I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center
for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research
Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the
killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all
living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand
the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can
decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to
find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for
efforts to protect them.
On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain
your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated.
The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the
I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which
showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with
killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described
these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on
the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have
learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of
step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read
these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the
Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many
more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center
for Whale Research.
With highest regards, Chris.
The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract
with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month
survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound.
Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by
Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas,
researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives
and even their unique behaviors — which I would call
“personalities” for want of a better term.
Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the
lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness
for the animals in the
first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in
“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a
few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the
word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most
folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we
were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy —
mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from
Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo
technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a
few skeptics, I’m sure.”
I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a
number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning
now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far
we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting
how much more we have to learn.
log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct
encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study
on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit
“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM
and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½
mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were
initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several
minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port
Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and,
at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove
again for several minutes.
“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour
of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for
photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits.
Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach
the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a
little farther offshore.
“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By
maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated
by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet.
The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a
leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds
down, still proceeding westerly.”
Remember that this was only months after the final capture of
killer whales in Puget Sound. (See
account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the
intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales
came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.
If only they could know how much human attitudes around the
world have changed over the past 40+ years.
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound has published the final two
parts of a seven-part series on shorelines, bulkheads and nearshore
As we researched the series, I was able to interact with a lot
of interesting people — from coastal geologists to property owners.
Today’s experts in shoreline ecology credit the late Wolf Bauer
with many of the ideas that have become commonplace in shoreline
restoration. I was pleased when Washington Sea Grant produced a
video tribute to Wolf, who died in January at 103 years old.
One story I wrote, which was published today, involved a boat
ride along the eastern shoreline of North Kitsap, which was the
perfect setting for describing the geology and natural forces that
shape the shoreline. I must thank Hugh Shipman of the Washington
Department of Ecology and Paul Dorn of the Suquamish Tribe for
their expertise. Check out “Sources of
On an earlier boat ride, I joined up with a group of shoreline
property owners who were learning about nearshore ecology and the
benefits of bulkhead removal. The boat trip, sponsored by the Shore
Friendly Kitsap program, is part of a pilot project to introduce
the idea of removing bulkheads.
The tour departed from Brownsville and went up through Liberty
Bay near Poulsbo, where we observed a mixed assortment of houses
and associated shoreline structures. Some of these waterfront homes
were protected with massive rock bulkheads; some featured stubby
wooden walls; and some were surrounded by vegetation with no
bulkhead at all.
“Taking this boat ride lets you see what the natural shoreline
should look like,” said Lee Derror, a Tracyton resident who has
been contemplating whether to remove her bulkhead, built of
Cost of removal is a major obstacle for many property owners —
unless their bulkhead is already failing. The other major concern
is whether alternative “soft shore” protection will be enough to
protect their shoreline from excessive erosion.
Leaving Liberty Bay, the boat headed to Port Madison on
Bainbridge Island to examine the Powel family property, where a
bulkhead was removed in 2013. The 1,500-foot bulkhead removal is
believed to be the largest private removal so far in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun, Aug. 29, 2013, or the Shore
Jim Brennan, a consulting marine biologist, told the passengers
that accommodations were made to protect a historic boathouse on
the Powel property by placing large rocks around the foundation.
Also, the beach was sloped back to absorb incoming waves. Other
than that, the shoreline is expected to eventually look much the
way it did in the 1800s, with a reconnected salt marsh providing
food and protection for migrating salmon.
Lee Derror told me that property owners should take a look at
their shoreline from the water side, especially if they plan to
remove their bulkhead. The Kitsap tour was especially helpful, she
said, “because you get to rub elbows with the experts.”
Kitsap’s Shore Friendly pilot project — one of five projects in
the Puget Sound region — will help property owners determine if
bulkhead removal is right for them. It includes with a visit from a
volunteer, followed up by an assessment from an independent
geotechnical engineer. The last time I checked, county officials
were hoping to offer additional boat rides in the future.
Below are the seven shoreline stories written by science writer
Eric Scigliano and myself for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and
the online magazine “Salish Sea Currents.” These are published by
the Puget Sound Institute, which is associated with the University
of Washington. Funding came from the Environmental Protection
Capt. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,
has condemned the Humane Society of the U.S. for forming an
alliance with SeaWorld, saying SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby “has found
his Judas,” and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle “single-handedly put the
brakes on the movement inspired by Blackfish.” Read the full
Sea Shepherd’s website.
SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the U.S. are urging President
Obama to take a stronger stand against whaling by the Japanese
harpoon fleet, which recently returned to Japan with 333 dead minke
whales, all killed in the Antarctic.
