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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Amusing Monday: Celebrating Alvin’s animals

Monday, July 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Erich Hoyt will talk about orcas and more

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

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

Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

Friday, April 11th, 2014

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.


International court rules against Japanese whaling

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Japanese whalers who hunt whales in the Antarctic can no longer justify their actions as “scientific research” and must stop their annual whale roundup, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

The court ruled today that Japan’s so-called “research” does not meet ordinary scientific standards. The court ordered Japan to stop killing whales under the guise of its research program, called JARPA II. As stated in a 73-page finding (PDF 649 kb) supported by 12 of the 16 judges:

“Taken as a whole, the Court considers that JARPA II involves activities that can broadly be characterized as scientific research, but that the evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.

“The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not ‘for purposes of scientific research’ pursuant to Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the Convention (the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling).”

In the legal action brought before the United Nations court by Australia, the judges carefully scrutinized the JARPA II methods and procedures. They found that the sampling procedure and lethal take of minke, fin and humpback whales falls short of legitimate scientific study in many regards:

“The fact that the actual take of fin and humpback whales is largely, if not entirely, a function of political and logistical considerations, further weakens the purported relationship between JARPA II’s research objectives and the specific sample size targets for each species — in particular, the decision to engage in the lethal sampling of minke whales on a relatively large scale.”

A news release (PDF 174 kb) issued by the court does a fair job of summarizing the findings:

“Examining Japan’s decisions regarding the use of lethal methods, the court finds no evidence of any studies of the feasibility of or the practicability of non-lethal methods, either in setting the JARPA II sample sizes or in later years in which the programme has maintained the same sample size targets. The court also finds no evidence that Japan examined whether it would be feasible to combine a smaller lethal take and an increase in non-lethal sampling as a means to achieve JARPA II’s research objectives.”

After the ruling, Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s representative at the court, addressed reporters at the Peace Palace in The Hague. According to a report by Australian Associated Press, Tsuruoka stated:

“Japan regrets and is deeply disappointed that JARPA II … has been ruled by the court as not falling within the provisions of Article 8. However, as a state that respects the rule of law, the order of international law and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the decision of the court.”

He said Japanese officials would need to digest the judgment before considering a future course of action. He refused to discuss whether a new research program could be crafted to allow whaling to resume.

Australian officials were careful not to gloat over the victory as they emphasized the need to maintain favorable relations with Japan. Bill Campbell, Australia’s general counsel in the case, was quoted by the AAP:

“The decision of the court today, important as it is, has given us the opportunity to draw a line under the legal dispute and move on.”

The ruling was welcomed by environmental groups, including Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sent ships to the Antarctic to directly confront the whaling ships and interfere with their whaling activities, as seen on the television show “Whale Wars.” Capt. Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global had this to say in a news release:

“With today’s ruling, the ICJ has taken a fair and just stance on the right side of history by protecting the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the vital marine ecosystem of Antarctica, a decision that impacts the international community and future generations. Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books.”


Mystery of L-112′s death may never be solved

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It appears we’ll never know what killed L-112, known as Victoria or Sooke, found dead at 3 years old, after she washed up on an ocean beach in Southwest Washington.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February 2012, and the cause of her death remains a mystery.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

If you recall from two years ago, much speculation swirled around the notion that the female orca was killed by military operations, such as sonar or an explosion. The Royal Canadian Navy confirmed the use of sonar and small underwater detonations west of Vancouver Island. But that was far from Long Beach, where the orca washed up, and ocean currents suggest she was killed even farther south. For a quick history, see Water Ways from Feb. 18, 2012, followed by an entry on May 16, 2012.

The latest report concludes, as early ones did, that L-112 died from “blunt force trauma.” But the cause of the trauma could not be determined. No sonar activity or explosions were identified in the area where her death probably occurred, although a physical examination was not able to totally rule out those causes.

A new bit of information emerges from the long-term acoustic recorders that listen for sounds off the coast. Calls identified as coming from L pod were reported near Point Reyes in California on Jan. 30, off Westport in Washington on Feb. 5, and near Newport in Oregon on Feb. 20. L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11 after floating for several days. It appears likely that the young whale was with her pod at the time of her death.

As the report states:

“This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the source of the blunt trauma despite gathering and evaluating all available information on the whales, the environment, and human activities. We evaluated the sighting history of the whales to provide insight into the circumstances of the stranding.

“Autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California indicated that the main group of L Pod, possibly including L-112, was off California in late January, heading north, and possibly off Westport, Washington in the first week of February and detected near Newport, Oregon after the stranding…

“A major source of trauma from sonar, explosives, or a seismic event would likely have affected multiple individuals traveling together as killer whales are known to do. All other members of L-112’s family group were sighted following L-112’s stranding. No other members of the L4 sub-group were reported missing, injured, or stranded between the time of the L-112 stranding and the summer of 2012.

