Category Archives: Research

Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

Two weeks ago, the town of Friday Harbor and The Whale Museum held a potluck to celebrate the life of Granny, who had lived long enough to be survived by a large well-documented family, including a great-great-grandchild. During the event, local school children displayed “Granny quilts,” made of paper squares bearing their drawings of Granny.

Also present were Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher and Town Administrator Duncan Wilson, who unveiled a sign to be erected on a street renamed “Granny’s Way” that will carry on the memory of a special whale.

The multi-media slide show, on this page, was created by Jeannie Hyde, a longtime orca observer. (Be sure to view in full-screen mode.) I think Jeanne does a wonderful job of capturing the family orientation of killer whales and recounting Granny’s life story. It got me to thinking about these intelligent animals with whom we share a place on Earth.

As much we have learned about orcas through the years and try to relate to what they are doing, we still have no way to know what they are thinking or feeling, how they communicate, how much they plan ahead and what they know about humans.

At times, observers say, killer whales seem to have fun, and sometimes we notice what looks like support and affection for each other. Perhaps we can observe their rituals of passage, as mothers mourn the death of their offspring and behaviors change for a time after the loss of older members of the society.

How deep do their emotions go? Will we ever be able to find out whether they experience what we humans call love? I certainly don’t have the answers, but the amount of affection that people feel for killer whales, as well as other marine mammals, suggests a powerful connection, perhaps at the subconscious level.

At the celebration of life two weeks ago, Jenny Atkinson, director of The Whale Museum, shared her thoughts about Granny:

“You may be familiar with the weekly program Sunday Today with Willie Geist and the segment ‘Honoring a Life Well-Lived.’ I love that segment and am titling my comments ‘Honoring a Life Well Lived: Granny (J-2).’

“’We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

~ quote by Henry Beston, The Outermost House

“We first met Granny in the mid-1970s, but she had met us long before. For thousands of years, she led her family through these home waters, travelling near the lands of Tribal & First Nations peoples. Then as early as the 1500s, westerners started to discover these islands. While Granny would not have been here for the Pig War in 1859, she was born in time to witness the establishment of the National Park Service, the Boy & Girl Scouts, the first transcontinental flight, the first telephone call, and later, the first run of the Washington State ferry, and many more small & large historic events.

“Estimated to have been born in 1911, Granny had already become a Grandmother by the time she was included in the Orca Survey. She led her family, year after year, season after season, from one salmon run to the next, making sure they were together and cared for. Until 2010, her presumed son Ruffles always travelled by her side. Granny & Ruffles, two of the most-well-known and loved orcas in the world. How many of us were honored & thrilled to see this pair swim by? Once you knew what to look for, how easy it was to spot Granny’s elegant dorsal fin with a half-moon shaped notch on the edge, along with Ruffles’ tall, wavy fin. Always, leading the family.

“Five generations of her family were recorded with her surviving family members including her three great grands – Hy’Shqa, Suttles & Se-Yi’-Chn, and great great grand T’ilem I’nges. Her granddaughter Samish passed this last summer. After Samish’s passing, Granny’s family, which includes her new adopted son Onyx, stayed together, travelling with her and being watched over by her. Resident orcas have tight family bonds, travelling by their mother’s sides all of their lives. We believe that Granny was the wisdom keeper, the matriarch of the Southern Resident Community. For at least the last four decades, she steadfastly led her family. Granny knew how to lead – whether it was out in front or from behind. We could count on her … the orcas could count on her. She lived life to the fullest, known for tail slaps and inverted tail lobs, surprising us with cartwheels & breaches, even at 100!

“We to invite others to share their memories of Granny & her family. Here’s one of mine: During the summer of 2012, Granny seemed to take particular interest & delight in the kelp beds just off the Westside preserve. She would swim in and roll around in the kelp, then come out draped in it. She spent so much time slapping the surface with kelp draped over her flukes, even I could recognize Granny by her tail flukes with that notch on the left edge. Even when out in the middle of Haro Strait, you knew Granny would veer off and head straight for that kelp bed, which we ended up nicknaming Granny’s Kelp.

