Category Archives: Oceans

Amusing Monday: Entering the world of
a top ocean predator

I was quite impressed when I watched this video of a diver cutting away a thick rope that had been slicing into the flesh of a massive whale shark. The animal, spotted 300 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, remained calm throughout the operation.

Daniel Zapata, dive team leader aboard the Solmar V cruise ship, said the divers knew it might be dangerous to cut the whale shark free, but it was heartbreaking for them to watch while the animal was suffering.

“We talked about it for some time between dives,” Zapata said in a question-and-answer interview with Joanna McNamara of Project Aware. “When we saw the whale shark again, I knew I had to help. It felt so good to cut this whale shark free. I found a thinner section of the rope and cut through it. I unwrapped the rope from each side of the whale shark and finally she was free.”

The action may have saved the life of the pregnant female and her unborn offspring, according to observers.

This video was featured on the Smithsonian Channel as part of the latest series “Secrets of Shark Island.” The “secret,” according to promotional material, is that the Revillagigedo Islands, some 200 miles from the Mexican coast, is home to one of the greatest concentrations of fish in the world.

“This is the only natural juncture for miles in an otherwise empty Pacific Ocean and a crucial area for migrating sharks and other apex predators,” states the Smithsonian Channel website. “Enter a world where whitetip sharks, giant lobsters and moray eels share living quarters, humpback whales breed, and mantas and tuna feast on bait in this land of plenty.”

The Smithsonian Channel has been going a little crazy over sharks the past few years. But it isn’t just about sharks. It’s about the people who love them. Two years ago, we were introduced to “Shark Girl” aka Madison Steward, who grew up around sharks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and is as fearless as they come around the sharp-toothed creatures. See second video on this page.

“Sharks are misunderstood like no other creature, to the point where it is actually contributing to their slaughter,” Madison told Gerri Miller of Mother Nature Network. “I think it has a lot to do with media, but also that people cannot go and see them for themselves and learn the truth.

“Sharks are NOT what you think,” she continued, “and myself and many other people spend hours in the water with large sharks and feed them at ease on regular occasions. They are the apex predators, and nature doesn’t make animals like this for no reason. They are essential in our oceans. In previous years, the decimation of the shark population has caused the surrounding ecosystem to collapse. They are truly the ‘boss’ of our oceans.”

The third video is something of a personal manifesto from Madison Stewart, spoken in a voice-over as she swims in an awe-inspiring underwater world with ethereal music playing in the background.

If you think you know sharks, take a quiz from MNN.

Want to see more amazing sharks and stories from people involved with them? Check out these videos from Smithsonian Channel:

“Secrets of Shark Island” series

“Shark Girl” series

“Death Beach” series

“Great White: Code Red” series

“Hunt for the Super Predator” series

Also, “Shark Girl” Madison Stewart has produced some fine videos since she was 14 years old. Watch them on the Madison Stewart website, “Good Youth in a Bad Sea.”

SeaWorld pulled into long-running battle against Japanese whaling

UPDATE: April 4, 2016

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 commentary on Sea Shepherd’s website.
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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.

Three dead minke whales were hauled up on the deck of the Japanese whale-processing ship MV Nisshin Maru in 2014. Photo: Tim Watters, Sea Shepherd Australia
Three dead minke whales were hauled up on the deck of the Japanese whale-processing ship MV Nisshin Maru in 2014 in the Antarctic.
Photo: Tim Watters, Sea Shepherd Australia

“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 HSUS.

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 performances. See 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 meaningless.

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 “Report 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 commercial whaling.”

Among the steps that should be considered, according to the letter:

  • 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.

For readers interested in the SeaWorld issue, I should note that Pacelle still vigorously defends his alliance with SeaWorld. In a blog post announcing the anti-whaling letter, he adds further explanations for his position.

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 circles.

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 Directors.

“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 news release.

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 promises.

“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 whaling.

“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.”

Amusing Monday: Climate science finds artistic expression

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.

Clownfish

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 predators.

“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 water.”

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 Arctic foxes.

Foxes

“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 environment.

“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 WXshift.

Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and Earth science.

“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 ongoing North Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted with research on that and other projects around the country since high school.

Salmon

Mauri’s 2008 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.”

Suns

Read more about the decline of salmon in Mauri Pelto’s blog on the American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

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.”

Jill offers these references on sea level rise, the “disastrous year” of 2015, and the annual climate report by NOAA and NASA.

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.

Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what was forecast for 2015.

Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

Coho forecast

“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”

Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point, as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes. Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some people argue that they should be.

2015 coho returns

By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in a column published online.

She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied, they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than 4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she said.

Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound. Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.

“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.”

Chinook forecast

The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.

In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers than last year.

One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean. About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish, known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.

2015 chinook returns

Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.

Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in discussions about the seasons.

“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery, and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm told me following Tuesday’s meeting.

Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said. Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular among sport fishers.

2016 chinook forecast

Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.

Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.

“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike last year,” he said.

sockeye forecasts

The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content, causing coho to be thinner and fewer.

The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40 percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year, everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the computer modeling this year.

Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details. The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor (red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75 percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the 10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls between 75 percent and 125 percent.

Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for spawning in the streams.

“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.

Youngest orca dies; ocean research goes on

UPDATE, Feb. 29

Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb. 25.
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The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s passing.

“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb. 25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken stated in a news release issued yesterday.

New calf J-55 with adult females J-14 and J-37. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
After it was born, the new calf J-55 was seen with presumed relatives J-14 and J-37. Now missing, the young orca is declared dead. // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced “high-shka”).

Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn, apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing around her deceased calf. See Water Ways, Jan. 19.

The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was 12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish who is just entering the reproductive age.

J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.

