Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and
South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.
Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San
Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to
streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through
the fall. But anything can happen.
On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern
Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to
Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca
Network. The whales continued south the following day and made
it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.
On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from
Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands.
See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By
yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west
side of San Juan Island.
The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in
earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few
chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak
of the run is a few weeks away.
The similar properties of water and glass are explored in more
than 50 pieces of artwork in an exhibit called “Into the Deep” at
Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.
The art captures the movements, shapes and colors of creatures
and objects in the beautiful underwater world. For a closer look,
click on the images on this page.
“By creating artwork inspired by the ocean, each artist has
captured both the fragile beauty of the marine environment and the
delicate nature of glass,” Katie Buckingham, exhibit curator, said
in a statement
on the exhibit’s webpage.
Buckingham said she hopes visitors will not only enjoy the art
but also feel inspired to celebrate and protect the natural
environment. The 16 national and international artists featured in
the exhibit include Alfredo Barbini, Dale Chihuly, Shayna Leib,
Kelly O’Dell, Kait Rhoads, Raven Skyriver, and Hiroshi Yamano.
Fifteen of the pieces were produced in the workshop at the
Museum of Glass, including some produced by apprentices.
The exhibit opened on Sept. 24 and will remain through September
2017. Visitors will be able to access information linked to each
piece of art by using a cell phone and scanning the STQRY QR codes.
Three virtual tours are available, one with scientific information,
one about the creation of the sculptures and one on the artists.
Bonnie Becker, a biologist at the University of Washington-Tacoma,
wrote the scientific narrative.
Speaking of glass artwork, I am impressed with the intricate
salmon sculpture with the glass salmon eggs used to create a kiosk
at the east end of the new Bucklin Hill Bridge over the Clear Creek
estuary in Silverdale.
Driving across the bridge, one can see the bright orange salmon
eggs, more than 200 in all. A closer look reveals three salmon
figurines in a swimming posture above the eggs.
“I do believe that when you drive along and you have artwork
alongside the road, I think it lifts your spirits,” said Lisa
Stirrett, the designer of the kiosk, in a story written by
Christian Vosler for the
It is hard to imagine the restoration of the Skokomish River
ecosystem without the involvement of Rich Geiger, a longtime
engineer for Mason Conservation District. Rich had a way of
explaining technical aspects of environmental restoration, and he
was a tremendous help to me through the years.
Rich, who was 59 years old, died unexpectedly two weeks ago.
I got to know Rich in 2008 and 2009 while working on a series of
stories about the Skokomish River. My research involved interviews
with members of the Skokomish Tribe, farmers, loggers and longtime
residents of the area. For the final story, I talked to Rich about
what was wrong with the river and what needed to be done to reduce
the flooding and restore the ecosystem. He taught me a lot about
The Skokomish, if you didn’t know, is the largest river in Hood
Canal, and it exerts a great influence on the long, narrow waterway
with its amazing diversity of habitat.
“Something has bothered me about this river for a long time,”
Rich said, as quoted in my story for the
Kitsap Sun. “I have been doing a great deal of reading about
river systems and sediment transport,” he continued. “To boil it
down, the sediment is too heavy to be moved by the depths we think
are there in the Skokomish.”
Fast and deep water contains the force to move larger rocks, he
told me. Somehow the river was able to move large gravel out of the
mountains, but it never made it all the way to Hood Canal. Digging
into the gravel bars, Rich found layers of fine sediment wedged
between layers of larger rock — evidence that the energy of the
river had changed suddenly at various times.
Rich collaborated with engineers from the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers.
Eventually, they came to understand the river well enough to
develop a plan for restoration. Throughout the process, Rich was
willing to take time to help me understand every aspect of the
restoration alternatives. I will always be grateful for his
expertise and patience.
in January 2014, the plan was completed and accepted by ranking
officials in the Army Corps of Engineers. I called Rich for his
reaction to the important milestone.
“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking
about a physical project moving forward and not just more
planning,” he told me. “We asked the Corps to produce a single
integrated restoration plan, and they did.” To review a brief
summary of the plan, see
Water Ways Jan. 26, 2014.
