Spotting newborn orca increases success of ocean research cruise

With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise, Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

A newborn orca with its mother L-94, named Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background. NOAA photo by Candice Emmons
A newborn orca swims with its mother L-94, Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background.
NOAA photo by Candice Emmons

The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all survived.

“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The current research cruise also has been among the most exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always been easy to find for observation and tracking.

So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales coming together in the open ocean.

“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well as variability between years.”

As I mentioned in Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in winter and what they are eating are essential elements for extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical habitat designation for the Southern Residents.

With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.

“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See NOAA’s Facebook page for his latest written notes.

The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached in a small Zodiac work boat.

“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf looks great.”

The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very energetic, Brad said.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April or May.

“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan Baurick, a reporter with the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months — especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.

As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their observers have been moving about for the past day or so.

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.

Running with a boy: Film captures the joy of being around wild waters

American Rivers, an environmental group, has released an inspiring new short film that captures the sense of wonder and adventure people can experience in the wild outdoors.

The video features one little boy named Parker who exudes enthusiasm as he runs, jumps and explores the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. We listen to fast-paced music as the scenes change quickly, jumping from one place to the next, while Parker demonstrates his “top 50 favorite things about Northwest Rivers.” (Be sure to watch in full-screen.)

“We wanted a video that would connect with people on a fun, personal level, reminding all of us why healthy rivers matter and why rivers make the Northwest such a special place to live,” Amy Kober of American Rivers told me in an email. “Wild rivers are amazing places for kids and adults; they can make us all feel like Parker.”

Amy said she chose filmmaker Skip Armstrong of Wazee Motion Pictures “because of his talent, unique style, and creativity — and his own love of rivers.”

Hayden Peters, left, Parker Arneson and Skip Armstrong review footage shot at the Elwha River delta.
Hayden Peters, left, Parker Arneson and Skip Armstrong review footage shot at the Elwha River delta for the new American Rivers video.

Skip says he got the idea for a simple film about unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity while watching his fiancee’s nephew playing on the beach. When it came time to shoot the American Rivers video, that particular boy was not available. Skip looked around his hometown of Hood River, Ore., and found an equally energetic and curious youngster named Parker Arneson, son of Emmie Purcell and Shane Arneson. This high-powered 8-year-old is an avid snowboarder and skateboarder.

Skip spent three days last summer scouting out locations on the Olympic Peninsula, then came back in the fall with Parker for an eight-day shoot, traveling the Highway 101 loop around the Olympic Peninsula in a counter-clockwise direction. Being a home-schooled student, Parker did not miss any school.

“We just followed Parker around when we got to locations,” Skip said. “He literally did everything else. He’s an amazing person. What struck all of us on the shoot was his ability to engage us and the camera and to come up with ideas. He’s a ton of fun to be around.

Parker gets a ticket for running too fast in Olympic National Park. (It's a joke.)
Parker gets a ticket for running too fast in Olympic National Park. (It’s a joke.)

“We only had one comical setback,” he said. “Hayden Peters and I set off to scout a location and got a bit lost on the way back to the van. It was pouring rain. We finally got to a hillside that looked like the road was above it, so we set off to climb the hill. Only problem was a benign-looking puddle that I stepped in with great confidence, only to sink immediately to my armpits.

“Shortly thereafter, we arrived back at the car, me smelling like a swamp and totally soaked. Parker thought it was pretty funny.”

Parker took some pretty good falls while running around, but he always bounced back and was ready to go again, Skip said.

Parker shows off his speeding ticket.
Parker shows off his speeding ticket.

Parker even got a speeding ticket from an Olympic National Park ranger for running too fast in the Staircase area near the North Fork of the Skokomish River. It was a joke, of course. The ranger was one who accompanied the film crew as part of the permit requirements for shooting video in a wilderness area.

Emmie, Parker’s mom, said he had a great time shooting the video.

Skip has produced numerous films with a water theme. Check out “featured work” on his website, WazeeMotionPictures.com. He says it is important to remember the joy we feel in wild places.

