Sue Hein Plummer to get the maps corrected. Sue is a descendant of the homesteader for whom Heins Lake is named.

I met Sue in 2012 when I accompanied members of her family to the old homestead in the watershed (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 30, 2012). It was then that Sue told me that the names had been reversed on an old Metsker’s map sometime after 1928, and she had been unable to convince the mapmakers to change it back.

Sue is a history buff and the genealogist in the family. The old homestead was closest to Heins Lake, which has been called Alexander Lake on all modern maps.

It frustrated her that mapmakers wanted to leave the names alone, wrong as they were. She knew that if she did not get the names corrected soon, they could stay wrong for all eternity. Odd as it seems, we might be stuck with Heins Creek running out of Alexander Lake. when it should be associated with Heins Lake, she said.

I told her about the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, which has the power to change any name in the state. With her extensive research, I thought she would eventually convince both the state and federal naming boards to make an official change.

It never went that far, because staff of both boards came to recognize the error, so a name change was not needed. All that is needed is to change the location of Heins and Alexander lakes in the Geographic Names Information System — a database that records the official names and locations of geographic features.

During an investigation, Jennifer Runyon, a staff researcher for the U.S. board, found some field notes from 1953, in which two people working at the Gorst Creek pumping station said the name of the northern lake should be Heins — opposite of what the maps said in 1937 and before.

Here’s what a typed portion of the notes say:

“The name Alexander Lake would apply to the southernmost lake, according to those who work for the Bremerton watershed and are familiar with the area. According to the city engineer, the northernmost lake has long been known as Alexander. This view would seem most widespread locally…”

In handwriting, these notes follow:

“according to the city engineer. Though the city engineer’s view seemed possible, it was not in accordance with the personnel who work with the name daily at the Gorst Creek pump plant.”

The notes named the two plant workers who must have gotten the names turned around: “Mr. Jarstad, foreman of the Gorst Creek Pump Plant,” and “O.R. Moritz, pump operator.”

“Mr. Jarstad” is presumably Otto Jarstad, for whom the city park at the abandoned pump plant is named.

Sue Hein Plummer thinks the mistake may have been made on some maps before 1953 and that Jarstad and Moritz just wanted to leave the names alone.

Kitsap County Auditor’s Office has already made the change on county maps. Runyon told me the change is likely to be made in the federal database within two days of the March 12 meeting of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, — assuming no further issues arise.

By the way, Heins Lake — which probably should have been “Hein’s Lake” based on the name Hein — now belongs to Ueland Tree Farm as a result of a land trade with the city of Bremerton. At least that’s what the maps indicate. Check out Josh Farley’s story, Kitsap Sun, April 14, 2014. Once the maps get corrected, Ueland will actually own Alexander Lake — the northernmost lake — and Heins Lake will remain in the Bremerton watershed. 

K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. NOAA photo
The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.

Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to notes from the cruise:

“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. The data used for this petition was derived from only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013 satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale from L pod a high priority.”

Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone array.

The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa. The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again, from the cruise notes:

“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their environment this time of the year.

“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start — four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today (Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to near Willipa Bay.”

Those are the last notes available, either on NOAA’s tagging webpage or on NOAA’s Facebook page. I’ve been in touch by email with Brad, but his latest message had nothing new since Wednesday.

By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website, I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon, they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and were continuing on south.

Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in the San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two weeks ago.

For previous reports on the whales, see Water Ways for Feb. 12 as well as a previous post on Jan. 22. A report on the research cruise can be found in Water Ways on Feb. 10.

Amusing Monday: ‘BirdNote’ telling stories for the past 10 years

Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of “BirdNote,” a public radio program about birds from all over the world, with frequent references to Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.

The well-produced audio segment resembles “StarDate,” which was the inspiration for the show, as founder Chris Peterson describes in a program to be aired this week. Check out the page “BirdNote at 10: 10 years of stories about birds and nature!” or listen to this clip:


Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote's mascot. Click image for info about his travels.
Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote’s mascot. Click for info about his travels.

BirdNote originated in 2005 at a single station — KPLU in Tacoma — and expanded to 50 participating stations by 2010 with about 200 stations today, according to a list of facts put together for the anniversary. Birdnote began as a once-a-week segment before expanding to daily segments in 2008.

