Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Amusing Monday: Baby turtles race for the sea

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The sand was smooth and still. Waves lapped at the distant shoreline. A sign, stuck in the sand, stated, “Do not disturb. Sea turtle nest.”

That was the scene on a beach in the Florida Keys for the past few weeks, as it was in June, when I posted a blog entry listing cameras that were capturing live action in bird nests as well as other wildlife locations. A quiet patch of sand was not much to look at, so I didn’t mention it.

On Friday, that patch of sand came to life, as you can see in the first video on this page. I thought it was time to share the brief action, as about 100 loggerhead turtles emerged from the sand and headed out to sea about 9 p.m. Check out the action in full-screen.

The camera on the beach uses infrared lights to capture the images, thus avoiding visible light that could confuse the young turtles. The project is supported by Save-A-Turtle, a volunteer non-profit group dedicated to the protection of rare and endangered sea turtles and their habitats in the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, some of the young ospreys shown in their nests back in June have fledged, but there is still plenty of action in the nest at Missoula’s Riverside Health Care Center, where the camera is operated by the University of Montana. Check out the images in full-screen, high-definition while you can, because these growing chicks will soon be gone.

Another still-active osprey nest is operated by Chesapeake Conservancy on Maryland’s eastern shoreline.

The Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine is picking up some excited feeding activity at the nesting area, where experts are establishing a new colony of puffins after hunters wiped them out in the 1800s.

Brown bears are now feeding on salmon along Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park, according to bloggers on the site. Check out the live video below to see if you can spot a bear, including a subadult mentioned by observers.

You may wish to go back to the June 23 “Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam” to see what other cameras are picking up activity. You can generally count on Pete’s Pond on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa, for some exotic animals coming to the watering hole.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Stormwater: Can we stop the menace we created?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Jenifer McIntyre of the Washington Stormwater Center studies the effects of stormwater after it passes through filters made of compost and soil materials, such as what is used in rain gardens. The filters are working, even though the most dangerous pollutants remain unidentified. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to deal with.

As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but they are no longer the biggest problem.

“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she said.

Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous, everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun may still find value in the graphics on the Freshwater Quality page.)

I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by city and county governments to better manage their stormwater systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”

I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement. Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.

Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the freshwater ecosystem.

Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream Benthos.

When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.

Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the questions are fully identified.


Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

Monday, July 7th, 2014

This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past half-century.

The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.

Read “The Once & Future Alvin,” Oceanus Summer 2014.

What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature called “Alvin’s Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking creature to the next.

One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and mussels thriving without sunlight.

These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and not photosynthesis.

Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species examined and named.

The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities. The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are interviewed in this special edition.

The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.


What we know and don’t know about killer whales

Friday, June 27th, 2014

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

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

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

Let me make a few quick observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto


Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via webcam

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

It seems kind of strange that we can spy on wildlife in a very personal way, thanks to modern technology.

The animals never notice the hundreds of humans peering over their shoulders via webcam. If they could know what is going on, I actually think they’d prefer the camera to the disturbance that even one person would create by crowding in that close.

It’s the time of year when many birds are active on their nests, so I thought I’d bring you some of the best videos on the web, weeding out those that are inactive or don’t have much going on right now.

The University of Montana operates two live osprey cams at part of its Montana Osprey Project. I believe the nest at Riverside Health Care Center in Missoula (shown in first video player) contains two chicks, while the nest at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo contains three chicks.The high-quality video and sound make you feel you are right there with the birds.

Alberta Conservation Association and its sponsors have set up cameras to observe three prime nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in Edmonton, Alberta. Chicks have hatched in each nest, and we can watch (in real time) the mothers taking care of their little bundles of fluff. Each bird has a story listed with the video.

Chesapeake Conservancy is in charge of an osprey cam on Maryland’s eastern shore. The live video features Tom and Audrey, who have returned to the nest after spending the winter in South America. I have seen two chicks in that nest.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, where Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station. The puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887, but they were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland. More than 50 pairs nest there. (Three live videos are set up to show the puffins.)

If you are interested in watching brown bears feeding on salmon, stay tuned for live videos from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The action should begin in July, according to information on the website. Meanwhile, you can watch recorded videos from previous times.

One of my favorite live cams is still Pete’s Pond (video player at right), a watering hole on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa. It began as a National Geographic project and is now operated by WildEarth, which features several other wildlife cams. Operators, working remotely, turn the camera to find the best action at any moment.

The Vancouver Aquarium has live cams showing:

If you’d like to see blacktip reef sharks and other fish, check out the video below from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.


Watching the devastating decline of starfish

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid


For humpback whale, so many fish, so little luck

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, which keeps moving away. Photos by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, but the fish keep moving away.
Photo by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck, probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached, the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the water.

“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and clear water probably did not favor it.”

In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued, the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see, he said.

“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”

The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon before their release.

The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in Prince William Sound.

Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.

The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s, large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said. Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully recovered.

“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he said.

As stated in an announcement by ADFG:

“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days (south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head), and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”

Another good source of information on herring is the Prince William Sound Science Center.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the fish, as it surges to the surface.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the herring, as it surges to the surface.


Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures


Erich Hoyt will talk about orcas and more

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Erich Hoyt, who has been enjoying adventures with killer whales and other sea creatures since the early 1970s, will share his understanding of the underwater world during a series of presentations from British Columbia to Northern California.

Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt

The tour begins today on Saturna Island in British Columbia. For the full schedule, visit The Whale Trail website.

Erich has a rare talent. He is both an engaging writer as well as an experienced scientific researcher. His first book, “Orca: A Whale Called Killer,” is essential reading for orca supporters. His understanding of the oceans has led him into the field of conservation, seeking greater protections for marine habitats throughout the world.

As Erich prepared for his upcoming tour, sponsored by The Whale Trail, I had the privilege to visit with him for more than an hour via Skype from his home in Bridport, England.

We discussed how people’s attitudes in the U.S. and Canada have changed since 1973. That was when Erich’s curiosity was sparked by encounters with Northern Resident orca pods in British Columbia, where he had moved from the U.S. with his family.

Those were the days when little was known about killer whales. Orcas were still being captured in the Northwest and sent to aquariums throughout the world. Since then, we have learned how those first captures had a serious effect on the close-knit orca communities. Continuing threats today include pollution and a lack of chinook salmon, the primary prey of orcas.

In 1999, Erich helped start a research program in Russian to bring the same kind of scientific scrutiny and conservation concerns to killer whales on the opposite side of the ocean. That program, involving Russian scientists, revealed the presence of two types of orcas, those that eat marine mammals and those that eat fish — similar to what we call “transients” and “residents” in the Northwest.

Orca communities identified so far in Russia range in size from 50 to 600 animals. As we’ve seen in the Northwest, cultures — such as vocal dialects and feeding habits — are handed down from mother to offspring.

An awareness of orcas, as seen in the U.S. and Canada, has not reached Russia or many places in the world, Hoyt says. Russia still allows killer whales to be captured, and last year seven orcas were taken from the Sea of Okhotsk. Earlier captures in Russia were especially disheartening to the researchers who had come to know the individual animals taken from their families.

During his presentation, Erich will show a brief video of some of the Russian capture efforts.

In countries such as Russia, China and Japan, new marine aquariums are being built all the time, with orcas and beluga whales as the star attractions. That’s in stark contrast to the situation in the U.S., where a growing awareness of wild orcas along with the film “Blackfish” has helped change people’s attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.

Erich told me that he would like to see more people around the world come to know individual orcas by name, as we do here in the Northwest.

“Look at how far things have come, from when we didn’t know anything about them to when we start to see them as our friends,” he said.

About a week ago, I reported that NOAA Fisheries had undertaken a yearlong review to determine if the “critical habitat” for Southern Resident killer whales should be extended down the Washington and Oregon coasts. See Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription). A special consideration for protecting the whales from undue noise was part of the petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hoyt agreed that sound should be given special consideration by the federal government.

“Rob Williams (a Canadian researcher) talks about acoustic refuges,” Erich noted. “It is a challenging issue, because whales and dolphins can hear so well… We will need much larger marine protected areas if we really want to protect them…”

A general increase in noise levels in the ocean can lead to habituation by marine mammals, he noted. As they grow accustomed to louder sounds, the animals may adjust — but how will that affect their ability to communicate and find prey? What are the prospects for their long-term survival under more noisy conditions?

And then there is the special issue of mid-frequency sonar, which can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss for some species. Navies that use sonar must be extra careful to avoid impacts, he said.

Erich and I also talked about L-112, the young female orca that washed up dead near Long Beach about the time the Royal Canadian Navy was conducting exercises far to the north. Investigators were unable to determine what caused the “blunt-force” injury to the animal. But they ruled out explosives being used by the Navy, because the currents were in the wrong direction and the distance was too great.

“This brings to mind the crash of the Malaysian jetliner,” Erich said. “You know something unusual happened, but it defies almost any explanation you bring up. Scientists tend to come up with explanations that are the simplest … but they should be careful not to rule anything out.”

Killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb has suggested that L-112’s mother may have carried her dead daughter to the area where she was found. Hoyt said he has personally observed a female white-sided dolphin carrying her dead offspring for more than two hours in Northern Japan.

“It was really touching. We didn’t know at first if the baby was dead. We were not very close. But eventually the mother just let go of the baby.”

Erich expects mixed audiences at his upcoming appearances — from people who know more about certain issues than he does to people who are dragged to the event by a friend.

One message will be that people can watch whales from shore without causing them any disturbance. That’s the mission of The Whale Trail, the organization sponsoring Erich’s trip to locations where killer whales may be seen from shore.

I told Erich about my first adventures with killer whales during the fall of 1997, when 19 orcas visited Dyes Inlet. See “The Dyes Inlet Whales 10 Years Later.” One of my messages at that time was to encourage people to watch from vantage points in Tracyton, Chico and Silverdale.

“Land-based whale watching is really close to my heart,” Erich told me. “It’s the kind of thing that’s important for the community … and a fantastic way to get to know wildlife.”

Hoyt’s appearances in Washington state include this Wednesday in Port Townsend, Thursday in Port Angeles and May 18 in Seattle. Visit The Whale Trail website for the full schedule.

Also, check out Erich Hoyt’s webpage for information about his ongoing activities.


K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

Monday, April 14th, 2014

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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