“To me, there is no faster access to unbridled joy than through the eyes of a young person or child,” he wrote me in an email. “It was refreshing for our team to spend so much time with Parker, and it’s cool to see audiences connect with his enthusiasm, too.

“American Rivers works so hard to protect our precious resources, and I love that Parker shows us why this is important. When we were shooting, we met so many wonderful people of all ages enjoying the rivers and sights of the Northwest.”

Skip’s film reminds us that some of our best times can be had outdoors. As the weather improves, I’m inspired and eager to get back to some wild places with my own kids and grandkids.

I also want to thank Skip for sending along the still photos that show Parker and the film crew out and about on the Olympic Peninsula.

The film crew and supporters, from left, Jay Gifford, Skip Armstrong, Emmie Purcell, Hayden Peters and Parker Arneson.
The film crew and supporters, from left, Jay Gifford, Skip Armstrong, Emmie Purcell, Hayden Peters and Parker Arneson.

Kitsap to receive major funding for stormwater, sewer construction

Washington Department of Ecology is poised to award $229 million in grants and loans for projects that will help clean up waters throughout the state.

Grants

Grants to Kitsap County include $4.2 million for planned stormwater projects, plus another $4.6 million to lay sewer lines designed to protect shellfish beds in South Kitsap’s Yukon Harbor.

This level of funding for a single round of water-quality grants demonstrates that elected officials are serious about cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies throughout the state. The Legislature must still approve the funding for the proposed grants and loans.

The Yukon Harbor project is interesting, because Kitsap County officials were able to show that residents of the South Kitsap area would face a severe hardship if forced to pay for a new sewer line and all the connections themselves.

Yukon Harbor has been the subject of pollution identification and correction projects by the Kitsap Public Health District. Fixing septic systems and cleaning up pollution from animals allowed 935 acres of shellfish beds to be reopened in 2008. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008. But recent studies show that the pollution is growing worse again as some systems continue to have problems. Officials say the best answer is to run a sewer line to properties on or near the beach.

The grant will pay for the sewer line and pump station to carry sewage to the Manchester sewage treatment plant. Some money will be used to help residents pay for the costs of connections to their homes.

Without the state grant, officials estimate that each of the 121 property owners would need to pay about $70,000 to complete the project, according to David Tucker of Kitsap County Public Works. Without the “severe hardship” grant, the project probably would not get done.

One nice thing about this project is that residents will not be required to hook up to the sewer, Dave told me. Those who have upgraded or replaced their septic systems or have systems still working well may continue to use their own on-site systems.

“The common infrastructure will be covered by the grant,” Tucker said, “and people can make a choice about whether they want to connect. Everybody’s septic system is in a different state of condition.”

In addition to the $4.6 million grant, the county will receive a low-interest loan of $432,000 for the remainder of the $5 million needed for the project. Design is scheduled to begin this year, followed by construction in 2017 if things go well.

Meanwhile, stormwater projects continue to gain attention, because they can address both pollution and streamflow problems. In Kitsap Countyu, grants were proposed for the following stormwater projects, which require a 25-percent local match:

  • Clear Creek project, known as Duwe’iq Stormwater Treatment Wetland, which will use a $937,000 grant to create a stormwater wetland off Silverdale Way near Ross Plaza to collect water from 18 acres of commercially developed property.
  • Ridgetop Boulevard Green Streets project, which will use $1 million in a second phase of construction to create biofiltration systems in the median of Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale.
  • Silverdale Way Regional Stormwater Facility project will use $1.5 million for new stormwater ponds north of Waaga Way to collect stormwater running off steep hills in the area.
  • Chico and Dickerson creeks project will receive $500,000 to complete the second phase of a project to replace two culverts on David and Taylor roads and establish floodplains to take excess water during heavy rainstorms.
  • Bay Shore Drive and Washington Avenue Filterra project will use $277,000 to install 15 Filterra planter-box stormwater filters to reduce pollution coming off streets in Old Town Silverdale.

Kitsap County also was successful in obtaining a low-interest loan of $3.8 million to replace three aging pump stations and upgrade a sewer line on the beach near Manchester. Since the line is part of the Manchester system, the loan will be repaid through sewer fees.