“It is with heavy hearts we say goodbye to Granny. She was a complete being, ‘gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’ but long to. She was an awesome, beautiful, majestic orca. Just by watching and observing, we had the opportunity to learn much from her about living in harmony with all of creation and stewarding our planet for the health of all. I hope we were listening and will continue to reflect on what she taught us, helping take care of her family in her absence. After all, we are blessed and far richer for having known her. Thank you, Granny.”

Amusing Monday: Entertaining videos don’t show real holograms

An amusing video that shows a young family experiencing close-up encounters with killer whales, a polar bear and several penguins has been making the rounds on social media. The technology has been described as a hologram by many people posting and reposting the video, the first on this page.

Frankly, I was amazed at first, believing that people were really up close and personal with a 3D image in a shopping mall. The animals, which I assumed were projected for all to see, appeared so real that it was no wonder that people in the video were reaching out to touch them. Unfortunately, that’s not what we are seeing, according to observers.

I am not the only one to be fooled by what is actually a recorded video overlaid onto the live actions of people caught on a TV monitor. Although it is fun to watch, this is just one video combined with another, basically a double exposure. For a different perspective, take a look at the still photo that someone found on a Russian website.

I haven’t been paying attention to holigraphic technology lately. I thought maybe I was 20 years behind, although I have begun to learn about virtual reality and augmented reality, which generally require some kind of viewer.

Another video making the rounds is labeled “Virtual whale 7d” (second on this page), but Snopes, the hoax-busting website, says this is no hologram either.

“As the children in the video are not wearing any sort of special headgear, we can assume that they did not actually witness a hologram whale splashing through their gym floor,” Snopes says on its website.

With words like “we can assume,” I’m not sure that the usually reliable Snopes has this one correct. Mainly, I would like to know what this video actually shows — not what it does not show. If anyone can explain these videos better, I would like to know.

Snopes seems to think that the second video is a product of Magic Leap, a mysterious company that is working on a system that merges virtual reality with the real world. Wired Magazine goes deep to explain what might be coming, and this video from Wired gives a quick overview of Magic Leap’s technology.

In a search of the Internet, I found lots of amusing 3D applications, including various forms of entertainment. Some purport to be holograms. Check out the video of the Dragon’s Treasure show at the City of Dreams casino in Macau.

As for true holograms, researchers in South Korea say they have developed the first 360-degree full-color hologram. It is a moving image of a Rubik’s Cube, just 3 inches tall but viewable from any angle. See the last video on this page.

“The floating image relies on diffraction generated by the interference between the many lasers in the complex system, states an article in Digital Trends. “A previous holographic invention out of MIT had a visible radian of 20 degrees, which isn’t exactly a proper hologram but was as close as most technologists could get.”

Crab Team training will foster the upcoming hunt for green crab invaders

A European green crab invasion may be taking place in Puget Sound, and Washington Sea Grant intends to enhance its Crab Team this summer with more volunteers looking in more places than ever before.

The second European green crab identified in Puget Sound was found in Padilla Bay, where three others were later trapped.
Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve

Training is about to get underway, and anyone with an interest in furthering science while being exposed to the wonders of nature may participate. It’s not always good weather, but I’ve been inspired by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed among dedicated volunteers.

The work involves going out to one or more selected sites each month from April into September with a team of two to four other volunteers. It is helpful to have folks who can carry the crab traps, plastic bins and other equipment. For details, check out the Washington Sea Grant website.

As I reported last fall, the first dreaded green crab showed up in a trap deployed on San Juan Island. See Water Ways, Sept. 3. About three weeks later, a second green crab was found was found in Padilla Bay, about 30 miles southeast of the first one. See Water Ways, Sept. 24. Intensive trapping in Padilla Bay located three more. See Water Ways, Oct. 1.

Whether green crabs find suitable conditions to allow their population to multiply is yet to be seen, but an extensive trapping effort can help identify reproductive success, locate new areas of invasion and remove individuals from the breeding population.

It’s an interesting scientific endeavor for Crab Team members. Nobody wants to find green crabs, because of the threat that they pose. Yet these volunteers know that their work may help prevent the destruction of an ecosystem that has stood the test of time. To gather background data, members count other species caught in the traps and measure their average size during the trapping period.

For information about the volunteer effort and the threat of green crabs, please read my stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

The upcoming Crab Team training will teach citizen science volunteers how to place the traps, identify and measure the crabs that get caught and record the data compiled into an extensive database.