The searchable archive covers more than 1,200 shows, featuring more than 650 species of birds. Besides the daily audio clips, each webpage links to related sources — including photos or videos; a little history or biography; scientific explanations; occasional notes or blogs; and often more information about the featured birds.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of BirdNote, and since this is a blog about water issues, I’ve picked out 20 clips from the past two years or so that I think you will enjoy:

Marbled murrelets: As fish go, so go the murrelets (December 2012)

Winter on the Columbia: It may be winter, but there’s a lot to see… (December 2012)

Seabirds in decline: What’s become of them? (January 2013)

Red-throated Loons of Deception Pass: They can’t walk on land, but they’re graceful in flight! (March 2013)

Double-crested cormorant: What are they doing with wings like that? (April 2013)

Probing with sandpipers: The right tool for the job (April 2013)

Citizen scientists monitor pigeon guillemots: Dedication, information, and …. a tattoo? (September 2013)

Tony Angell reflects on nature: From Puget Sound through an artist’s eye (October 2013)

Buffleheads in Winter: Our smallest duck returns from the north! (December 2013)

The Ballet of the Grebes: Birds do the strangest things! (May 2014)

Monitoring Rhinoceros Auklets on Protection Island: Auklets are fascinating research subjects! (June 2014)

Amazing aquatic American dipper: What’s that bird doing in the river? (August 2014)

The heron and the snake: It’s a rough world for a young blue heron (September 2014)

Chorus line in the sky: sandpipers in elegant fashion (October 2014)

Gull identification: Black, white, gray… how do you sort them all out? (October 2014)

The oystercatcher’s world: Life in the wave zone! (November 2014)

The music of black scoters: A mysterious, musical wail… (November 2014)

Diving birds — below the surface: If only we could see them under water! (December 2014)

A swirl of snow geese: Barry Lopez and Snow Geese (January 2015)

What happens when birds get wet? Their rain shell shields their down layer (January 2015)

New baby orca born
into J pod, first spotted near San Juan Island

Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The newest calf, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The newest orca baby, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a press release.

That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51, which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s 10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.

“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers, who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.

For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the last week of December, who was with her family.

Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.

“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51 was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations. Please, BeWhaleWise.org.”

The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19 in K pod and 34 in L pod.

Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m. tonight. For background, see Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.

Research cruise will observe J pod orcas
for the next 21 days

A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada research vessel.

The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks. // NOAA photo

The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate J pod without searching far and wide.

“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the coast.

Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are choosing to spend their time.

Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there remains some lingering doubt. (Review Water Ways from Jan. 22.)

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map at the bottom of this page for their path.

This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite, the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf but stayed only a day.

The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although their locations are currently unknown.

What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad said. The weather often determines the success of observations and operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a “toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and currents.

“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and other top predators, such as seabirds.”

As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I will try to report interesting developments as well.

J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8.
Tracked by satellite, J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8. // NOAA map

Climate change disrupts steady streamflows, adds problems for chinook

Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new study.

I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads, driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into streams.

Chinook salmon Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Chinook salmon
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels, because less groundwater is available to filter into the streams.

The new study, reported in the journal “Global Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be happening with climate change but for somewhat different reasons.

Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“Over the last half century, river flows included in our analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the marine environment.

“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”

Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to fall.

High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.

In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into the ground will become even more important as changes in climate bring more intense storms.

Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years, including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” See Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.

Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert excess water when streams are running high.

According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and Nisqually.

The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean temperature.

Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California, for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their hearts.

Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others. Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater, which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.

Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can expect in the future.

J pod killer whales still making the rounds, mostly up to the north

UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He did not know the location of J pod at that time.
—–

Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways, traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods remains largely unknown among whale researchers.

J pod travels, Jan. 21-25 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 21-25
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Since my last report in Water Ways on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center has posted two maps showing the travels of J pod. See “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans, by the next afternoon.

J pod travels, Jan. 24-27 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 24-27
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a day.

As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.

New orca baby doing well, closely linked
to 43-year-old female

The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through the San Juan Islands on Monday.

The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female and her likely mom.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.” Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained some distance away.

Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.

As Dave noted in his observations:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally convinced.

“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary caregiver.”

There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would not be needed for an older mom, he said.