The final plan by the Army Corps of Engineers became
incorporated into the Water Resources
Development Act, including $19 million proposed for the
Skokomish project. The bill was approved, first by the U.S. Senate
and then by the House. A few details still need to be worked out,
but after years and years of planning, the Skokomish project became
virtually assured of funding just a week after Rich died.
Mike Anderson, chairman of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team,
said Rich had always been the “brains of the collaborative.”
“Rich was the holder of the technical vision of the watershed
restoration,” Mike noted. “He understood how all the different
parts of the watershed — from the mountains down to the estuary and
beyond — work together.
“When we started out, he acknowledged that he did not know what
the answers would be for the valley. One of his great achievements
was getting the GI (general investigation) completed and the …
support for authorization. He felt rightly proud of completing that
“Mr. Speaker, Richard was not only an environmental advocate and
steward, he was also a leader in the community. He excelled at
fostering collaboration and consensus among diverse community
stakeholders, including private landowners, businesses, Native
American Tribes, and local, state, and federal agencies, to achieve
Rich was born April 12, 1957, and graduated from Billings Senior
High School. He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he
became an ROTC Cadet and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil
engineering. After graduation, he served as a lieutenant in the
Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and advanced to rank of major.
In 1994, he took a job with Mason County Public Works
Department, where he held a variety of engineering positions. In
2001, he joined the Mason Conservation District as district
The family has suggested that memorials be made to the
Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a non-profit
organization committed to alleviating the suffering caused by
mental illness. The foundation awards grants aimed at making
advances and breakthroughs in scientific research.
When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead
floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts
expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained
embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See
Water Ways, April 14.)
This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite
transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the
animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are
designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for
Nigel, designated L-95.
As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to
introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears
to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately
contributing to his death.
“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an
expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to
implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection
to the whale,” states a
report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection
contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role
in its death.”
After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended
the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest
findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to
prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be
developed through the International Whaling Commission.
After that, any further tagging would require a new review under
the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents —
the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered
The tagging program has provided much information about where
the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and
travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help
NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the
Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide
the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook
salmon, their primary prey.
For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite
tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard
Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing
the existing data to see if they have enough information for
expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.
A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a
similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a
report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest
Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other
whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did
retain a dart for a while.
The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in
the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the
attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of
factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was
dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with
seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for
tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.
It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA
scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could
have contributed to the orca’s death.
The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than
recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this
location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that
could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the
final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel
may have had some problems with his immune system, and this
particular fungus is known to attack people who are
immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease
among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals.
You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was
found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But
contributing factors are many.
Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best
information to government researchers through the years — not only
about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.
“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore
His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild
salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low
birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food,
which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While
nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said,
the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a
“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a
certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of
the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery
of natural fish populations happens.”
The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the
wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all
life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination
between the U.S. and Canada, he added.
The surf was running wild at this year’s Surf City Surf Dog
competition at Huntington Beach, Calif., where the boards were
flipping and the dogs were flying.
The dogs and their owners were more nervous than normal this
year during the three-day event that raises money for nonprofit
rescue groups. Crowds turned out in large numbers for the finals,
which took place a week ago yesterday.
“It’s a crackup watching the dogs,” spectator Tom Baker told
Laylan Connelly, a reporter for the Orange
County Register. “The people think the dogs are enjoying it,
but I’m not so sure the dogs are enjoying it today. The surf was
Lifeguards were on hand to help with any problems, and they
advised dog owners when it was safe to go out. The contest had 68
dog entries, and many of them were longtime competitors in the
sport. As I watched the first video on this page, I was hoping that
the owners knew their dogs and their abilities, along with their
own abilities. No injuries were reported, and the images came out
more spectacular than ever.
In some ways, the still images are more thrilling than the
videos. See this great collection of photos posted by the
London Daily Mail.