In all, Ecology received 227 applications requesting more than $352 million in grants and loans. Some $143 million went into loans, and $21 million went into grants allocated to 165 projects statewide. About 110 of the projects involve stormwater pollution.

A public meeting on all the projects will be held at 1 p.m. March 4 at Pierce County Library, 3005 112th St. E., Tacoma. Comments will be taken until March 15. For information and a list projects, check Ecology’s website.

Maps judged to be wrong; Heins Lake should be Alexander

UPDATE: March 18, 2015
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names on Thursday approved the map correction outlined in this blog post. The change was made on a vote of 15-0 with one abstention after the board heard the explanation about why the correction was needed.

If you check for the name “Heins” on the Geographic Names Information System, the official names database, you will find updated coordinates for Heins and Alexander lakes. If you plot the coordinates, you’ll probably find that the map still bears the incorrect name. I’m not aware of any map that has been updated, but this should take place over time, according to officials with the U.S. Geological Survey.
—–

A pair of lakes long hidden within Bremerton’s vast watershed — Heins Lake and Alexander Lake — should have their names reversed on future maps, according to officials with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

The switch-around is designed to correct a map error that apparently occurred in 1953.

The map correction, scheduled to be endorsed March 12 by the federal naming board, will fulfill efforts by Sue Hein Plummer to get the maps corrected. Sue is a descendant of the homesteader for whom Heins Lake is named.

I met Sue in 2012 when I accompanied members of her family to the old homestead in the watershed (Kitsap Sun, Sept. 30, 2012). It was then that Sue told me that the names had been reversed on an old Metsker’s map sometime after 1928, and she had been unable to convince the mapmakers to change it back.

Sue is a history buff and the genealogist in the family. The old homestead was closest to Heins Lake, which has been called Alexander Lake on all modern maps.

It frustrated her that mapmakers wanted to leave the names alone, wrong as they were. She knew that if she did not get the names corrected soon, they could stay wrong for all eternity. Odd as it seems, we might be stuck with Heins Creek running out of Alexander Lake. when it should be associated with Heins Lake, she said.

I told her about the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, which has the power to change any name in the state. With her extensive research, I thought she would eventually convince both the state and federal naming boards to make an official change.

It never went that far, because staff of both boards came to recognize the error, so a name change was not needed. All that is needed is to change the location of Heins and Alexander lakes in the Geographic Names Information System — a database that records the official names and locations of geographic features.

During an investigation, Jennifer Runyon, a staff researcher for the U.S. board, found some field notes from 1953, in which two people working at the Gorst Creek pumping station said the name of the northern lake should be Heins — opposite of what the maps said in 1937 and before.

Here’s what a typed portion of the notes say:

“The name Alexander Lake would apply to the southernmost lake, according to those who work for the Bremerton watershed and are familiar with the area. According to the city engineer, the northernmost lake has long been known as Alexander. This view would seem most widespread locally…”

In handwriting, these notes follow:

“according to the city engineer. Though the city engineer’s view seemed possible, it was not in accordance with the personnel who work with the name daily at the Gorst Creek pump plant.”

The notes named the two plant workers who must have gotten the names turned around: “Mr. Jarstad, foreman of the Gorst Creek Pump Plant,” and “O.R. Moritz, pump operator.”

“Mr. Jarstad” is presumably Otto Jarstad, for whom the city park at the abandoned pump plant is named.

Sue Hein Plummer thinks the mistake may have been made on some maps before 1953 and that Jarstad and Moritz just wanted to leave the names alone.

Kitsap County Auditor’s Office has already made the change on county maps. Runyon told me the change is likely to be made in the federal database within two days of the March 12 meeting of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, — assuming no further issues arise.

By the way, Heins Lake — which probably should have been “Hein’s Lake” based on the name Hein — now belongs to Ueland Tree Farm as a result of a land trade with the city of Bremerton. At least that’s what the maps indicate. Check out Josh Farley’s story, Kitsap Sun, April 14, 2014. Once the maps get corrected, Ueland will actually own Alexander Lake — the northernmost lake — and Heins Lake will remain in the Bremerton watershed. 