“This observation leads us to believe that the trauma suffered by L-112 was likely borne individually and was not an event that covered a large area or that directly impacted the young whale’s most likely traveling companions in the L4 sub-group. For these reasons, we do not believe that L-112 succumbed to blast injuries or exposure to other high intensity sound.”

So was L-112 struck by a ship? Did she encounter another aggressive whale or large shark? Or was she hit by another unknown force or object? We’ll probably never know, as the mystery goes on and on and people continue to ask, “Who killed L-112?”

To review a copy of the report, go to the website “Wild Animal Mortality Investigation: Southern Resident Killer Whale L112 Final Report.”

Reporter Phuong Le covered the story today for The Associated Press.


Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.


View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”


Group petitions to expand orca critical habitat

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Because Southern Resident killer whales spend so much time foraging in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal waters from Washington to Northern California should be designated for special protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Southern Resident killer whales NOAA photo

Southern Resident killer whales // NOAA photo

The environmental group listed research conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service — including ongoing satellite-tracking studies — in a new petition to the agency. The “Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation …” (PDF 340 kb) calls for the West Coast to be designated as critical habitat from Cape Flattery in Washington to Point Reyes in California. The protected zone would extend out nearly 50 miles from shore.

Environmental activists have long argued that the whales depend on more than the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for their survival. Those inland areas, currently designated as critical habitat, are where the whales normally spend most of the summer months. But when winter comes around, where the whales go has been a relative mystery until recent years.

Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity

Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity

An intensive research program has pointed to the conclusion that all three pods venture into Pacific Ocean, and K and L pods travel far down the coast. Research methods include a coastal network of people watching for whales, passive recorders to pick up sounds from the orcas, and work from large and small research vessels. Satellite tracking has allowed researchers to map the whales’ travels. (See Water Ways, Jan. 14.) In addition, forage activity has been observed where rivers drain into the ocean, and many researchers believe that the Columbia River may be especially important.

In addition to the proposal to expand critical habitat, the petition calls for NMFS to include man-made noise among the characteristics getting special attention. The petition states:

“Moreover, in revising the critical habitat designation for Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS must also preserve waters in which anthropogenic noise does not exceed levels that inhibit communication, disrupt foraging activities or result in hearing loss or habitat abandonment.

“A variety of human activities, including shipping operations, have the potential to impair these functions by generating additional ocean noise, resulting in the acoustic degradation of killer whale habitat.

“Global warming and increasing ocean acidification, both products of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute to rising levels of ambient noise.”

Characteristics already considered in protecting the orcas’ critical habitat include water quality, prey quality and abundance, and adequate room to move, rest and forage.

I thought it was interesting that the Center for Biological Diversity would petition the agency to expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents at a time when federal researchers are building a pretty strong case to do that on their own.

Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the center, told me that she sees the petition as supportive of those research efforts, which seem to be building toward a legal and policy shift:

“They have been putting a lot of funding into that research, and we’re thrilled about that. The agency has been pretty clear that it does intend to designate critical habitat in the winter range.

“This petition puts them on a time frame. They have 90 days to decide if the petition may be warranted… Within a year, they must inform the public about what their plans are.

“This is supportive of what the agency already has in mind. It just gives them a little kick to move forward faster.”

The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species … on which are found those physical or biological features … essential to the conservation of the species and … which may require special management considerations or protection.”

Within critical habitat, federal agencies are required to focus on features important to the survival of the species.

The petition mentions a recent study suggesting that Southern Residents may require consistent availability of chinook salmon, rather than “high numbers of fish that are only available for a short period of time.” If those findings hold up, coastal foraging may be critical to the population’s survival, the petition says, citing work by Katherine Ayres of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.

The Ayres study concludes that the whales become “somewhat food-limited during the course of the summer” and, therefore, “the early spring period when the whales are typically in coastal waters might be a more important foraging time than was previously thought.”

It could be pointed out that the Southern Residents spent little time in Puget Sound this year, and researchers speculate that they may have been finding better prospects for food among the more abundant runs of chinook returning to the Columbia River.

While J and K pods have have begun to rebound in population, L pod has declined to historic lows, totaling only 36 individuals last fall. Where there is uncertainty, the petition calls on NMFS to act on the side of protection. The petition states:

“Without proper oversight, human activities will continue to degrade this region, compromising the continued existence of habitat characteristics required for the population’s survival and recovery. As NMFS is aware, anthropogenic pressures have already contributed to the decline of salmon stocks throughout the northwestern United States.

“Nutritional stress resulting from low Chinook abundance may act synergistically with the immunosuppressive effects of toxic contaminants, present in prey species from both coastal and inland marine waters, causing Southern Residents to experience a variety of adverse health effects, including increased mortality. The population may be unable to adapt to further reductions in prey availability.”

In a news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the whales:

“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks. The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.

“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest and beloved by people across the country. If this population of amazing, extremely intelligent animals is going to survive for future generations, we need to do more to protect their most important habitat.”


