Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Erich Hoyt will talk about orcas and more

May 3rd, 2014 by cdunagan

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

Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amusing Monday: Frogs really can be funny

April 28th, 2014 by cdunagan

I almost forgot about Crazy Frog, who I featured a few years ago in an Amusing Monday entry. Crazy Frog was a cartoon frog. His first video showed him riding an invisible motorcycle. His “ah-ding-ding-ding-da-da-ding-ding-ding” became a popular ring tone for awhile until it drove everybody else crazy.

It’s OK to revisit a crazy cartoon frog by clicking on the link above. But this blog entry is about funny real-life frogs or facsimiles thereof, starting with a video in which a frog tries to catch his meal from a smart phone. Was the frog frustrated toward the end when he went after something larger?

See for yourself in the first video player.

The second video player shows a frog known as a desert rain frog, which comes from an exclusive desert area in Namibia and South Africa with just enough moisture to keep the species alive. The video shown here went viral after it described the little amphibian as the “world’s cutest frog.”

We all know that frogs can croak, but did you know that they scream. Here’s a video called “33 Screaming Frogs.”

On the serious side, PBS Nature produced a video about frogs and their risk of extinction. It was called “The Thin Green Line.”

Finally, to make sure you never run out of different ways of seeing frogs, I located a photo bucket said to contain nearly 20,000 images. It’s called simply “Frogs” by SimbleSimble. I scanned through the first 400 or so to verify that there probably are that many pictures and drawings of frogs.

The images below are from a different photo bucket called Funny Frog.

funny frog photo: Photoshop animated gif - Frog photoshopanimatedgif.gif

funny frog photo: funny frog with dentures 2z56oox.gif


Amusing Monday: Old Spice ads break with reality

April 21st, 2014 by cdunagan

Old Spice, maker of aftershave, deodorant and so much more, has gone wild with its television commercials the past few years.


I started out, as usual, to produce this “Amusing Monday” by looking for videos with a water-related theme. I located the first video on this page, which depicts a guy who cannot escape a fresh shower no matter where he goes.

After that, I started looking at other Old Spice ads. The company has produced so many weird videos it is hard to know where to begin and end. Should we talk about the Old Spice “prank ads”? Click here on “The Flattering Man” and then hang on.

These prank ads, as Greg Kumparak of Tech Crunch calls them, have been placed all over the Internet as part of the Old Spice campaign. He includes links to eight others in a story he posted in January.

Some people loved the ad that Old Spice calls “Momsong,” but others were seriously weirded out or offended. It’s a bit more than a mother’s lament that her son is coming of age with the help of Old Spice: “Now he smells like a man and they treat him like one.” At the end of the video, the screen includes links to two related videos.

I’m more annoyed than amused by a shouting Terry Crews, who was featured in a series of Old Spice commercials a couple years ago and was called back this year to hock an Old Spice shaver. See this YouTube video. In the commercial, he is both the person shaving and the hair about to be shaved.

I could go on like this all day, but someone named Chris John has compiled 21 Old Spice commercials in a single nine-minute video on YouTube. Check out the second video player on this page.

Hunter Whitworth of Paste magazine analyzes the Old Spice campaign, which is engineered by the advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy of Portland, Ore.:

“As fewer and fewer people watch live television—and as the audience that does is spread over an increasing number of channels—commercials are engineered with an eye towards their life on the Internet; they are designed to go viral as much as they are designed to sell you something.”

In his analysis, Whitworth makes an essential point: Unlike so many funny commercials being created today, these Old Spice ads actually place the product in the spotlight. As I once learned in an advertising class, you can’t forget to mention what it is you are selling.

There are many more Old Spice oddities to check out. The timeline on the Old Spice Facebook page is one way to get a wide-angle view. You can also visit the Wieden+Kennedy website and its Old Spice page. Of course, Old Spice has a YouTube channel, in which one video after another can be watched.

Finally, if you would like to see how far Old Spice has come — or fallen, depending on your viewpoint — check out the last video player on this page.


Bremerton leading in national ‘water challenge’

April 18th, 2014 by cdunagan

Bremerton continues to lead cities its size in the National Mayor’s Challenge, a program sponsored by the Wyland Foundation to encourage people to conserve water and energy, reduce waste, and do other conservation-minded things.

The challenge runs through April, so there is still time to join with other Bremerton residents or else boost the results for any city you wish to support. The pledge is basically a list of 17 conservation questions, and you just check a box for commitments you are willing to make — either with new practices or with ongoing good habits. To start, you name your city.

Bremerton was the winner last year among cities with populations from 30,000 to 100,000. As they did last year, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and her staff have done a good job in spreading the word about the contest, which includes prizes. I’ve seen posters in local stores and restaurants.

As the mayor said in a news release:

“Water is Bremerton’s remarkable resource. I encourage all Bremerton residents to pledge to learn more about their water and energy use at home. This challenge, which runs through April, is an exciting opportunity to learn about water wise habits as we engage in a friendly competition with other cities across the nation to create a more sustainable environment.”

Following Bremerton in its population category are Folsom, Calif., and then Greeley, Colo.

Since I wrote a story about this for the Kitsap Sun (subscription) on April 11, Seattle has moved up from seventh to fourth place among the largest cities (600,000 and over). No other Washington cities have made it into the top 10 for any population group.

In Kitsap County, Port Orchard is ranked 44; Poulsbo is ranked 162; and Bainbridge Island is out of the running at this point.

