Category Archives: Research

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

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

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

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

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

As Dave noted in his observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth gets hot in 2014, breaks record for average temperature

UPDATE, Jan. 20, 2015
Some people apparently are skeptical about whether 2014 was actually the warmest on record. They cite probabilities provided by government researchers to support their skepticism. But at least some skeptics seem confused about the meaning of this statistical uncertainty.

Andrew Freedman of Mashable tackles the subject in a straightforward way. But the best point in his piece comes in the final paragraph:

At the end of the day, the discussion about a single calendar year obscures the more important long-term trend of warming air temperatures, warming and acidifying oceans along with melting ice sheets, all of which are hallmarks of manmade global warming. Including 2014, 13 of the top 15 warmest years have all occurred since 2000.

—–

Last year turns out to be the hottest year on record for the Earth’s surface, according to climate researchers who analyzed average temperatures across the globe.

The year 2014 adds yet another dramatic page to the record book, which now shows that the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000 — with the exception of the record year of 1998, which now stands as the fourth warmest on record.

The data were released this morning, with additional information provided in a telephone conference call with scientists from NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The two agencies conducted independent analyses of their data, coming to the same conclusion about the record year of 2014.

Across the Earth, the average temperature in 2014 was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the annual average of 57.0 degrees F, with records going back to 1880. That breaks the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degrees F. It’s also the 38th consecutive year that the annual global temperature was above average.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, mostly driven by an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the researchers said. Most of the warming has come since the 1980s.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, made this comment in a prepared statement:

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades. While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Although some skeptics have raised questions about whether global warming has been occurring in recent years, Schmidt said any short-term pause does not change the overall trend. In fact, the temperature rise seen for the past year fits perfectly onto a graph of the decades-long trend line for temperature rise.

temp graph

Ocean conditions such as El Nino or La Nina can affect temperatures year-to-year, Schmidt said. Since these phenomena can cool or warm the tropical Pacific, they probably played a role in temporarily “flattening” the long-term warming trend over the past 15 years, he added, but last year’s record-breaking temperatures occurred during a “neutral” El Nino year.

This past year was the first time since 1990 that the global heat record was broken in the absence of El Nino conditions during the year. If El Nino conditions are present at the end of 2015, the researchers said the chances are high that the record will be broken again this year.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post in Water Ways, strong regional differences were seen last year in the contiguous United States, with several western states experiencing record highs while the Midwest suffered through an abnormally cold winter. Other cold spots can be seen on the global map, but the hot spots more than balanced them out to break the heat record.

global temps

Much of the record warmth of the Earth can be attributed to record heat accumulated across the oceans. The average ocean temperature in 2014 was 1.03 degrees higher than the longterm average of 60.9 degrees, breaking previous records set in 1998 and 2003.

Record months for ocean temperatures were seen from May through November, with January through April each among the all-time top seven, while December was the third warmest December on record. The all-time monthly record was broken in June of last year, then broken again in August and again in September. Such sustained warmth in the ocean has not been seen since 1997-98 — during a strong El Nino.

On the land surface, the average temperature was 1.8 degrees higher than the long-term average of 47.3 degrees F, or the fourth highest average land temperature on record.

Europe is expected to report that 2014 was the warmest year in at least 500 years, according to information from the World Meteorological Organization. Last year surpasses the previous record set in 2007. Much of that warmth can be attributed to the second-warmest winter on record, followed by a record-warm spring.

According to the WMO report, 19 European countries have reported or are expected to report that last year was their hottest year on record. They Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Around the world, precipitation was near average for 2014, the third year that near-average precipitation was measured for land-based stations.

The 10 warmest years on record, in order:

1. 2014, 1.24 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2010, 1.17 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2005, 1.17 degrees above average
4. 1998, 1.13 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2013, 1.12 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2003, 1.12 degrees above average
7. 2002, 1.10 degrees above average
8. 2006, 1.08 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2009, 1.06 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2007, 1.06 degrees above average

For further information, check out:

Global Analysis — Annual 2014 from NOAA, and

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis from NASA.

