The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships
and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who
control the ships are willing to put scientific information into
action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with
unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political
“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk
of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale,
dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a
preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently
encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where
cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take
to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or
“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his
or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce
strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do
it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting
through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide
to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”
UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its
final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and
training operations. The document does not consider an option for
avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or
explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California
and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries
Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for
incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is
news release (PDF 548 kb).
A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of
sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern
California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s
protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court
settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have
implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and
throughout the country.
The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over
Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern
California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The
environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and
death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of
whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and
A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups,
saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training
exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling
drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.
“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort
on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself,
represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with
the conservation community. It took litigation to create this
window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with
Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how
marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives.
As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts —
such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can
help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.
Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine
Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine
mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do
whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy
and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can
better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.
“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are
seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael
said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come
to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement
if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their
military readiness objective.”
For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of
this week’s settlement.
“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the
Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop
critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt
Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the
Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months
to reach this agreement.”
In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing
protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases
restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in
place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.
“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea
that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with
equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the
statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically
important testing and training.”
In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might
translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the
Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many
different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat
“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and
appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back.
“The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant
protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not
prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future
The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement
that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in
Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the
draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called
attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large
numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter
signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details
in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:
“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training
and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor
adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in
biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the
mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic
impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel
or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by
onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the
vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar
“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available
science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent
impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most
vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the
most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving
behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a
light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the
direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance
approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s
reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation
plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”
Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental
groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS
until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar,
explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales
and other animals should include restrictions within biologically
important areas, they say.
This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the
use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and
Hawaii. For details, check out the
signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps,
or read the summary in news releases by
Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are
getting special protection under the agreement.
Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises
include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along
with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For
a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean
and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s
release on the subject.
Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s
acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training
exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic
areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine
mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic
exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the
Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific
Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar
issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should
encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same
mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon,
California and Alaska.
“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the
Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management
approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries
Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically
significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing
Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups
are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and
its failure to address the problem:
“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s
NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details
extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources….
Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially
understates the potential effects, the activities would cause
nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals
along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern
Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the
5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take
I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without
significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to
see another lawsuit over routine testing and training
Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important
areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported
in a special issue of the journal
Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).
The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine
protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said
Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries
Science Center and guest editor of the special report.
“They represent the best available information about the times
and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically
important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news
release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean
to look at this information and take it into consideration to
understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”
Project managers can use information in the report for offshore
energy development, military testing and training, shipping,
fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise,
generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect
large areas of whale territory.
Separate articles were written about seven regions of the
country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for
West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of
Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.
The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas
important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor
porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue
whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas
of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys
and opportunistic sources,” the report says.
BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from
Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small
resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or
PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the
migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern
California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest
tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of
Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.
The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah
Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in
Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts
approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost
the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah
The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling,
including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no
more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include
plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a
whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if
a quota of these whales is reached.
“This is the first step in a public process of considering this
request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe
to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy
regional administrator, in a
press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the
alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and
completely analyzed the impacts.”
For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions
for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the
Makah Whale Hunt.
Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs
were established for endangered fin whales, because of
discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and
uncertainty about their population structure.
The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales,
beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that
future work cover those animals as well as looking into special
breeding areas for all the whales.
A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an
ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs
more information about Southern Resident killer whales before
expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.
Water Ways from Feb. 24.
In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any
of the following characteristics:
Reproductive areas – Areas and times within
which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is
found with neonates or calves,
Feeding areas – Areas and times within which
aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These
either may be persistent in space and time or associated with
ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within
a larger area that can be delineated,
Migratory corridors – Areas and times within
which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the
corridor is spatially restricted.
Small and resident population – Areas and
times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited
The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still
appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center
for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through
the San Juan Islands on Monday.
In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was
staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.”
Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained
some distance away.
Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the
mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it
will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give
birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not
with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence
points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally
“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary
There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of
the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its
teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old
female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the
grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would
not be needed for an older mom, he said.