J-37 seen this week with her son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-37 seen this week with her 4-year-old son J-49. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.

“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population, it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive their first year.

J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR
J-40, 12 years old, seen this week with her mother J-14. No sign of the calf J-55.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon – if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and thrive.”

The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami Seaquarium.

Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team, said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but they include various family groups in both pods.

On Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other members of K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. NOAA map
From Tuesday to Thursday, tagged orca L-95 and other whales in K and L pods moved south to the Columbia River. // NOAA map

The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the coast. (See Water Ways, Wednesday.)

On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.

“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark wrote in a report to the Center for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30 p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of the Olympic Peninsula).”

After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.

“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to stay with them all night.

“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations with the whales.”

In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed “surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce winds and waves tomorrow.

Ocean conditions were nearly perfect for whale research on Thursday. NOAA photo
Conditions were nearly ideal for whale research on Thursday, as the vessel Bell M. Shimada follows K and L pods down the coast.
NOAA photo

Researchers locate orcas off the coast; new satellite tag attached

As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him. That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s Eve, when it was first attached.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

It might have been easier to locate the whales if the transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at least a general pattern.

After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region between the Columbia River and Westport.

To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry. By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.

This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to spot them.

“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning, with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with members of L pod.”

Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective and Bio-Waves — were able to get on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.

The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions, they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy weather.

As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.

On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days. Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.

For maps showing the tracking of L-33 and now L-95, visit the NOAA’s website “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast, presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those travels in a moment.

Report

NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest risk of extinction.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts through enforcement, education and evaluation: This includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise and other problems to be identified.
  • Target recovery of critical prey: Because chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
  • Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places that are important to them.
  • Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.

And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be assessed on the water.

Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20. NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport, Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales, assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.

Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can, as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled for next year.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”

The researchers are trying to account for differences among the pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers would like to see whether the whales are going to different places or acting differently.

Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings are collected at the end of the season.

In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales and provide information about hormone levels and other indications of general health.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino, Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time, they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan. 22.

Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were over Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong currents rising up from the underwater chasm.

The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on Jan. 29.

From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days, mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching the edge of the continental shelf.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport (not yet depicted on the map).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of death has not yet been determined. For additional information, review the news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
—–

For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.

On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer whale.

Deceased orca calf

If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated people.

The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island says everything points to the whale being one of the seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles, research director for CWR.

Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing more than a dead marine mammal.

“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients. Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are expected within two or three weeks.

Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate, transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents. Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in 2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.

For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and struggling to survive along with the orcas.

Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011, when the population reached about 300, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote areas where they may not be seen by anyone.

Several older transients among this population have died in recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.

Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For details, check out the 2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).

More on tagging study

Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad Hanson.

This year’s data could provide additional information about how the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.

The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center for Whale Research.

Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the U.S. Navy.

Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”

Amusing Monday: I’m learning my ABCs and something about Earth

Adam Volland of NASA’s Earth Observatory program came up with an interesting idea. Looking over satellite images, Adam has found every letter of the alphabet formed by Earthly features, mostly land-based formations.

Letter B

He calls it “Reading the ABCs from Space.”

Whoever knew that Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas forms the letter “B” if you include a nearby section of the Arkansas River?

He found the letter “C” in a man-made island in the southern part of Bahrain, an island country in the Persian Gulf.

What I also like about Adam’s project is the narrative he has written about each letter, describing the names of relevant features, animals and objects that start with the particular letter, including links to learn more about those features.

Letter C

Here’s what he wrote for the letter “Z”: “What begins with Z? Zenith and zooplankton. Zillions of smoke particles zipping, zooming and zigzagging above Canada!”

And it all ties together, since Adam’s Z is an image of wildfire smoke over Canada. As the caption explains (and all images are explained), the image for “Z” was captured with a “moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer” (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Letter Z

Considering all the associated links, this was a big project to create. It is also a great way to organize a lot of educational material. It reminds me of when I was in junior high school and decided to read the entire “World Book Encyclopedia.” I started at the beginning of the first book, a thick one that contained all the “A” words. I read for an hour or two each night after doing my regular homework. After many weeks, I was about halfway through the “A” words before I shifted my attention to other reading materials.

I’m sure it won’t take nearly as long to read through Adam’s letters and all the linked materials. I’ve begun reading “The ABCs from space” with the letter “A” and expect to learn a lot about things on Earth.

A unique view of Earth, as seen from the moon

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

When I saw this amazing photo of our water planet, I knew I had to share it with readers of this blog. NASA is offering a high-resolution image (click to enlarge) on its website.

The composite photo was taken from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which orbits the moon and can see the Earth rising and setting above the moon’s horizon.

“The image is simply stunning,” said Noah Petro, deputy project scientist for LRO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17, 43 years ago, which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.”

His comments and other information are provided in a NASA news release.

LRO experiences 12 Earthrises every day, but its instruments are normally focused on the lunar surface. Images of Earth are captured rarely when LRO’s camera is turned away from the moon to study the extremely thin lunar atmosphere or to make calibration adjustments, according to the news release, which explains the entire process.

The image above was composed from a series of photos taken Oct. 12, when the spacecraft was about 83 miles above the farside of the moon.

Astronauts on the moon can never see the Earth rise or set. Since the moon revolves around its axis at the same rate as its rotation around the Earth, it always appears in the same spot in the moon’s sky. That location varies by where the observer is standing on the moon’s surface, and there is no Earth visible from the farside of the moon. Where the Earth is visible, the view of the planet is constantly changing, as continents rotate into view — unlike the view of the moon’s surface from Earth, which never changes.

NASA’s first Earthrise image was taken with the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft in 1966. Perhaps NASA’s most iconic Earthrise, according to NASA, was taken by the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve in 1968.