Volunteers are especially needed to monitor sites in Skagit, San Juan, Jefferson, Clallam and Whatcom counties. If interested, one should register for one of the four training sessions:

Other sessions may be scheduled later, depending on need. One can check the Green Crab Events Calendar or email Crab Team organizers at

Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

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Amusing Monday: Playing with water in the weightlessness of space

Since the beginning of the manned space program, astronauts have been playing with water in microgravity conditions. The result has been a large assortment of videos demonstrating the unique and amusing properties of water.

In the first video on this page, Chris Hadfield, an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency demonstrates what happens aboard the International Space Station when you ring out a soaked wash cloth in the weightlessness of space.

The experiment was suggested by students Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner of Lockview High School in Fall River, Nova Scotia. It was posted on YouTube in 2013.

The video shows that the surface tension of water is great enough that the water keeps clinging when Hadfield rings out the cloth. If you watch closely, however, you can see a few droplets fly off when he starts to ring out the cloth.

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Invasive oyster drills react differently to predators than natives

Invasive saltwater snails, including dreaded oyster drills, seem to be far more leery of predators than native snails under certain conditions, according to a new study by Emily Grason, whose research earned her a doctoral degree from the University of Washington.

An invasive Atlantic oyster drill feeds on a young Pacific oyster. // Photo: Emily Grason

Why non-native snails in Puget Sound would run and hide while native species stand their ground remains an open question, but the difference in behavior might provide an opportunity to better control the invasive species.

Of course, snails don’t actually run, but I was surprised to learn that they can move quite rapidly to find hiding places when they believe they are under attack.

Like many marine animals, snails use chemical clues to figure out what is happening in their environment. For her experiments, Emily created a flow-through system with two plastic shoeboxes. Chemical clues were provided in the upstream bin, while the reaction of the snails was observed in the downstream bin.

The most dramatic difference between native and non-native snails seemed to be when ground-up snails were deposited in the upstream bin, simulating a chemical release caused by a crab or other predator breaking open snail shells and consuming the tender morsels inside.

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Federal Action Plan for Puget Sound released as Trump enters office

Two days before Donald Trump became president, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force released a draft of the federal action plan for the recovery of Puget Sound.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

The Trump transition raises uncertainty about the future of this plan, but at least the incoming administration has a document to work with, as described by Steve Kopecky of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (See Water Ways, Dec. 22.)

Speaking last month before the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, Kopecky acknowledged that the plan would go through many changes over time, with or without a new president.

“That being said, the first one is probably the most powerful,” he said. “It is the model that new folks are going to use, so we’re trying to make sure that we have a good solid foundation model before we all collectively go out the door.”

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Amusing Monday: Snowflakes frozen in a world of their own

They say every snowflake is different. That may be hard to believe until you realize that snowflakes are really quite large on the molecular scale and that snowflakes come in various shapes and sizes, created under an enormous number of varying conditions.

In fact, most snowflakes are so different from one another that the effort to categorize their shapes has never been completely successful. In 2013, one research group came out with a new classification of 121 different types of snow crystals, ice crystals and solid precipitation. Check out the paper in Atmospheric Research.

But what really got me started on this topic was the beauty of snowflakes and wondering how they form. I offered a view of some stunning still photos in Water Ways in 2014. This time, I thought we could take a look at snowflake formation.

I really like the first video on this page, complete with music. I didn’t realize until later that the video does not show snowflake formation at all. Rather it shows the sublimation of snowflakes (their disappearance) played in reverse.

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Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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Report: It’s time to shift the deadlines for Puget Sound restoration

Restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 is an unrealistic goal that needs to be addressed by the Puget Sound Partnership, according to the latest performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.


It’s a issue I’ve often asked about when talking to people both inside and outside the Puget Sound Partnership. What’s the plan? Are we just going to wait until the year 2020 and say, “Ah shucks; I guess we couldn’t reach the goal.”?

Puget Sound Partnership, the organization created by the Legislature to coordinate the restoration of Puget Sound, is on the right track in many ways, according to the preliminary audit report. But the Partnership needs to address several “structural issues” — including coming up with realistic goals for restoration.

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