I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew
who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any
nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening
up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to
But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even
if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother
could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.
There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until
genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming
the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal
sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers
following the whales, he said.
Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around
the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in
Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a
24-year-old named Blackberry.
A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through
the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each
time they quickly turned around and came back,
Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching
company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of
Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook
So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next
satellite data won’t be available until later.
The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod
since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the
images to enlarge.)
In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals,
in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in
showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the
Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound,
has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to
better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety
of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the
Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book,
given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for
many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he
was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story
into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.
I consider this book to be several stories woven into one.
First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in
this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the
Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after
the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.
Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology,
developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy
officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved
with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz
The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving
marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales
and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed
Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to
environmental law versus the need for national security. As a
result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the
risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.
Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters,
especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He
sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and
uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s
single-minded approach to national security.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing
research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place,
practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of
killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to
secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their
injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the
Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and
he made the connection to the dead whales.
From there, other researchers and policy officials became
involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being
swept under the rug.
“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night
the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of
We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a
young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to
a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He
later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills
with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.
Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a
pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School
and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or
SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became
some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National
Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks
revealed something about their past and present positions in
Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a
compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising
tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete
“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken,
somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had
confused notes or what.”
Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and
accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story
could not be assailed.
Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious
decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by
Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.
Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials,
whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except
perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said
active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to
know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other
“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was
skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these
matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping
him understand anti-submarine warfare.
Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been
satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in
promotional materials for the book:
“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major
post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national
security and environmental protection. The author presents this
very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.
“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue
will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic
is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I
doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The
importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the
wide reading public in a compelling way.”
In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the
relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly
joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one
especially important to those of us living in an area where the
Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine
Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will
describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and
what he learned along the way.
Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale
in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale Research.
We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16,
known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as
Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her
three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.
“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me,
but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not
sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From
all indications, the little one is doing fine.
Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16,
because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as
likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told
Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an
overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been
swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year.
Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side.
According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their
babies near the surface of the water.
Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital
area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A
good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For
comparison, see Questions
& Answers at Center for Whale Research website.
I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was
acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail
slapping and porpoising.
“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16
a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they
would group up at times.
“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,”
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.”
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a
group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and
almost a complete mystery to scientists.
Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii,
on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine
mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from
Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but
rarely seen by human observers.
In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s
Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales
only three times
twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are
few and far between.
This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of
skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these
whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew
also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four
Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks
later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for
several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to
fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can
see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then
west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and
slightly south of Kauai.
By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and
still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia
crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman
told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career.
(See video below.)
Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia
cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on
Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other
orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a
thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also
These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the
familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest,
Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the
dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is
difficult to see.
These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of
the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental
shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the
tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores,
which are known to eat sharks.
We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget
Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin
says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter
enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered
generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins
and occasionally larger whales.
Robin says little is known about how they group together,
because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally,
the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families,
including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of
matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some
orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often
joins with others.
Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is
new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the
tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats
(and) whether they cross international boundaries.”
In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew
on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie
Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution
of Oceanography and several volunteers.
Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was
considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals
were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species,
now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of
which are shown on
Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project
page on Cascadia’s website.
If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll be impressed with this
video, which shows a bottlenose dolphin apparently asking for help
from some scuba divers, who noticed the animal tangled in fishing
line with a hook imbedded in its fin.
Martina Wing of Ocean Wings Hawaii captured the action, which
really begins at 3:30 into the eight-minute video, though the early
part sets the scene with some beautiful shots of manta rays. The
encounter took place Jan. 11 off the west coast of the Big
Reporter Philip Caulfield of the
New York Daily News quoted Keller Laros, the diver who came to
the rescue, as saying the dolphin was responsive to his gesture and
deliberately moved in close to be helped:
“I noticed he had a fishing wire wrapped around his left fin. I
reached out with my left hand … and gestured with my index finger
‘Come here.’ And he swam right up to me. The fact that he seemed to
recognize my gesture, that blew me away.”