Overall, last year was very warm in Washington state

Last year, Washington state experienced its fifth-hottest year in 120 years of records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, records for average temperatures were broken in California, Arizona and Nevada, which lived through the highest averages in 120 years. Oregon had just one hotter year on record, while Idaho had three years with higher averages.

Temps

In Washington, the average temperature for the year was 48.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.3 degrees above the long-term average. Hotter years were 1934 with 49.1 degrees; 1958, 49.0 degrees; 1992, 48.7 degrees; and 1998, 48.6 degrees. In 2004, the average temperature was 48.4, the same as this year.

California’s record high was based on an average temperature of 61.5 degrees, with Arizona at 62.3 and Nevada at 53.1. Oregon’s average of 49.5 degrees was exceeded only in 1934, when the annual average was 49.9 degrees.

For the nation as a whole, the average temperature in 2014 was tempered by some fairly extreme low temperatures in the Midwest, stretching into the Mississippi Valley. For the contiguous United States, the average temperature was 52.6 degrees — 0.5 degrees higher than the long-term average and tied with 1977 as the 34th warmest year on record, according to information from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Despite several months of record and near-record lows across the middle of the country, no state had an annual average that set a record for cold or even ranked among their five coolest years.

For the contiguous U.S. as a whole, last year was the 18th year in a row with an average temperature above the 120-year average. The last year with a below-average temperature was 1996. Since 1895, the temperature has risen an average of 0.13 degrees F per decade.

Precipitation across the contiguous U.S. was 30.76 inches last year, or 0.82 inch above the 120-year average. That makes it the 40th wettest year on record. On average, precipitation has increased by 0.14 inch per decade.

Precip

For Washington state, 2014 was the 16th wettest year on record. The average across the state was 48.73 inches, some 6.7 inches above the 120-year average.

Above-average precipitation occurred across the northern states last year, while the Southern Plains and Central Appalachians experienced below-average conditions.

Drought conditions continue in California, despite near-average annual precipitation. Exacerbating the problem is a three-year rainfall deficit combined with record-high temperatures this past year.

Meanwhile, drought conditions improved across the Midwest and Central Plains, though both improvements and declines were observed in various parts of the Southern Plains, Southwest and Southeast.

Washington state had its fourth-wettest spring on record, while Kansas had its third-driest spring. Other seasonal conditions can be found on the NCDC’s “National Overview” for 2014. The “Climate at a Glance” page can help you break down the data by state and time period.

Global data and analyses from NCDC are scheduled to be released tomorrow.

Update on the travels of J pod along with new calf

map 1-12

J pod crossed the Canadian border and came into Puget Sound over this past weekend, allowing Brad Hanson and his fellow researchers to meet up with whales.

Brad, of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was able to locate the killer whales from a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

As you can see from the chart, the whales swam south, then turned back north near Vashon and Maury islands. The researchers met up with them Saturday morning on their return trip past Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to an update on the project’s website.

The newest baby in J pod, designated J-50, was spotted with J-16, according to the report from Hanson and crew. Other reports have indicated that J-36 was also nearby, so it appears that the new calf’s mother still is not certain. Researchers agree that the mom is either J-36, a 15-year-old orca named Alki, or else Alki’s mother — 42-year-old J-16, named Slick.

The researchers collected scraps of fish left behind by the orcas’ hunting activities. Fecal samples also were collected. Those various samples will help determine what the whales were eating.

Orca Network published photos taken by whale observers near Edmonds north of Seattle as well as from Point No Point in North Kitsap.

Yesterday, J pod headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The map shows them at the entrance to the strait going toward the ocean at 6:15 this morning.

Orca Network reports that K and L pods apparently headed into Canada’s Strait of Georgia on Friday, as J pod moved into Puget Sound. It sounds like the two pods missed each other. We’ll see if they meet up in the next few days.

Meanwhile, at least one group of transient killer whales has been exploring South Puget Sound for more than 50 days, according to the Orca Network report. That’s a rare occurrence indeed. A second group of transients has been around for much of that time as well.