Unique ‘tropical oceanic’ orcas still traveling west

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

UPDATE, Dec. 7

I have received word from researcher Robin Baird that the last remaining transmitter tracking the “tropical oceanic” killer whales stopped working on Nov. 26, six days after this report. The transmitter presumably fell off. I’ve attached a map provided by Robin in the comments section at the bottom of this page. It shows the whales’ last 10 days of travel. They kept on moving southwest.
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KW 2013NOV1-19_WM

“Tropical oceanic” killer whales, which were tagged near Hawaii and tracked by satellite, have now moved about 860 miles west.

As of yesterday, they were approaching Johnston Atoll, seen just to the left of their last known location shown on the map above, according to Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia.

Initially, three orcas were tagged in this first effort to track the unique breed of killer whale, which travels in the open ocean. For a description of tropical oceanic killer whales, including their varying diet, review the entry in Water Ways on Nov. 12.

Two of the three transmitters attached to the whales have stopped working, presumably because the barbed tags fell off the animals. One transmitter, attached to an adult female, continues to send out information about the location of the four whales, assuming they have stayed together.

After traveling northwest through the Hawaiian Islands, the whales have taken a pretty direct path toward Johnston Atoll, slowing down a few times along the way. It will be interesting to see where they go next.


Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and almost a complete mystery to scientists.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii, on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but rarely seen by human observers.

In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales only three times twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are few and far between.

This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and slightly south of Kauai.

By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career. (See video below.)

Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird

Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest, Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is difficult to see.

These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores, which are known to eat sharks.

We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins and occasionally larger whales.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Robin says little is known about how they group together, because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally, the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families, including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often joins with others.

Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats (and) whether they cross international boundaries.”

In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several volunteers.

Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species, now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of which are shown on Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project page on Cascadia’s website.


Amusing Monday: An appreciation for kids’ artwork

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I’m gaining an appreciation for the artwork of young people, as revealed in various contests. Many of the winners and runners up in these contests seem already to be fairly accomplished in drawing, painting, sculpting, photography and other art forms.

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I hope the contests bring deserved recognition and inspire the young artists to continue their art in some way. I believe the world becomes better when artists have a chance to express themselves. And we all can enjoy and benefit from the thoughtful and/or emotional reactions that art can deliver.

I’d like to present some of the artwork here and let you know which contests are open to entry.

Earlier this year in Water Ways (March 18), I featured the winning pictures from annual Marine Debris Art Contest, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The contest attracted 600 students from 21 states. One of the winning pictures (shown here) was submitted by Araminta “Minty” Little, who was a seventh grader at Fairview Junior High School in Central Kitsap.

Thirteen winners were chosen to create a 2014 calendar. You can see all the winners of last year’s contest on a rotating poster on NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog or else download the calendar (PDF 12.2 mb).

Entries are being taken for the next Marine Debris Art Contest until Dec. 16. Download rules with the entry form the Marine Debris Blog.

Check out the artwork in the following contests. I’ve provided links to entry information for each contest. Many more contests can be found online, but parents should pay attention to the rules, rewards and other requirements, such as fees. Feel free to suggest other good contests for young artists.

Scholastic Art & Writing Contest

The Scholastic contests, now in their 90th year, are probably the most prestigious of the kids’ art contests, bringing national recognition to aspiring artists and writers, grades 7-12

Past winners and their works

The next contest deadline is Jan. 6. A $5 entry fee is required unless a waiver is approved. Begin on the Guidelines & Deadlines page.

Coastal America

Coastal America involves government agencies and public and private aquariums working together to restore and preserve the nation’s coasts.

National winners

The deadline for the next contest, open to everyone kindergarten and up, is Dec. 16. Check out the rules and information.

Jason Learning

Jason is a nonprofit organization that connects students to science and exploration through classroom and outside projects.

2011-2012 Wrecks of the World Art Contest

2013-2014 “Sustainable Seas” Art Contest for students through high school. Entries will be accepted until February 28, 2014

Seattle Aquarium

Each year, the Seattle Aquarium sponsors an art contest for students in grades 1 through 5, called “Your Ocean Our Home Art Contest.” I don’t see an announcement of next year’s contest.

2013 winners

Beneath the Sea

Beneath the Sea is a scuba and dive travel show, which includes an annual poster contest

Past winners

The 2014 theme is “Pollution Hurts – Octopus At Risk!” The deadline Dec. 22.

Frogs Are Green

Frogs Are Green is an organization dedicated to bringing greater awareness about frogs and the pollution threats they face in the environment.

Winners of the 2012 Frogs Are Green Kids’ Art Contest

Winners of the 2012 Frogs Are Green Kids’s Photo Contest

The next contest, for ages 3-12, has a deadline of Dec. 15. Here are the rules.

Kitsap County Public Works

Each year, Public Works sponsors a Kitsap Recycles Day Poster Contest for kids to demonstrate the benefits of recycling

2013 winners

The deadline for the next contest, for grades kindergarten through eighth grade, is Jan 15.


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Food for thought

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

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