Laros was able to cut away the line and remove the hook, and the
dolphin swam away.
The video has been viewed nearly 2 million times, with more than
2,000 comments posted to the site. I found some observations to be
DavidKevin: I am overwhelmed.
I have been certain for over 35 years that we shared the
planet with another sentient species, the dolphins, and this is
just more evidence of it. We don’t have to go off-planet to find an
alien species with whom to communicate, we just have to look
If we cannot learn to communicate with our distant mammalian
relatives, we’ll never be able to communicate with true
extra-terrestrials, should we ever meet them.
Marvelicious75: We use the word ‘sentient’
in a dialectic manner, but it is quite obviously not accurate. It
is arrogance that makes us consider ourselves separate from
‘animals’ like the dolphin. This story isn’t truly surprising in
light of the countless stories of dolphins rescuing humans. The
only limiting factor is our surprising lack of empathy….
Hobbitfrdo: Sad day for the world if we
stopped loving all creatures. Respect to you all.
Russell Laros: The diver cutting the line
off in the video is my father. He was really happy to be able to
make this connection to the animal and was pretty impressed by it’s
intelligence. Apparently this dolphin has been in contact with
humans before, though. It has been seen and interacted with workers
at a local open ocean fish farm nearby. Still really amazing
Misa Eniaki Amane: This dolphin is smarter
than all of us…..went up for air and back down to continue with the
supertekkel1: There are numerous_ ancient
stories of dolphins rescuing sailors who went overboard. Whether
they are true or not, it’s nice to see that we are finally able to
do something to return the favor.
1Irisangel: What a blessing to have
captured these moments on film. No words needed, only love and
compassion for a fellow traveler on planet Earth. Wonderful capture
OonaCanute: Now to get rid of all the
fishing nets and lines and hooks that kill thousands of dolphins
like this beauty every year.
Alex Bruce: The trust the dolphin had in
the humans in his time of need is humbling to me. Dolphins are very
intelligent creatures and know when to allow man to handle and help
them. The men that helped the dolphin have to have felt some sense
of pride derived from their kindness and humane actions. I know I
did when many years ago I helped rescue a pelican that had a 3-barb
hook anchored in its wing and a weight that was attached to the
fishing line. He said. “Thank you” in his way and took off in
bcmom5: Awesome. It swam around until it
found the right person to help it. That person and all who had a
hand in it were blessed with Dolphin Medicine which teaches us to
get out and breathe, explore, play. Breathe new life into your
life. Awesome. 🙂 Thank you for helping and for sharing.
userbc44: What a touching and pure video! I
love the part at 4:33 when the diver goes to take off his lights
and puts them on the sea floor, the dolphin swims right in front of
him as to say, “Theres more! don’t go, here I am!”
POMPCATZ: Wonderful to watch this
intelligent creature seek your help and let you finish the job
after going up for air. This is just more proof these beautiful.
intelligent life forms should not be slaughtered for ignorant
tradition and profit.
KillerinExile: Dolphins seem almost
sapient. If they’re smart enough to ask for help maybe we shouldn’t
be eating and abusing them like we do.
starsbydaylight: … I am sure the majority
of people are naturally happy to help distressed animals that keep
their calm, sometimes being out of fear unreasonable while being
rescued. Once I witnessed a toddler busy carefully rescue a
butterfly drowning in a puddle of water. The intelligence of the
dolphin and the kind manner of the diver made me cry. In fact the
dolphin saved its own life….
flowerseva: This is the ‘Real News’
happening on Planet Earth! Imagine if the 6 o’clock nightly news
was filled with these images and emotions – What kind of world
would we then be creating??
Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning
an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit
involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest,
including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See
Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.
Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo
ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud
enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to
report this issue in his blog
Orcasphere that same day.
Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale
Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this
“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could
hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land
could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at
the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but
got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or
Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident,
other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy
I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest,
who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked
at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:
“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside
testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett
yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and
ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a
Navy ship to get underway.
“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief
transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent
The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale
researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was
reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See
Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.
Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside
testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the
National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow
incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal
Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming
environmental impact statement, as I described last week. Continue reading →