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the “cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.

“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a leg up on the Cold War.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

As I described yesterday in Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.

Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers, who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint into perspective.

“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these guys are villains. This is a totally different story from ‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”

While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm they were doing.

“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them up that they have gotten a black eye.”

Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh said.

“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.

Book

New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.

“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors inside the Navy.”

One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential harm to marine life.

Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training. They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times when whales are likely to be there.

More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be encountered in real life.

“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he said.

“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it would be a win for everybody,” he added.

Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of energy and its overall carbon footprint.

One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do. “I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine life throughout the world, he said.

“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution that will still be there for a very long time.”

At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us, he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with marine mammals.

Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the 1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which involves putting writers together with characters who have a great story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.

Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version is in the works.

During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money raised through The Ocean Foundation.

By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project and get the book into print.

Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C., with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals, in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the world.

Book

Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound, has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the whales.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book, given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.

I consider this book to be several stories woven into one. First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.

Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology, developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz describes it.

The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed success.

Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to environmental law versus the need for national security. As a result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.

Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters, especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s single-minded approach to national security.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place, practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and he made the connection to the dead whales.

From there, other researchers and policy officials became involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being swept under the rug.

“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of whales.”

We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.

Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks revealed something about their past and present positions in life.

Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete the book.

“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken, somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story could not be assailed.

Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.

Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials, whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other retired officers.

“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping him understand anti-submarine warfare.

Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in promotional materials for the book:

“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.

“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.”

In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one especially important to those of us living in an area where the Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine life.

Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and what he learned along the way.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

It’s a girl! Orca gender identified; her mother remains a mystery

Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research.

The baby killer whale, J-50, with her family.Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research
The baby killer whale, J-50, reveals that she is a girl as she swims with her family in British Columbia.
Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research

We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16, known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.

“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me, but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From all indications, the little one is doing fine.

Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16, because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told me.

Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year. Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side. According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their babies near the surface of the water.

Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For comparison, see Questions & Answers at Center for Whale Research website.

I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail slapping and porpoising.

“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16 a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they would group up at times.

“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,” he added.

Because J-27, a male in J pod, has been carrying a satellite transmitter since Dec. 28, experts have a pretty good idea about their location, as the orcas move about. Check out the maps on NOAA’s website, “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

As of this afternoon, J pod, including the J-16 clan, was near Nanaimo, B.C., and headed south toward the Washington border, according to Tom Cogan, who was in the vicinity.

J pod will be tracked by satellite again this year

A 24-year-old male orca named Blackberry, designated J-27, has been carrying a satellite transmitter since Monday, allowing experts to track the movements of J pod.

Map of J-27 shows 38 hours of travel, ending travels from 9:43 a.m. today. Downloaded by Robin Baird
Map of J-27 shows 38 hours of travel, ending at 9:43 a.m. today. // Downloaded by Robin Baird

The research project, started in 2011 and led by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is designed to figure out where J pod goes in winter and early spring. J pod does not seem to travel far down the West Coast, as K and L pods do.

As luck would have it, the satellite tag was in place Wednesday when a portion of J pod headed into East Sound on the south side of Orcas Island. A day later, they were seen by observers with a new calf, J-50, which I reported in Water Ways yesterday and updated today. Nobody seems to recall the whales ever going into that waterway, as suggested by comments to a post on Orca Network’s Facebook page yesterday at 5:19 p.m. It’s long been speculated that orcas seek out calm waters, when possible, to give birth.

The mother of J-50 is still a mystery, though it could be solved as observers notice which adult female is spending the most time with the young animal.

After J-27 was tagged about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey Island, San Juan Island and Victoria, the whales worked their way through the islands near the Canadian border, then moved north to Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia, east of Comox, B.C. As of this morning, they were still traveling around that general vicinity, as you can see from the map on this page and previous maps on the project’s webpage. The page called “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging” also contains information about the project’s goals.