K and L pods under observation as they travel south in ocean

While J pod continues to hang out in the Salish Sea, NOAA’s research cruise has shifted its focus to K and L pods, which have worked their way south along the Washington Coast to beyond the Columbia River.

The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. NOAA photo
The newest calf in J pod, J-51, swims with its mother J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. // NOAA photo

If you recall, a research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center left Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11 aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada. Homing in on a satellite tag attached to J-27 (named Blackberry), the ship met up with J pod two days later near Canada’s Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia.

The researchers were able to collect scales from fish killed by the whales to determine what kind of fish they were eating. It was the first time that a sample of this kind has been collected outside of Puget Sound during the month of February, Brad reported.

The ship stayed with J pod and its two new babies as they moved around in the general area of Texada Island. Then last Sunday the satellite tag came off J-27, as it was designed to do after a period of time. Hanson was pleased that the tag had stayed on so long, allowing researchers to track six weeks of travels by J pod, which had never been tracked that extensively before.

Together with tracking data from 2012 and 2014, this year’s work helps to characterize the movements of J pod, according to notes from the cruise:

“Collectively, these data indicate only limited use of the outer coastal waters by J pod. In 2014 NMFS was petitioned to designate Critical Habitat on the outer coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. The data used for this petition was derived from only one sample — the range of K25 during the January to March 2013 satellite tag deployment. Consequently, potential variability between pods and between years has led to making tagging a whale from L pod a high priority.”

Prompted by a sighting of K and L pods off Sooke, B.C., at the south end of Vancouver Island, the research ship headed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and intercepted the two pods Monday afternoon near the entrance to the Strait. The ship tracked the whales acoustically through the night with its hydrophone array.

The next day, the crew took to the water in its small boat and attached a satellite tag to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa. The researchers also were able to collect some scales from fish that the whales had eaten. Leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, K and L pods turned south after entering the Pacific Ocean. Again, from the cruise notes:

“By being able to deploy a tag on L pod while on our cruise on the Bell M. Shimada, we have the unique opportunity to now be able to follow the whales each day (and potentially at night) and collect prey and fecal samples as well as other data about their environment this time of the year.

“While we know that K and L pods sometimes co-occur in the winter, this will potentially be an opportunity to see the degree to which they remain together. We are off to an exciting start — four prey samples yesterday (Tuesday) and four fecal samples today (Wednesday) while the whales transited from near Cape Ozette … to near Willipa Bay.”

Those are the last notes available, either on NOAA’s tagging webpage or on NOAA’s Facebook page. I’ve been in touch by email with Brad, but his latest message had nothing new since Wednesday.

By tracking the Shimada on the Marine Traffic website, I understand that the whales paused outside of Grays Harbor and again near the mouth of the Columbia River. As if this afternoon, they had moved south of Tillamook Bay and Cape Meares in Oregon and were continuing on south.

Meanwhile, J pod apparently remains in the Salish Sea, which includes inland waterways on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of yesterday, the pod was seen in Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, north of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Both of the new calves in J pod — J-50 and J-51 — seem to be doing fine, according to naturalist Heather MacIntyre, quoted in the San Juan Islander. J-50, a female, was born just days before the end of the year, while J-51, gender unknown, was born about two weeks ago.

For previous reports on the whales, see Water Ways for Feb. 12 as well as a previous post on Jan. 22. A report on the research cruise can be found in Water Ways on Feb. 10.

Amusing Monday: ‘BirdNote’ telling stories for the past 10 years

Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of “BirdNote,” a public radio program about birds from all over the world, with frequent references to Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.

The well-produced audio segment resembles “StarDate,” which was the inspiration for the show, as founder Chris Peterson describes in a program to be aired this week. Check out the page “BirdNote at 10: 10 years of stories about birds and nature!” or listen to this clip:


Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote's mascot. Click image for info about his travels.
Marty, the marsh wren, is BirdNote’s mascot. Click for info about his travels.

