Tag Archives: Cetaceans

New orca baby doing well, closely linked
to 43-year-old female

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.

The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female and her likely mom.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

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.

As Dave noted in his observations:

“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 convinced.

“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary caregiver.”

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.

Jan. 12-15. Satellite tracking shows that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed through the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 12-15.Satellite tracking reveals that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. // Map courtesy of NOAA

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 happen.

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 noted.

“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.

Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. // Map courtesy of NOAA

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.

Jan. 17-21. To save battery power, the satellite transmitter began sending signals every other day. Still, it was clear that the J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by yesterday afternoon. This time, they were accompanied by K pod, according to observers. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 17-21. The J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back by yesterday afternoon — this time accompanied by K pod, according to observers. // Map courtesy of NOAA

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 page.

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.)

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

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 world.

Book

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 whales.

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 describes it.

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 success.

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.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

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 whales.”

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 life.

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 the book.

“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 retired officers.

“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 life.

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.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

It’s a girl! Orca gender identified; her mother remains a mystery

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.

The baby killer whale, J-50, with her family.Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research
The baby killer whale, J-50, reveals that she is a girl as she swims with her family in British Columbia.
Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of 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 me.

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,” he added.

Because J-27, a male in J pod, has been carrying a satellite transmitter since Dec. 28, experts have a pretty good idea about their location, as the orcas move about. Check out the maps on NOAA’s website, “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

As of this afternoon, J pod, including the J-16 clan, was near Nanaimo, B.C., and headed south toward the Washington border, according to Tom Cogan, who was in the vicinity.

International court rules against Japanese whaling

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.”

Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

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.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette
Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

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 whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

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 reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird
Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

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.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone
Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

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.

Dolphin rescue touches many hearts

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 Island.

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 thought-provoking:

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 offshore.

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 though….

Misa Eniaki Amane: This dolphin is smarter than all of us…..went up for air and back down to continue with the rescue.

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 Martina!

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 flight :-)

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??

Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

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 report:

“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 yard.”

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 periods.”

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

Update on orca research cruise and tracking effort

As you probably know if you follow this blog, a team of researchers attached a satellite tag to one of the Southern Resident killer whales a few days ago (Water Ways, Feb. 22). But the transmission stopped sometime after Thursday morning, following three days of transmissions used to track J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Pacific Ocean.

Bell M. Shimada, the research ship now in search of killer whales. / NOAA photo.

The researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, are now trying to locate J pod during the day to determine whether the tag fell off or simply stopped transmitting.

I received this e-mail from Brad yesterday:

“We have been unable to locate them during daylight hours the last two days. We detected the whales on our towed array on Thursday evening after sunset near the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca but we were not able to stay with them until daybreak because they stopped vocalizing and echolocating about 0130 on Friday.

“We spent most of Friday searching the central Strait of Juan de Fuca before heading to Port Angeles late in the evening to avoid an approaching storm. J pod calls were detected off San Juan Island late Friday evening. We are waiting for winds to subside and will resume our search as soon as possible.”

A decision about whether to attach a transmitter to another orca in J pod will wait until the researchers get a look at J-26 to see what may have happened to the transmission. No more than two tags per year may used to track any one pod. Specific whales were selected for tags, generally avoiding females that could contribute to the population.

The ability to track the whales by satellite makes the research work easier, but it does not change the priorities. Figuring out where the Southern Residents travel in winter remains a primary goal of the ongoing research. Two years ago, the crew went to sea looking for the whales without the option of tagging, using the same acoustic equipment being used now to find them.

The cruise also is collecting data on birds, zooplankton and oceanographic conditions, as with the cruise in 2009, Brad told me. The ability to use the satellite data to track the whales allows researchers to collect information along the track where the whales had been.

Without information about the location of the whales, the researchers tend to follow systematic track lines with their research vessel. When the whales are picked up on the acoustic array, the effort to locate the animals takes precedence over data collection. At night, changes in ship speed and heading limits the type and quality of data that can be collected.