Here is a highlights video by Mike Lukas and Jerome Mel on the
Surf Dog YouTube channel.
The waves were calmer in July at the annual Unleashed by Petco
Surf Dog Competition at Imperial Beach, Calif. The second video on
this page is a personal video posted by a couple on Tower
Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget
Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive
European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it
has brought to other regions of the country.
After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19
Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an
extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were
captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs
followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan
Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget
Ways, Sept. 15).
With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing
the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason,
who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for
Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out
enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the
fist day of trapping:
“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting
extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there
are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is
scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where
to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought
crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited.
Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well,
not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for
weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”
In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20
miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the
expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research
Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked
with shoreline owners to get approval for access.
Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young,
probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents,
Emily said in her wrap-up
report of the effort.
“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the
east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied
somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found
relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a
few meters of the shore.
“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count
in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,”
she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places
European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the
bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative
Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss
what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive
trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the
University of Washington told me in an email.
Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from
daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult.
Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months,
so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts
Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked
to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also
in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.
The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the
citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an
early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the
crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands
more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.
Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like
to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with
additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget
Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in
of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling
still mostly unregulated.”
Two researchers were awarded a less-then-noble prize for
discovering — and reporting — that objects look different if you
turn around, bend over and look at them through your legs.
It’s all a matter of how one perceives the world — and
perception seemed to be the accidental theme during last week’s
26th annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony.
While one study asked research subjects to make observations
while mooning the world, a market-research project called for
people to ascribe human personalities to a variety of rocks, as an
exercise in branding. And then there was the man who went to great
lengths to become a goat — or at least replicate the experience of
a ruminant four-legged animal with a stinky beard.
Two weeks before some of the best researchers in the world are
honored with Nobel Prizes, an organization called Improbable
Research tries to bring a smile to people’s faces by handing out
prizes meant to “honor achievements that first make people laugh,
and then make them think.” The ceremonies were Thursday at Harvard
University in Cambridge, Mass.
Two Japanese researchers, Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi,
received the Ig Nobel Prize in Perception for collecting data about
between-legs viewing. In accepting the prize, Higashiyama
demonstrated the head-down posture for the audience, then
explained, “When the viewer is inverted, the objects appear smaller
than in a normal upright position.”
Before he was done with his acceptance speech, three human
“alarm clocks” began singing their alarm song and escorted the
researcher away for exceeding his allotted one-minute time
The concept of viewing things in unusual positions has been
around for a century. The best explanation is that people are so
accustomed to seeing things with their heads upright that the brain
cannot provide a realistic picture when the head and eyes are
upside down and backwards.
“In between-leg observation, since the retinal image is formed
on a site that differs from the usual site of stimulation and the
trunk is in a position that differs from its usual upright
position, it is difficult for some observers to maintain the habit
of seeing the world stably.”
The Ig Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Mark Avis, Sarah
Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson for assessing the perceived
personalities of rocks. Here is the script the researchers read to
their test subjects:
“We would like you to think of each rock as if it were a person.
This may sound unusual, but think of the set of human
characteristics associated with each rock. If you see a descriptor
and you have no sense of how it applies to the rock, look at the
rock picture again and think of it as if it were a person.”
The researchers were testing the theory that people perceive
objects as having personalities and that these personalities can be
categorized in five different ways — the “brand personality
five-factor model,” or BPFFM. I should mention that these
researchers seemed skeptical at the outset, and they eventually
arrived at this conclusion:
“The fact that participants were able to assign distinct
personalities to each rock can therefore only be reasonably
explained as an artifact of the research methodology… Rocks were
found to have a personality simply because participants were asked
to perceive one, and the only explanation of this finding is that
the BPFFM therefore ‘creates’ personality.” See “The brand personality of
rocks: A critical evaluation of a brand personality scale”
The goat man, Thomas Thwaites, has received the majority of
media attention, most coming before the recent Ig Nobel Prize
ceremony. I guess you can call it scientific research, but it
appears to be mainly a stunt for his latest book, “Goat Man: How I
took a holiday from being human.” Still, his endeavor, which
involved prosthetic goat legs and other strange elements, was so
impressive that he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology.
