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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘Center for Whale Research’

Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
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A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures


Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)


Two older female orcas die, affecting L pod

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Two of the oldest female orcas in L pod have been reported missing and presumed dead by the Center for Whale Research, which will release its annual census count of the three local orca pods on July 1.

The overall population of the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, has dropped to 82 animals, continuing the general decline since the three pods totaled 89 whales in 2005. The current count is barely above the low point of 79 animals in 2001.

One of the missing females is L-2 or “Grace,” estimated to be 53 years old. Since she has no surviving female children, her long line of ancestry will die out with the eventual death of her son, L-88 (“Wave Walker”).

Killer whales, both male and female, generally stay with their mothers for life. In a healthy orca population, each matriline is headed by an older female, along with all her surviving children and grandchildren.

Since L-2 was beyond reproductive age, her matriline reached a dead end with the death of her daughter, L-67 (“Splash”) and L-67’s daughter L-101, (“Aurora”), both in 2008. There were no other females to carry on the line.

L-67’s other offspring was L-98 (“Luna”), who became separated from his family and lived for several years in Nootka Sound along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Movies have been made about Luna and the unsuccessful effort to reunite him with his family. Luna was killed by a tugboat in 2006.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, said it has been evident for some time that L-2’s matriline would die out. At least three or four other matrilines in L pod are in a similar condition, which leads Balcomb to believe that the population is likely to continue its decline before it turns around, if that’s possible.

L-2, last seen in December, is survived by a son, L-88 (“Wave Walker”), whose fate is yet to be determined. The 20-year-old was very close to his mother.

“When the mother dies, there is a high probability that the male son will not survive,” Ken told me. “It seems a male needs an older female. I think there is some sort of role in the social structure. Maybe the female keeps track of relationships and who is appropriate for mating. It is all speculation, but L-2 was a container of wisdom.”

Sometimes a male will survive if he is accepted into another group with older females. L-87 (“Onyx”), a 21-year-old male, lost his mother. He began traveling with K pod and later with J pod, which may have kept him going. His sister, L-22 (“Spirit”) and her two sons remain in L pod.

But the number of reproductive females in each pod is really what establishes hope for the future, Ken said.

“That’s why L-112 is such a tragedy,” he noted.

L-112, a 3-year-old female named “Victoria” or “Sooke,” was found dead on Long Beach in February of 2012. An investigation listed the cause as “blunt-force trauma.” The cause of trauma may never be known, according to the latest reports. (It is probably time for me to update the evidence that is available.)

I guess I haven’t said anything about the other female reported missing. She is L-26 (“Baba”), last seen in March and reported as looking emaciated by researchers with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. L-26, estimated to be 57 years old, has a 20-year-old daughter, L-90 (“Ballena”). We’ll see how L-90 fares over the next few years.

As in all populations, including our own, individuals get old and die. Ken noted that he has been keeping tabs on these whales for nearly 40 years, which means he has grown older with them.

“When we began this study, we didn’t think they would live this long,” Ken told me. “It is sad that lives have ended, but nature marches on.”

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya


New L pod calf reported among rare superpod

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

A new calf was spotted today in L pod. The baby, L119, is the offspring of L77, Matia.
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Hyde via Capt. Jim Maya

UPDATE, June 3

The Center for Whale Research has reported the apparent absence of two additional Southern Resident killer whales as a result of an encounter last Tuesday by center researchers Dave Ellifrit, Erin Heydenreich and Barbara Bender.

In addition to L-112, the 3-year-old female found dead near Long Beach in February, and J-30, a 17-year-old male who has not been seen since December, the research team reported that two older females appear to be missing. They are L-5, estimated at 47, and L-12, estimated at 78. (Their ages are estimates, because the annual census that keeps track of every birth and death began 36 years ago.)

“We will wait for a couple more good encounters with L pod before writing them off to make sure they were not just missed,” the researchers said in their report of the encounter, which also includes 10 photos.

Orca Network has tentatively removed all the missing whales from its list of living orcas, leaving the number of survivors at 85.
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(more…)


Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.

Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.

Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:

“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”

In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.

In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.

Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved, including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:
(more…)


Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in the Northwest, has looked at the evidence and believes he knows what killed L-112, a 3-year-old female orca found along the Washington Coast in February.

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

“Clearly the animal was blown up,” he told Scott Rasmussen, a reporter for the Journal of the San Juan Islands.

When I asked Ken to explain, he provided a lot more detail and informed me that he was calling for a law-enforcement investigation into the whale’s death by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Why he is seeking more than a biological analysis of the death will become clear in a moment.

What Ken is suggesting is that L-112 was killed by a bomb, possibly dropped from an aircraft during a training event in the Navy’s Northwest Training Range off the West Coast. His evidence is circumstantial, but he wants some answers.

What we know for sure is that this young female orca washed up dead at Long Beach on Feb. 11 in relatively fresh condition, allowing a complete necropsy, including CT scans of the head and dissections of the internal organs and head.

Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with The SeaDoc Society who participated in the necropsy, said the whale showed signs of “blunt force trauma” with injury to the right and left sides of the head and right side of the body. Blunt force trauma might be what a human would experience if dropped from a helicopter onto soft ground, he explained.
(more…)


Reports of injured killer whale are likely false

Friday, August 26th, 2011

I’m happy to inform you that reports of a killer whale being struck off the west side of San Juan Island this morning apparently were false.

Erin Heydenreich, Ken Balcomb and others with the Center for Whale Research spent about two hours on the water this afternoon checking out L-90, a 19-year-old female known as “Ballena.” She was the orca reported to have been struck by a boat going too fast near the whales.

“We got a very good look at her,” Erin noted. “There were no signs of injury or indications that she had been struck.”

She noted that the orca was acting “strange,” including logging at the surface for unusually long times, moving slowly and making brief dives. That may have been one reason that observers believed she had been struck by a boat.

But another explanation for her unusual behavior is that Ballena is pregnant and about to have a calf, she said. That type of behavior has been seen in the past among expectant orca moms.

“She is at that age where she should be having a calf (her first),” she said. “She could be having a difficult pregnancy or something may be wrong with her not related to this vessel thing.”

Erin said officers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife questioned individuals involved with the incident and reported that it was unlikely that any whale was hit.

She said the researchers also checked out J-32, a 15-year-old female that was initially reported in the area. That whale, named “Rhapsody,” also showed no signs of injury.

The Center for Whale Research plans to watch L-90 especially closely the next few days to see if she has a new calf or otherwise changes her behavior.

Craig Bartlett of WDFW confirmed that officers had talked to the occupants of a large pleasure boat that had been moving slowly through the area. They were surprised that anyone believed something was seriously wrong, he said.


Killer whales return to Salish Sea — with new baby

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a story for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The newborn orca, K-44, was photographed with his mother in Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not been around for weeks.

I was ready in early June to write about their return, because that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the orcas away.

I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.

Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they will travel over the next few months before heading into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall.

The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how you can tell males from females.

Websites worth watching:

Orca Network’s sightings page (with signup for e-mails)

Salish Sea Hydrophone Network (with links to past and present underwater sounds)

Whale of a Purpose

Center for Whale Research

It's a boy! / Photo: Center for Whale Research


Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Early in December, I wrote about a plan to attach satellite transmitters to selected Puget Sound killer whales by shooting darts into their dorsal fins. At the time, lots of people offered questions and concerns, but few had taken a strong position. See my story in the Kitsap Sun of Dec. 5.

Since then, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and others involved in research, education and advocacy have come out against the tagging program as currently proposed. On the other hand, several other researchers are encouraging the federal government to push the tagging program forward.

After 140 days, marks are apparent where barbs of satellite tag entered the dorsal fin of the transient killer whale known as T-30.
Click to enlarge

As Ken explained it to me, his bottom line is that the information gathered by tracking the whales by satellite may not be worth the injury caused by shooting barbed darts into the whales’ fins. He argues that more follow-up investigation is needed into the short- and long-term effects of the darts, which eventually work their way out.

Ken was actually the first to apply for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the tagging program with barbed darts. While not wishing to criticize his fellow researchers, Balcomb said he had been overly assured that the risk of injury was exceedingly small.

“I was shown pictures of almost-healed wounds,” Ken told me. “I was given assurance that there was not an issue. I didn’t even think about these titanium leaves coming out and leaving a hole that size (in the fin).”

The current design of the dart used to attach satellite transmitters to killer whales.

The turning point was when Ken saw a photo of a transient killer whale, T-30, who had carried one of the satellite tags. (See the picture, above right.) He said the long-term scarring was “ugly and unacceptable to me personally,” and he believed that many whale supporters also would object.

Ken turned down the approved tagging permit — in part because it was granted as an amendment to his existing permit for photographing and identifying orcas as part of his ongoing census. If unacceptable injury were to occur to the subject whales, he said, his entire permit could be suspended. That, in turn, would prevent him from continuing the identification work he has done for more than 30 years.

Ken elaborated in a Dec. 18 letter written to the National Marine Fisheries Service:
(more…)


Killer whales have been in and out of Puget Sound

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

The three pods of Southern Resident killer whales have been in and out of Puget Sound the past few weeks, according to reports from Orca Network and the Center for Whale Research.

Today, people began reporting sightings of the killer whales from the Bainbridge Island ferry before 9 a.m. Apparently, there were lots of orcas and spread out, as folks began seeing them about the same time in Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to reports from Orca Network.

By 10:30 a.m.,they were between West Seattle and Vashon Island. They continued south and reached about the halfway point on Vashon Island about 12:30 p.m., when they turned around and headed back north, according to reports. Some whales may have continued south around the southern tip of Vashon Island and came back north through Colvos Passage, as five or six whales were spotted near the Southworth Ferry Terminal about 5 p.m.

Below are videos taken from news helicopters over Elliott Bay in the morning, top from KOMO-4 and bottom from KING-5.


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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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