Jan. 12-15. Satellite tracking shows that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed through the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 12-15.Satellite tracking reveals that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. // Map courtesy of NOAA

I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to happen.

But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he noted.

“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.

Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. // Map courtesy of NOAA

There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers following the whales, he said.

Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a 24-year-old named Blackberry.

Jan. 17-21. To save battery power, the satellite transmitter began sending signals every other day. Still, it was clear that the J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by yesterday afternoon. This time, they were accompanied by K pod, according to observers. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 17-21. The J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back by yesterday afternoon — this time accompanied by K pod, according to observers. // Map courtesy of NOAA

A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each time they quickly turned around and came back,

Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next satellite data won’t be available until later.

The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Sea stars may be on path to recovery; summer could provide answers

It was a dark and stormy night — but that didn’t deter the Three Starfish Musketeers from going out at low tide on Saturday to check on the condition of sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.

Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches.Photo by Christopher Dunagan
Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches. // Photo by Christopher Dunagan

If you recall, I introduced these three retired-age ladies in a story last summer, when they first reported a scene of devastation on the North Kitsap pier and nearby beach, where a multitude of sea stars lay sick and dying. Many sea stars were afflicted with a mysterious disease called sea star wasting disease, which had already affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

Check out my story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) or my blog post in Water Ways.

The three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — have been serving as amateur researchers, monitoring the Lofall beach, like hundreds of other volunteers at various locations along the West Coast. When they started monitoring the beach in February 2014, they observed dozens of healthy sea stars — but conditions changed dramatically by June.

Barb tells the story with photographs in her blog, Ladybug’s Lair, and I’ve included a summary of her observations at the bottom of this page.

I was not sure what to expect when I accompanied the three women to the Lofall pier on Saturday, the night before the Seahawks NFC championship game. Joining us on this dark, rainy night were researcher Melissa Miner of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been working with volunteers up and down the coast. Also with us was Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who has been coordinating local efforts.

What we saw Saturday was a great many more young sea stars than last year, along with adults that seemed to be healthy. None of the starfish showed signs of disease.

“That’s good news, and there are some big ones in here,” Melissa commented, as she examined the pilings where the monitoring is taking place.

“It feels better this time when we’re out here,” Jeff said, adding that last fall he saw far more sea stars turning to mush and disintegrating. “All we saw were body parts strewn all over.”

Melissa said researchers are seeing much greater numbers of juveniles at many of the sites along the coast and inner waterways. That could mean that the population is rebounding, but there is still great uncertainty, she said. Some evidence points to temperature as playing a role in the disease.

“It seems like around here temperature is a pretty big factor,” she said. “When summer comes around, we’ll be able to see how things change.”

In November, a group of scientists identified a virus, known as densovirus,
that is clearly associated with diseased sea stars. Further work is needed to determine how the virus affects the animals and what other factors are in play. See Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and my Nov. 22 blog post in Water Ways.

If we are indeed in a period of recovery at Lofall — and hopefully many other sites — it will be interesting to see how the ecosystem rebounds and how long it takes for the sea star population to return.

Jeff Adams told me in November that he hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come — not just to track the sea star disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life.

Barb Erickson summarized the findings of the group before Saturday’s outing:

“For our data collection, all of our observations take place in a specific area centered on three concrete piers under a dock at Lofall. In the beginning, a great number of ochre/purple sea stars and a few mottled stars congregated on each of the piers. That number has steadily declined over the past year and, although we are aware that these animals come and go with the tides, we feel their decline is directly related to the disease.

“We began our observations in February 2014, when we counted 56 sea stars, adults and juveniles. Many small juveniles were tucked away in corners and under cables on the piers. Of those 56, only 4 appeared to be in the early stages of disease. In April we counted 100, all of which appeared healthy. In May, of the 53 we found, 33 were in various stages of illness. By June, the majority of the sea stars were dead or dying. Of the 12 living stars we found, 11 were in the early stages of disease.

“Throughout the rest of the summer and early Fall, the area was littered with dead stars and the number of living ones, including juveniles, continued to decrease. By October, we found a total of only 7 living adult stars and no juveniles; 5 were diseased. In January 2015, we found 56 (20 adults and 36 juveniles); all appeared healthy.”

The count from Saturday’s outing was 48 sea stars (21 adults and 27 juveniles), and all appeared healthy.