Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

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.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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.

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Amusing Monday: New art exhibit shows how glass can be like water

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.

Undulation, kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. The piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches. Photo: Taliaferro Jones
“Undulation,” kiln-cast crystal by Taliaferro Jones. This piece is 13 by 54 by 8 inches.
Photo: Taliaferro Jones

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.

Persian Sea Forms, blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. Photo: Terry Rishel
“Persian Sea Forms,” blown glass by Dale Chihuly. This piece is 67 by 120 inches. // Photo: Terry Rishel

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.

"Tyee," hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. Photo: Kp Studios
“Tyee,” hand-sculpted glass by Raven Skyriver. This piece is 21 by 32 by 7 inches. // Photo: Kp Studios

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.

"Red Polyp" blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. Photo: Kait Rhoads
“Red Polyp,” blown glass with mixed hollow murrine woven with copper wire by Kait Rhoads. This piece is 45 by 49 by 19 inches. // Photo: Kait Rhoads

A list of other exhibits can be found on the Museum of Glass webpage. Activities, including hands-on workshops and lectures, can be found on the Museum of Glass calendar. A separate webpage lists admission fees and hours.

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.

Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the east end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. Photo:
Salmon and more than 200 glass eggs are part of a sculpture that makes up a new kiosk at the end of the Bucklin Hill Bridge. // Photo: Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun

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 Kitsap Sun.

Rich Geiger held the ‘restoration vision’ for Skokomish ecosystem

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 Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. Rich died Sept. 22. Photo: Kitsap Sun
Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District who died Sept. 22, explains the dynamics of the Skokomish River in this 2009 file photo. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

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 river dynamics.

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 difficult study.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced a statement into the Congressional Record (PDF 9.3 mb) on the last day the House was in session. It includes this observation:

“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 common goals.”

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 engineer.

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.

Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

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.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

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 species.

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 bloodstream.

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.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

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 it.”

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 population.

“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.

Amusing Monday: Surf dogs flip over wild waves in Southern California

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 heavy.”

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 City 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 magazine.

Another take on the Imperial Beach event is offered on YouTube by Richard Mellinger.

More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

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.

Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. The red markers show locations where invasive European green crabs were found.
Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. Red markers show locations where three more invasive European green crabs were found.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19 (Water 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 Sound. (Water 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.

The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve

“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 effort.”

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 say.

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 the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling still mostly unregulated.”

Amusing Monday: Odd research is recognized with Ig Nobel Prizes

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.

Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University last Thursday. // Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

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 limit.

Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology.
Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

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.

Here is a description of the findings from the actual research report, titled “Perceived size and perceived distance of targets viewed from between the legs: Evidence for proprioceptive theory”:

“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 two researchers and their Ig Nobel Award were featured in The Japan Times.

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” (subscription).

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 concerns.”

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). See “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 adulthood.”

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 NPR, “What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound ‘Baloney’?”

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 testing procedures.

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.”

Physics Prize: Separate research teams investigated why white-haired horses are more horsefly-proof and why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones. Both studies demonstrated the effects of polarized and nonpolarized light. Check out “An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-Proof Horse Has a Depolarizing White Coat” along with “Ecological Traps for Dragonflies in a Cemetery…”

Second invasive green crab discovered in northern Puget Sound

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.

A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this one in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

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 second green crab was found by Glen Alexander of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve while overturning rocks with a group of students.

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.

The advice for beachgoers remains the same:

  1. Learn how to how to identify green crab. Check out the Crab Team webpage at wsg.washington.edu/crabteam or Facebook and Twitter @WAGreenCrab.
  2. Take a photo and report sightings to the WSG Crab team at crabteam@uw.edu.
  3. Shellfish collected in one location should never be released or “wet stored” in another location unless authorized by WDFW.
  4. Clean, drain and dry recreational gear or other materials after beach visits.

If you haven’t seen it, you may want to review a series I wrote on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

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 mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

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 multiple times.

“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 release:

“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 lion.

“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 direction.

“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 Mammal Science.

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 fight species.”

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 age.

“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.”

Amusing Monday: On location with music for a warming Arctic Ocean

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 big waves.”

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 international protections.

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 the U.S.

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.”