“The United States is well-positioned to lead a comprehensive
effort to persuade Japan to abandon commercial whaling as an
anachronism that is imprudent, unnecessary for food security, cruel
and economically unsound,” states the
letter to Obama (PDF 464 kb), signed by Joel Manby, president
and CEO of SeaWorld, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of
Combining forces to oppose commercial hunting of marine mammals
throughout the world is one element of a negotiated agreement
between SeaWorld and HSUS. Of course, the most notable parts of
that agreement specified that SeaWorld would discontinue its
breeding program for killer whales and halt all theatrical
Water Ways, March 17.
This year’s whale hunt in the Antarctic was endorsed by the
Japanese government, which considers dead whales to be lethal
samples of tissue collected during an annual “research” trip, which
ultimately puts whale meat on the commercial market.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the whale
hunt, as carried out at that time, failed to meet scientific
standards. As a result, the Japanese government took a year off
from whaling, altered its plan and continued the whale hunt at the
end of last year going into this year. This time, Japanese
officials declared that they would no longer be subject to
international law on this issue, so a new lawsuit would be
Meanwhile, an expert panel of the International Whaling
Commission took a look at the new “research” plan and concluded
that Japan still had not shown how killing whales conforms to the
requirements of research, given options for nonlethal research. See
of the Expert Panel …”
Last week’s report by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean
Research said the whalers were able to obtain all 333 minke whales
proposed in the plan. It was the first time in seven years that the
full sampling was completed, because Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society was not there to interfere, according to the report on the New
Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean.
Of the 333 whales, males numbered 103 and females 230. Of the
females, 76 percent were sexually mature, and 90 percent of the
mature females were pregnant, suggesting a healthy population of
minke whales, according to the report.
The letter from Manby and Pacelle acknowledged that the U.S.
government had joined with 30 nations in December to write a letter
voicing concerns about Japan’s decision to resume whaling. But the
Manby-Pacelle letter also complains that the U.S. has given up its
leadership role on the issue, ceding to New Zealand and Australia
for the legal battles.
“In the United Kingdom, in Latin America, and elsewhere, whale
welfare is high on the diplomatic agenda with Japan and other
whaling nations,” the letter states. “We believe that it is time
for the United States to re-assert itself as a champion for whales,
and to take a stronger hand in pressing Japan to relinquish
Among the steps that should be considered, according to the
The U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission
should be empowered to threaten Japan with sanctions, though
details were not specified in the letter.
The U.S. government should include provisions against whaling
in international trade agreements.
Japan’s potential assets should be surveyed as a prelude to
invoking the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protective Act of
1967. The amendment allows a ban on imports of fishing products
from a country that violates international fishery conservation
rules — including those of the IWC.
Meanwhile, the successful Japanese whale hunt has motivated
environmental groups throughout the world to call on their national
governments to confront Japan directly, at least in diplomatic
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has confronted the
Japanese whaling ships on the high seas in years past, is
rethinking its plans for the future, according to Capt. Peter
Hammarstedt, chairman of Sea Shepherd Australia’s Board of
“Sea Shepherd was handicapped by the new ICR strategy of
expanding their area of operations and reducing their quota,
meaning that the time to locate them within the expanded zone made
intervention extremely difficult with the ships that Sea Shepherd
is able to deploy,” Hammarstedt said in a
This past season was an opportunity for world governments to
find the resolve to uphold international conservation law, he said.
The Australian and New Zealand governments could have sent patrols
to protect declared sanctuaries, but they failed to do so, “and
this has served to illustrate that the only thing that has proven
effective against the illegal Japanese whaling fleet has been the
interventions by Sea Shepherd,” he added.
Jeff Hansen, Sea Shepherd Australia’s managing director, said
the Australian and New Zealand governments have offered false
“The majority of Australians wanted the Australian government to
send a vessel to oppose the slaughter,” Hansen said. “They did not.
Sea Shepherd requested that the Australian government release the
location of the whalers. They refused. Instead, the governments
responsible for protecting these magnificent creatures stood by, in
the complete knowledge that both federal and international crimes
were taking place. This empty response from authorities in the wake
of the ICJ ruling is a disgrace.”
Hammarstedt hinted that Sea Shepherd might be back later this
year when the Japanese ships take off for another season of
“Sea Shepherd will soon have a fast long-range ship,” he said.
“More importantly, Sea Shepherd has something that the Australian
and New Zealand governments lack — and that is the courage, the
passion and the resolve to uphold the law.”
Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I
mean that in a good way.
When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front
lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see
more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege
in both the cost of property and taxes.
As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of
stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of
shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest
science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to
better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing
bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many
bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.
The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, are:
Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are
environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have
damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access
without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing
regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say,
“It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”
One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a
discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went
on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the
Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff
when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of
the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the
Puget Sound Partnership.
Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners
occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to
protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance
of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline
Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for
water bodies and adjacent lands.
The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the
waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,”
the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are
consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to
the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of
the state’s shoreline.”
As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay
learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private
“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with
upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property)
rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline
State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and
enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for
all time, regardless of ownership.
Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound
Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of
shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.
A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved
bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been
changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master
programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a
house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.
So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region
are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90
percent of the 101 cities.
Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never
been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for
which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and
cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use
For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the
work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting
work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline
regulations make much sense.
But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance
to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain
the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even
save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science,
and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling
When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually
check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the
same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each
of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.
Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two
days discussing how to create a medical database for all the
Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine
mammal population in the world.
Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual
orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such
as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.
“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical
mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get
meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern
Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the
U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both
countries and down the West Coast.
“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it
takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of
players with different types of data.”
Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides
of the border, Barre said.
Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share
available information that will eventually be used in research
reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a
nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the
information should have the right to publish his or her findings,
he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their
observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.
Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the
database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas
Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by
individual killer whales;
Observations of skin conditions;
Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body
conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible
Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and
other health conditions.
The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline
in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year
and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape
and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind
the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern
Residents are well known.
Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including
Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful
ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I
learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease
organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer
whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound
understanding of disease in
Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife
Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked
with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are
under close human observation and each has its own medical record.
Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose,
besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.
The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving
normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When
they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”
Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field.
If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the
animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought
to a hospital for care.
People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and
leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about
hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.
When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it
was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals
in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has
grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose
numbers are increasing in the wild.
Information collected for individual killer whales would not be
so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she
Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal
Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual
health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the
overall population. From there, management decisions were made to
protect the overall health of the population.
The same kinds of results could come from pulling together
information on the killer whales, she said.
“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on
the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you
can develop strategies to manage the problems.”
The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries
and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.
Our old friend the northern clingfish, whose belly can clamp
onto things and hold tighter than a suction cup, is the star in an
award-winning movie put together by researchers and students at the
University of Washington.
It’s only a three-minute movie, but the story of this intriguing
little fish captured the attention of 37,000 middle school students
from 17 different countries in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge. This
is a competition that encourages ocean scientists to share their
discoveries through short videos. Students selected the clingfish
video as the best in the amateur category after an initial
screening by a panel of scientists and communication experts.
The UW team included Adam Summers, professor of biology and of
aquatic and fishery sciences at Friday Harbor Laboratories, along
with Ian Stevens, a 2015 English graduate, and Zack Bivins, a
current English major. I featured Adam Summers and his studies of
the clingfish in an “Amusing Monday” post last May. See
Water Ways, May 11, 2015, and Michelle Ma’s original story for
The UW undergraduates met in 2014 while reading “Moby Dick” in
professor Richard Kenney’s English class at Friday Harbor
Laboratories, where science is mixed with the humanities. Stevens
and Bivens produced a 10-minute video about a sperm whale, called
“The Sperm Whale and You,” and Summers encouraged them to enter
the video contest. They clamped onto Summers’ research paper on the
clingfish and decided that would be their topic.
The project was entirely optional, driven only by the students’
passion for art and science.
“This is the intellectual life at its magnesium heat,” Kenney
told Michelle Ma in her latest
news release. “They were doing it for fun. That’s how you win;
it starts with excitement and passion.”
“It is pretty cool for a couple of UW English majors to waltz
into a national science outreach film competition and take top
honors,” Summers said. “I think it points to the excellent training
these students received on campus and also their ability to exploit
the intellectual hothouse of Friday Harbor Labs.”
The student winners are forming a video production company that
might make more films to explain science in a visually interesting
way. Next time, they could enter the Ocean 180 contest as
The competition, sponsored by the Florida Center for Ocean
Sciences Education Excellence, challenges scientists to bring their
research papers to life in ways that can help people find meaning
to their work. Entries must be tied to a specific research paper
published in the past five years.
First-place winners, amateur and professional, each received
$3,000. Second- and third- place winners received $2,000 and $1,000
Students judging the finalists in the competition came from
classes in which teachers signed up specific classrooms to watch
the videos. Assuming the competition continues, classroom
registration will begin in the fall.
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA
Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance”
for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and
dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic
explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used
for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have
acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in
Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command.
I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.
The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the
behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud
noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among
whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how
animals may be affected in other ways by noise.
The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for
minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information
may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other
cases protections may be reduced, according to information from
Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans
(whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals
and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing
abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may
The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups:
1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from
airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in
which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as
from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both
peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.
Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their
general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans,
including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans,
including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including
The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals,
including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true
seals, including harbor seals.