The risks of tagging can be debated, and I’ve tried to share the concerns. Still, it is easy to see why researchers wish to have this tool available to them as they try to figure out where the whales go in winter.

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.

Bainbridge’s Izumi Stephens is off to guard ‘the cove’

Izumi Stephens of Bainbridge Island, who appeared in the program “Whale Wars” last year, has returned to her native Japan as a “Cove Guardian” for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Izumi Stephens

Izumi left yesterday, traveling with her daughter Fiona, who will be 14 in April and who shares her mother’s passion to save whales and dolphins.

Cove Guardians are volunteers who document and photograph the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, a town made famous by the award-winning documentary “The Cove.”

I talked to Izumi Wednesday before she flew out. She was excited and a little nervous. As a Japanese citizen who has lived in the United States 19 years, she was not sure how she would be received by Japanese residents when she stands alongside Sea Shepherd volunteers.

A year ago at this time, Izumi was serving aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin as it followed Japanese whaling ships and disrupted their activities in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica. Izumi translated messages between the Japanese whalers and Sea Shepherd and helped coordinate coverage by Japanese reporters.

Izumi was the first Japanese translator who did not conceal her identity from the photographers filming “Whale Wars,” a weekly reality program on Animal Planet. Izumi appeared in several scenes but was not a major character. Check out my initial story for the Kitsap Sun on Oct. 31, 2010, with follow-up reports on Water Ways: Jan. 4, 2011 Feb. 22, 2011 … and June 1, 2011.

Izumi says her language skills may come in handy in Taiji. Also, her understanding of Japanese values may help her build a “bridge of understanding” with the Japanese people. Many see no difference between killing dolphins and killing fish to eat, she said, yet dolphins are intelligent mammals, and the rate of hunting cannot be sustained.

“To them, killing dolphins is a tradition,” she said, “but every country has its horrible traditions. Spain gave up the bull fight, and Japan can give up this.”

Izumi said her daughter Fiona put together a school project about the anti-whaling conflict last year, so she understands the arguments on both sides.

Cove Guardians say they are careful to obey the local laws as they document the daily killing of dolphins, which they claim is about 20,000 per year. Besides documenting and filming the deaths of dolphins and the movement of fishing boats, the general goal is to create a sense of shame among the hunters and local residents, they say.

Suzanne West of Seattle, whose husband Scott is coordinating Cove Guardians in Japan, said Izumi may receive increasesd attention from the Japanese media. Some people will be surprised at her opposition to the hunt. By now, most Japanese are fairly used to seeing Western visitors speaking in opposition to the events in Taiji, said Suzanne, who coordinates efforts in the U.S.

“A big thing is making them aware that the world is watching,” Suzanne said. “We got a lot of footage last year of them actually killing the dolphins.”

Now, the hunters are conducting the slaughter behind tarps, she noted, “but we can still count the actual bodies going in with none coming out.”

Izumi will return to Bainbridge Island on Thursday, March 1. Two days later, she will participate in a gathering of Sea Shepherd supporters at Casa Rojas Mexican restaurant, 403 Madison Ave., on Bainbridge Island. The event is free, with donations going to Sea Shepherd. For reservations, e-mail Seattle Sea Shepherd.

Izumi’s arrival in Japan coincides with the release from jail of Cove Guardian Erwin Vermeulen of the Netherlands, who was arrested in December during a pushing incident while trying to photograph dolphins in the cove.

A judge ruled that Vermeulen should pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,315 U.S.), but he cannot leave Japan pending an appeal by the prosecutor. Officials with Sea Shepherd say they may file formal proceedings to protest the two-month detention for a minor crime. See Expatica News.

Update, Feb. 18: After I posted this blog entry, I received an e-mail from Sea Shepherd’s media department that provides additional details and clarifies the Expatica report. See News Release (PDF 24 kb)

"The Cove," Taiji, Japan / Sea Shepherd photo