BirdNote originated in 2005 at a single station — KPLU in Tacoma — and expanded to 50 participating stations by 2010 with about 200 stations today, according to a list of facts put together for the anniversary. Birdnote began as a once-a-week segment before expanding to daily segments in 2008.

The searchable archive covers more than 1,200 shows, featuring more than 650 species of birds. Besides the daily audio clips, each webpage links to related sources — including photos or videos; a little history or biography; scientific explanations; occasional notes or blogs; and often more information about the featured birds.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of BirdNote, and since this is a blog about water issues, I’ve picked out 20 clips from the past two years or so that I think you will enjoy:

Marbled murrelets: As fish go, so go the murrelets (December 2012)

Winter on the Columbia: It may be winter, but there’s a lot to see… (December 2012)

Seabirds in decline: What’s become of them? (January 2013)

Red-throated Loons of Deception Pass: They can’t walk on land, but they’re graceful in flight! (March 2013)

Double-crested cormorant: What are they doing with wings like that? (April 2013)

Probing with sandpipers: The right tool for the job (April 2013)

Citizen scientists monitor pigeon guillemots: Dedication, information, and …. a tattoo? (September 2013)

Tony Angell reflects on nature: From Puget Sound through an artist’s eye (October 2013)

Buffleheads in Winter: Our smallest duck returns from the north! (December 2013)

The Ballet of the Grebes: Birds do the strangest things! (May 2014)

Monitoring Rhinoceros Auklets on Protection Island: Auklets are fascinating research subjects! (June 2014)

Amazing aquatic American dipper: What’s that bird doing in the river? (August 2014)

The heron and the snake: It’s a rough world for a young blue heron (September 2014)

Chorus line in the sky: sandpipers in elegant fashion (October 2014)

Gull identification: Black, white, gray… how do you sort them all out? (October 2014)

The oystercatcher’s world: Life in the wave zone! (November 2014)

The music of black scoters: A mysterious, musical wail… (November 2014)

Diving birds — below the surface: If only we could see them under water! (December 2014)

A swirl of snow geese: Barry Lopez and Snow Geese (January 2015)

What happens when birds get wet? Their rain shell shields their down layer (January 2015)

New baby orca born
into J pod, first spotted near San Juan Island

Another newborn orca in J pod was reported this evening by the Center for Whale Research, adding a touch of optimism for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The newest calf, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The newest orca baby, J-51, with its presumed mom on the left and sister on the right.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

This morning, researcher Dave Ellifrit and volunteer Jeanne Hyde heard calls from J pod picked up on a hydrophone on the west side of San Juan Island. The went out in the center’s research vessel to observe the whales at a “respectful distance,” according to a press release.

That’s when they spotted the new orca calf, designated J-51, which was being attended by the presumed mother, J-19, a 36-year-old female named Shachi. Also nearby was Shachi’s 10-year-old daughter, J-41, named Eclipse.

“The newest baby appears healthy,” according to the observers, who said the whale appeared to be about a week old.

For the past two weeks, J pod has been in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but ventured farther into the inland waters this morning. The observers also spotted J-50, the young calf born the last week of December, who was with her family.

Naturalist Traci Walter posted a new video on YouTube showing both the new J pod calves.

“Today was pretty amazing to be out there with J pod,” Traci commented on her YouTube page. “We knew of the new calf J50 that was first sighted December 30, 2014. Today was the first day J51 was seen! Enjoy the footage! Please note, this footage was taken with a 600 mm zoom lens while abiding by whale watch regulations. Please, BeWhaleWise.org.”

The new calf brings the number of whales in J pod to 26, with 19 in K pod and 34 in L pod.

Meanwhile, the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada continued on its way into Puget Sound on its annual cruise to observe the Southern Residents. The ship was passing Port Angeles about 11 p.m. tonight. For background, see Tuesday’s Water Ways blog.

Research cruise will observe J pod orcas
for the next 21 days

A team of marine mammal biologists and other researchers will set out tomorrow morning on a 21-day cruise to study Southern Resident killer whales from aboard the 209-foot Bell M. Shimada research vessel.