After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise,
I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is
measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various
locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more
complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds
account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the
intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the
animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’
Fisheries webpage on the guidance.
Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some
acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods
used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of
the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental
group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy
over sound exposures for marine mammals.
“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting
that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the
methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with
the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s
science has been sharply criticized.”
The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed
that they call into question how they could be used to protect
marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.
“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We
are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that
depend on their hearing to survive.”
The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the
new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much
noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake
social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species.
NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of
protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other
effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on
“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address
fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that
they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,”
Michael told me.
Sonar in Puget Sound
As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to
Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam
Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in
the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to
the south in Haro Strait.
At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the
Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick
to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was
disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS
Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my
story in the
Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.
Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet
command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the
letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries.
The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals
during testing and training operations.
Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from
observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait
about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy
Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.
Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy
public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed
that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of
Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile
destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never
“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the
requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical
error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of
the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s
email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting
less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the
procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any
Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind
of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some
loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary
actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has
taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance
of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.”
The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”
After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic
calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report
on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source
levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine
mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise
levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).
Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether
the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range,
but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any
changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was
used for a relatively short time.
“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making
mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for
doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at
least have a chance to spot the animals.
A graph showing the rise in global temperature or the increase
in ocean acidity is really just ink on paper. Emotionally, the
impact is minimal, unless a person truly understands the meaning
behind the lines and numbers shown on the chart.
That’s why I am thrilled and amused with the work of artist Jill
Pelto, who has uniquely bridged the gap between scientific charts
and living creatures. Jill has incorporated real climate data —
charts and graphs — into the backgrounds of her paintings, which
also tell compelling stories about the changing environment.
Take the water-color painting of clownfish (first on this page),
for example. The anemone in the background is outlined by pH data
from 1998 to 2012, as Jill explained to me in an email.
Ocean acidification results when atmospheric carbon dioxide
dissolves in the water to form carbonic acid. Higher-than-normal
levels of acidity can affect the brains of some fish, leading to
disorientation and a reduction in their ability to avoid
“The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion,
separated from the anemone in which they live,” Jill told me. “The
oceans may be vast, but if the pH drops globally, there is
literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the
The decline in pH, along with a further explanation of ocean
acidification, can be found on Climate Central’s website
WXshift (pronounced “weather shift”).
The greatest effects of climate change are being experienced in
the polar regions. Data describing the melting of Arctic sea ice
from 1980 to the present are expressed in Jill’s painting of the
“Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to
decline so quickly that species cannot adjust,” Jill wrote. “The
Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most
severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this
corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures
mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as
other species move farther north to escape their own warming
“I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One
is hunched and defensive; the other is yowling in panic. The sea
ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses
of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat.”
Changes in sea ice are described in Climate Central’s website
Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December
from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and
“I have always loved the outdoors and want to use my creative
skills to communicate information about extreme environmental
issues with a broad audience,” she says on her website, Glaciogenic Art. “I see
nature as a work of art and the origin of my observational skills.
I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, running,
camping and spending time with my friends and family. I make art
inspired by all of these experiences.”
Jill’s father, Mauri Pelto, a professor in environmental science
at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., has studied glacier recession
in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for decades. He founded the
Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted
with research on that and other projects around the country since
research paper on the North Cascade glaciers (PDF 1.6 mb)
contains these unsettling observations: “All 47 monitored glaciers
are currently undergoing a significant retreat, and four of them
have disappeared.” He goes on to add that this glacial retreat is
“ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.”
Experiencing such environmental changes first-hand has helped
shape Jill’s future.
“To me, it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s
something I personally experienced,” she told Brian Kahn of
Climate Central. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more
evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”
The decline in salmon inspired Jill to incorporate a graph of
coho population data into one painting. Receding glaciers, last
year’s lack of snowpack and a shortage of rainfall contributed to
real problems for salmon. Streams were too low and too warm,
reducing the amount of spawning.
“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs looking so barren was
frightening,” Jill said. “The salmon are depicted swimming along
the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can
swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower
streamflow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle
their population is facing as their spawning habitat declines.”
The final example on this page captures multiple measures of
climate change occurring across the globe, such as glacier mass
balance, sea level rise and temperature increase.
“I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be
compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in
Earth’s natural history,” Jill said. “One of the reasons scientists
study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen
now as a result of human-induced climate change.
“I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting
and calving, sea levels are rising and temperatures are increasing.
The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt
and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers
that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with
the timeline on the lower x-axis.”
I am really looking forward to seeing more of Jill’s work in the
future, as she continues her academic pursuits at the University of
Maine. Prints of her paintings are available for sale, and Jill can
be contacted through her website.