“Human life can just be so difficult,” Thwaites told
National Public Radio’s Scott Simon. “And you look at a goat
and it’s just, you know, it’s free. It doesn’t have any
He discussed his thoughts about eating grass:
“I made this kind of bag that I had strapped to my body, and I
could take a mouthful of grass and then chew it up and then spit it
into this bag. And this bag … was intended to be my artificial
rumen with the goat bacteria in it. But I just really didn’t fancy
getting diarrhea for the rest of my life so I ended up having to
pressure (cook) what I spat into this bag and made a weird
delicious, disgusting grass stew.”
Thwaites shared the prize in biology with another researcher,
Charles Foster, who lived in the wild at various times as a badger,
an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird.
The full Ig Nobel Prize ceremony can be viewed in this video.
Here are the other prizes awarded this year:
Medicine Prize: In another study of
perceptions, German researchers discovered that if you have an itch
on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a
mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa).
“Itch Relief by Mirror Scratching: A psychophysical study” by
Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders
and Andreas Sprenger
Psychology Prize: An international group of
researchers was honored for their study about lying. As described
by the Ig Nobel Committee, the researchers asked a thousand liars
how often they lie and then tried to decide whether to believe
those answers. The research report,
“From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan
investigation of deception,” found that “lying proficiency
improved during childhood, excelled in young adulthood and worsened
through adulthood. Likewise, lying frequency increased in
childhood, peaked in adolescence, and decreased during
Peace Prize: The Ig Nobel Committee cited only
the title of the scholarly study by Canadian researchers: “On the
Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bulls–t.” In the
study, human subjects were presented with statements consisting of
randomly organized buzzwords that had syntactical structure but no
discernible meaning. They found that “some people are more
receptive to this type of bulls–t and that detecting it is not
merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a
discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding
claims.” Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University
of California, Berkeley, writes a commentary on the subject for
“What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound
Reproduction Prize: The late Ahmed Shafik was
recognized for his research involving rats wearing pants. The
professor at Cairo University in Egypt, who died in 2007, crafted
little trousers out of polyester, cotton and wool and studied the
rats’ sex lives. He found that rats that wore polyester were less
likely to be successful in their quest for sexual companions. He
suggested that the effect, which could apply to humans, was caused
by an electrostatic charge that developed on polyester fabric.
Chemistry Prize: Volkswagen, the German car
manufacturer, was acknowledged for solving the problem of excessive
automobile pollution. (Did this company really need more
attention?) The invention, which was actually deployed on real
cars, was innovative software that caused vehicle emissions to
automatically produce fewer emissions when cars were put through
Literature Prize: Fredrik Sjöberg of Sweden was
honored for his three-volume autobiographical work about the
pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not
yet dead. NPR interviewed this man with a most impressive
collection of hoverflies in an article titled
“The Uppermost Aristocracy of the Hoverfly Society.”
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this
one in Padilla Bay — about 30 miles southeast of where the first
one was discovered about three weeks ago.
Green crabs are an invasive species known to devour a variety of
native species and alter habitats where they have become
established. Keeping green crabs out of Puget Sound has been a goal
of state officials for years.
After the first green crab was caught in a volunteer trapping
program three weeks ago, experts mounted an intensive trapping
effort to see if other green crabs were in the area around Westcott
Bay in the San Juan Islands. (Water
Ways, Sept. 3). No live crabs were found, but one cast-off
shell (molt) was discovered nearby (Water
Ways, Sept. 15).
The latest find is a young female crab, 34 millimeters across,
which may have grown from a larva dispersed last winter.
“We were relieved to find very little evidence of a larger
population of invasive European green crab in Westcott Bay,” Emily
Grason of Washington Sea Grant said in a
news release (PDF 371 kb). “But finding an additional crab at a
site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is
critical across all Puget Sound shorelines. WSG’s Crab Team is
committed to continuing the efforts of volunteer monitoring as
resources allow, but we also rely on beachgoers to keep a watchful
eye out for this invasive species.”