The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks.
The research vessel Bell M. Shimada will be involved in killer whale studies for the next three weeks. // NOAA photo

The researchers are fortunate that a satellite tag is still attached to J-27 and remains operable, making it possible to locate J pod without searching far and wide.

“We’re real excited and very interested to see what they’re hitting out there,” Brad Hanson told me today as he prepared the NOAA research vessel for its departure from Newport, Ore. Brad, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is leading the research team on its annual winter cruise along the coast.

Learning what the orcas are eating in the winter remains a major goal of the researchers. The ship also is equipped to study the general oceanography and biological conditions where the whales are choosing to spend their time.

Brad is also interested in checking on the newest member of J pod, J-50, now 6 weeks old. The young calf appears to be the daughter of J-16, a 43-year-old female named Slick, but there remains some lingering doubt. (Review Water Ways from Jan. 22.)

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, has been spending a lot of time lately in and around the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The pod made one excursion out beyond the edge of the continental shelf on Friday, then followed the slope for more than a full day before turning back toward Vancouver Island and arriving back in the Strait on Sunday. Check out the map at the bottom of this page for their path.

This was the longest time that J pod has been tracked so far out in the ocean, Brad said. When K pod was being tracked by satellite, the whales once traveled out to the edge of the continental shelf but stayed only a day.

The Shimada will spend about a day and a half traveling from Newport up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Brad said he would not be surprised to spot K pod or L pod on the way up the coast, although their locations are currently unknown.

What will be learned on the 21-day cruise is unpredictable, Brad said. The weather often determines the success of observations and operations. The Shimada is well equipped for ocean conditions, but seas are an important factor in getting good work done. One could see a big difference in the Strait of Juan de Fuca versus the open ocean, while the entrance to the Strait is often associated with a “toilet bowl effect” — an unpredictable mixture of waves and currents.

“What we are trying to do is characterize the habitat in which the whales are living,” Brad explained. “We will look for what is unique or unusual, whether there are areas of high productivity and other top predators, such as seabirds.”

As he gets time, Brad plans to post observations on NOAA’s blog related to the killer whale tagging project, and I will try to report interesting developments as well.

J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8.
Tracked by satellite, J pod traveled out to the continental shelf and back from Friday, Jan. 6, to Sunday, Jan. 8. // NOAA map

Amusing Monday: Waste to water provides a drink for Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates together make an interesting combination. One is about finding new ways to solve serious world problems, while the other is looking for new ways to surprise and delight people.

Bill gates recently challenged Jimmy Fallon to the “ultimate taste test” involving two glasses of water. Jimmy would try to tell the difference between bottled water and sewage effluent from an innovative treatment plant built in Sedro Woolley, south of Bellingham. As you’ll see from the video, there was a bit of trickery involved.

In his blog, “Gates Notes,” Bill Gates describes the Omniprocessor, designed by Janicki Bioenergy of Washington state. A video on that page (shown here) demonstrates how the processor works, with an ending in which Gates drinks water that had been in the form of human feces just minutes before.

Gates makes the most of this humorous but deadly serious issue, knowing that one of the greatest health threats in the developing world is contaminated drinking water — and that a machine could help solve the problem.

The Omniprocessor burns dried human waste as fuel to dry more waste as it comes into the plant, providing an endless supply of fuel that can be burned at a very high temperature, thus controlling air emissions. The drying process produces steam, which can run a generator for electricity. The water vapor is cooled and goes through a final filter to produce clean drinking water.

I’ve read many articles written about the Omniprocessor over the past month, but Mark Stayton of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote the most informative piece I’ve seen.

A working prototype is scheduled to be fabricated this spring in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, and go into use soon after. Graphics and photos are available on the Omniprocessor home page.

I’ll be interested to see how this entire operation works in practice. Not much is said about getting the waste to the machine. Apparently, some locations have trucks that pump out latrines and then dump the untreated waste someplace else, risking contamination to groundwater or surface water. Transportation of the waste/fuel might be less of an issue in cities with inadequate sewage-treatment plants, but I don’t know how efficient trucks would be in rural areas, where roads are often a problem.

Anyway, I will try to keep you informed about the Omniprocessor and similar technology in the months to come.