I have written about these tagging efforts and the controversy surrounding them since permits were first proposed under the Endangered Species Act. You’ll find last year’s stories and links to previous stories in Water Ways on Jan. 3, 2014, and later on Jan. 14, 2014. You can also search the blog for “satellite and orcas” to find just about everything I’ve blogged about on the topic.

J-27 and other members of J pod moved into East Sound near Orcas Island on Monday. The cluster of points represent travels between 4 and 5 a.m. the next morning. A newborn orca was spotted Wednesday.
J-27 and other members of J pod moved into Orcas Island’s East Sound on Monday. The cluster of points represents travels between 4 and 5 a.m. the next morning. A newborn orca was observed on Wednesday. // Downloaded by Robin Baird

Oldest orca mom to give birth offers twist of fate for Puget Sound whales

UPDATE, JAN. 2, 2015

After thinking it over, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Researchers says it is likely that J-16 is the grandmother of the new calf, not the mother.

J-16, known as Slick, could have been babysitting the young whale when the two were spotted by observers. If so, the mom is probably J-36, a 15-year-old female named Alki, who was following a few miles behind at the time.

The pattern of older whales taking care of young relatives has been seen many times before, occasionally even with newborns, Ken told me. The mother may have needed some time for rest and recovery after giving birth, especially if it was a tough delivery, he said.

The baby had evident scratches, known as “rake marks,” on its back and dorsal fin caused by the teeth of another killer whale, Ken said. He believes it could be an indication that the grandmother assisted with the birth.

Whoever the mother is, the baby’s condition indicates that it has been nursing, and that’s a good sign.

If J-16 is the mother, she would be the oldest known orca to give birth among the three Southern Resident pods. If it is J-36, then the young mom could need help from her own mother.

If J-36 is the mom, then she should be spending most of her time with her new baby. That could come within a few days or up to a couple weeks, Ken told me. Observers are making a special effort to see who is spending time with whom over the next few days.

“This is an interesting little mystery,” Ken said. “If the whales do their part, we should be able to figure it out.”

Tracking them could be made easier because of a satellite tag attached to another member of J pod — J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry. The barbed tag was attached to the whale’s dorsal fin in open waters about equidistant from Sequim, Whidbey Island, Victoria and the south end of San Juan Island. Since then, the whales have moved north into Canada. I’ll soon have a separate blog post on the tracking study.
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By Milt Priggee in Kitsap Sun
By Milt Priggee in Kitsap Sun

A newborn killer whale, reported Tuesday by the Center for Whale Research, was identified as the offspring of 42-year-old J-16 — the oldest known orca to ever give birth among the three Puget Sound pods.

“No other female has given birth at over 42 years of age in the four decades of demographic field studies of the Southern Resident orcas,” according to a statement from Orca Network. “J-16 was not expected to be carrying a calf due to her advanced age.”

It’s odd how the circumstances have worked out. The birth of this new calf, designated J-50, becomes the first major news story about the Southern Residents since we heard about the death of J-32, named Rhapsody. See Water Ways for Dec. 7 and a later report on Dec. 12.

Rhapsody was only 18 years old when she died carrying an unborn calf. Before her death, experts had high hopes that Rhapsody would live long and produce many babies. If she had ever given birth before, her offspring died before they were noticed by observers.

So it is that we have the death of a young killer whale with an unborn calf and now a new birth to an older whale thought to be beyond reproductive age. Let’s hope this new baby orca survives, lives long and contributes to the endangered killer whale population.

J-16, named Slick, has six known offspring, including the new baby. Three others are still alive: J-26, a male named Mike, born in 1991; J-36, a female named Alki, born in 1999; and J-42, a female named Echo, born in 2007. The deceased offspring are a male that died at 14 years of age in 2010 and a baby orca that died in 2011 after living about a month.

The birth and death records are maintained by the Center for Whale Research. Young orcas are typically given names by The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor after they survive through a winter.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 78 — down from 88 less than four years ago.

J16, a 40-year-old orca named Slick, attends her her newborn calf, J50. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
J-16, a 40-year-old orca named Slick, leads her newborn calf, J-50.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.