A second rapid-response effort will get underway Monday with
more traps being deployed over a larger area than last time. The
goal is to locate any crabs that may have made a home in the area
and determine where the crabs might be gaining a foothold.
Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized
“rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have
intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine
The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they
have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke
whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions,
Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant
seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.
The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in
a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the
first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place
last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.
“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC
Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a
news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four
humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air
“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one
that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion.
The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were
safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again,
fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”
These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies
of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the
resident orcas that each fish.
The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea
Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news
“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with
humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then
two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we
know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea
“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the
sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the
humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while
he frantically struggled to get his breath.
“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns
diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on
and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family,
moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear
next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite
“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous
humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor
for another day!”
In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent
rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer
whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report
appeared in the journal Marine
Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation,
but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a
belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW,
attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.
“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting
mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that
is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report
states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific
anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford
and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen
whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two
general categories of response.
“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales)
use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer
whales and were classified as flight species. The
generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales,
bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely
on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and
flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as
Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen
whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for
them to go after killer whales when another species of marine
mammal is under attack.
In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58
percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42
percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer
whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a
few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved,
the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.
The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback
whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray
whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.
When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it
appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and
females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether
attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the
surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and
flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15
minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center
of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for
those cases when the outcome was known.
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that
deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off,
although southern right whales may also group together to fend off
MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding
that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can
shred the flesh of their opponents.
When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally
silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become
more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that
humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well
out of sight of the attack.
The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer
whales to save another species are listed in three categories:
Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or
closely related animal.
Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals,
generally as part of a social organization.
Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some
cost to the one taking action.
It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could
be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks
against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the
killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any
“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to
other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a
focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers
of interspecific altruism.”
As chunks of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier break off and crash
into the sea next to him, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico
Einaudi plays on, performing a piece he wrote for this moment.
As seen in this video, Einaudi’s piano is situated on a floating
platform surrounded by small pieces of floating ice. He came to
Norway this past June on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to make
a statement about the need to protect the Arctic Ocean. The
composition, “Elegy for the Arctic,” fits the time and place.
“The ice is constantly moving and creating,” he told Sara Peach,
a writer for
Yale Climate Connections. “Every hour there is a different
landscape. Walls of ice fall down into the water and they create
Because of global warming, the Arctic is losing its ice,
changing this remote ecosystem. Environmentalists are concerned
about the increasing exploitation of minerals and fish in this
fragile region. Greenpeace is among the groups pushing for
Supporting the cause, Einaudi performed with his grand piano on
an artificial iceberg, 33 feet by 8.5 feet, made of 300 triangles
of wood attached together.
“Being here has been a great experience,” he said in a
Greenpeace news release issued at the time. “I could see the
purity and fragility of this area with my own eyes and interpret a
song I wrote to be played upon the best stage in the world. It is
important that we understand the importance of the Arctic, stop the
process of destruction and protect it.”
“If you haven’t heard the music of Ludovico Einaudi, then it’s
probably because you don’t know it’s by Ludovico Einaudi,” writes
Tim Jonze, music editor for
The Guardian. “For years, his muted piano music has been
stealthily soundtracking TV shows and adverts, seeping into our
collective consciousness while the mild-mannered Italian behind it
stayed out of the limelight.”
He has written songs for numerous soundtracks, including the
trailer for “The Black Swan.” He has collaborated with other
artists in theater, video and dance. Besides a long list of albums,
his credits include multiple television commercials in Europe and
In March, Einaudi released a music video, “Fly,” for Earth Hour
(second video on this page). In my annual story about Earth Hour, I
noted that the event may be losing its appeal in the U.S. but is
still going strong in other countries. See
Water Ways, March 16.
In the third video on this page, Einaudi discusses his latest
project, an album titled “Elements.”