Other Washington cities in the top 100:

Gig Harbor, 46
Tacoma, 58
Vancouver, 59
Lacey, 64
Redmond, 74

Several other cities are close to 100. If anyone sees his or her city moving into the top 100, please let me know.


K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

April 14th, 2014 by cdunagan

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.


Amusing Monday: scenes and sounds of imagination

April 14th, 2014 by cdunagan

A couple years ago in Water Ways, I described how I used to spend a great deal of time recording and mixing sounds. As a child, I was fascinated with sound effects, and I’ve always loved music.

A website called Go Mix It allows you to create sound compositions and add photos like this one. Go Mix It photo library

A website called Go Mix It allows you to create sound compositions and add photos like this one. / Go Mix It photo library

At the time I wrote the blog entry, I had been playing around with a website called Nature Sounds for Me.

I encouraged everyone to create their own sound compositions, and provided some examples of what others had done, including myself.

I recently discovered what seems to be a related website that allows you to add photos to the mix. The site is Go Mix It. (Notice how the web domain is used in both links.) The site contains most of the same nature sounds, but includes a “photo panel” for choosing pictures to watch while the sounds are playing.

I think it would be better if I could toss my own photos onto the screen. I can’t find a way to do that, but there are many photos to choose from in the library, which can be searched by topic and added to the sound compositions.

Take a look at the site, and feel free to share your compositions in the comments section. A couple I threw together quickly are called Majestic Forest and Wild Ocean.


Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

April 11th, 2014 by cdunagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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


Amusing Monday: Surprises from a drop of water

April 7th, 2014 by cdunagan

I find myself returning again and again to videos that surprise me with scientific phenomena, such as a droplet of water bouncing at least three times before it gets absorbed into a glass of water.

Using videos to reveal something visually exciting is a thousand times more rewarding than watching a science teacher explain the properties of matter. I wish that teachers would have had some amazing videos available when I was growing up. But considering today’s technology, maybe teachers find it more challenging to surprise their students.

Anyway, check out the first video on this page, which shows a couple of goofy guys fascinated with the idea that water can bounce. The value of this video lies in the fact that these two “Slo Mo Guys,” Gavin Free and Daniel Gruchy, seem to be having a good time exploring this feat of nature.

That first video is fun and all, but is it enough? If you’re like me, you want a little more. You know that this relates to the surface tension of water, something the goofy guys never seem to mention. So I found another video, which has even better photography — plus a mathematician able to explain what’s going on. Check out the second video by Molecular Frontiers, a nonprofit group of scientists dedicated to spreading an appreciation of science. Maybe they’re a bit more professional than the Slo Mo Guys.

If you would like to delve further into the surface tension of water, I recommend a couple articles in Wikipedia, one on surface tension and the other on hydrophobic properties.

Finally, getting farther afield from where I started, a company called Ultratech has created two amazing videos about its super-hydrophobic product called Ultra-Ever Dry. It shows how treated products cannot get wet or dirty. See Ultra-Ever Dry 1, Nov. 12, 2012, and Ultra-Ever Dry 2, Jan. 31, 2014.

Ultra-Ever Dry is a product based on nanotechnology, and the formulation is mostly proprietary. As amazing and useful as nanotech products can be, I should point out that some concerns have been raised about potential long-term effects on the environment if they were to come into common use.

The Slo Mo guys, featured in the opening video, have also played around with a super-hydrophobic surface, as well as tiny particles of metal in a liquid. Believe it or not, they were invited into General Electric’s Global Research Lab in New York, where they felt free enough to bring along their playfulness for a video they made there.

These two guys also got invited to use a more advanced camera to watch what happens when they shoot a gun underwater. In the video of the bullet launch, the prime segments come between 2:20 and 3:30 and between 5:25 and 6:32.

If you want to see more of the Slo Mo Guys, check out the video of them bouncing on a giant water balloon — or visit their YouTube Channel.

The bottom video shows collisions taking place among droplets of liquids that are heavier than water.


International court rules against Japanese whaling

March 31st, 2014 by cdunagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amusing Monday: Pranks and games for April Fool’s

March 31st, 2014 by cdunagan

With April Fool’s Day coming up tomorrow, I’ve decided the theme for this week’s “Amusing Monday” should be games, tricks and pranks.

Let’s start with late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon, who has been playing a game called “Water War” with various celebrities, something he started even before he took over “The Tonight Show” earlier this year. The game plays like the traditional card game “War” with a bonus: The winner of each hand gets to throw a glass of water on his or her opponent.

The first video player on this page features a game of “Water War” between Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan, in which you will notice that Lindsay gets the upper hand. Other celebrities engaging in “Water War” include:

Another late-night TV host, Jimmy Kimmel, invited illusionist David Blaine on his show to demonstrate what he can do with water and fire. It seems Blaine was pretty thirsty before he started the trick. But you’ll need to watch the entire video on Kimmel’s YouTube channel to see what the magician can do with water and a flammable liquid.

I was quite amused by the practical joke played by a 10-year-old girl on her father. She had him totally convinced that the roof was leaking, but the cause of the dripping was a harmless rag placed in a heater vent. Check out the second video on this page for the full prank.

Another practical joke, which was designed to drench the target of the prank, failed when the guy outsmarted the pranksters. See how he did it by watching the video on Vid Addict.


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

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