Tag Archives: killer whale

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Amusing Monday: Orca surprises fishermen

I’m on vacation this week, but I wanted to revisit a video I first presented in June of last year. We see fishermen playing a fish while a killer whale plays the fishermen. I interviewed the excited man in this video soon after the fishing trip to explain some of his comments. The video has now been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

Frank Sanders is an experienced hunting and fishing guide, yet he screamed with excitement when he reeled in his fishing line to find a killer whale at the other end.

The video, posted two weeks ago by Frank’s deckhand Charlie Barberini, has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. That doesn’t count the number of times people watched the original Facebook post and videos copied from the original.

The video has raised numerous questions, such as why Frank is showing his ring to the camera and looking for someone named Jason. I was able to reach Frank in Hawaii, where he was on a fishing trip, and he filled in some of the blanks.

Frank, Charlie and others were fishing for halibut near Ninilchik in Cook Inlet in Southern Alaska. They had seen a couple killer whales go by a few times but not close to the boat. I think Frank told me the orcas were eating sockeye salmon that were in the area. Suddenly, out of the depths, a killer whale appeared following the fish on his line.

You need only to see and hear the video to know how much excitement that generated.

Frank told me the orca did not appear to want the fish. It was playing with the fishermen in the boat, grabbing the fish, pulling the line out about 200 yards, then bringing it back. The whale circled the boat a few times, he said, tangling fishing lines played out from other poles. This went on for at least 10 minutes before the whale went on his way.

The whale, of course, had the strength to bite the fish through and take it away or snap the line any time he chose, Frank said. But it didn’t.

About his ring, Frank explained that he travels a lot for his business, Alaska Trophy Hunters. In fact, he is away from his wife about as much as he is with her, so he sends her hunting and fishing pictures from all over Alaska and displays his ring for her.

As for Jason, I didn’t get the full story, but I heard enough to understand that this, too, was an inside message. Jason is Frank’s best friend and the best man at his wedding. Jason was in a four-wheeler accident and suffered a severe brain injury. He was in a coma for a month but then was getting better. Jason set up a personal website on “Caring Bridge” to share information back and forth with his friends and family. Frank wanted Jason to understand that he was thinking about him during this adventure and was showing him a special bracelet they shared. Unfortunately, Jason suffered a stroke and may not pull through. (Update, June 24, 11 a.m.: I just received word from Frank this morning that Jason passed away yesterday.)

After the video was posted, Frank reportedly told reporter Lydia Warren of London’s Daily Mail:

“Fishing gets kind of repetitive after 18 years, but this is one of the most exciting things that has happened to me.”

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro
Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet
Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, is asking federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the death of L-112, a young female orca who died two years ago of mysterious causes.

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Ken maintains that an underwater “blast” remains the mostly likely cause of death for the whale, who was known as Sooke — or Victoria, as Ken originally named her.

A draft final report (PDF 2.3 mb) by the National Marine Fisheries Service, dated Feb. 24, states that “blunt trauma to the head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”

See Water Ways, Feb. 25, for a discussion of the final report and links to other stories.

The official investigation could find no military operations in the area off the Washington/Oregon coast, where the young whale was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012. In looking for a cause of the trauma, the report essentially rules out several underwater explosions set off by the Canadian Navy a week before, on Feb. 4, 5 and 6 off Vancouver Island. These activities occurred too far north — and prevailing winds and currents were in the opposite direction, according to the report.

But Ken Balcomb argues that the report fails to fully consider how L-112 could have ended up south of these military exercises. Currents are not certain, he said. They can change, and eddies can even flow in the opposite direction from prevailing currents. Ken also raises the prospect that a dead or dying orca calf could be carried a great distance by other members of the pod.

“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario, rather than one that may be more realistic,” he wrote to NMFS, the federal agency in charge of protecting marine mammals.

Ken’s 12 pages of comments (PDF 1.1 mb) address numerous statements in the report, and here are a few:

On the brain:

Report: “The absence of right cerebral hemisphere and right cerebellum of the brain was secondary to loss of tissue during disarticulation of the head. Significance is uncertain based on imaging alone, but unilateral loss of brain tissue is unusual.”

Ken’s comment: “UNUSUAL! The right cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed and there was evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings of brain damage from a blast impact. The observation is consistent with blast trauma.”

On the ear bones:

Report: “The CT results showed no evidence of bone fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones. These results do not conflict with gross observations and the proposed cause of acute or peracute death by blunt force trauma; however, blast- or seismic-related injuries cannot be
entirely discounted.”

Ken’s comment: ”Upon gross dissection both tympanic bullae were found to be dislocated from their fragile bony pedestals anchoring them to the cranium. While it may be accurate to say that no evidence of fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones on the CT scans, it is misleading to infer that no damage was evident to the ears (see page 11 of Necropsy report).”

On possible attack by another marine animal:

Report: “The primary signs of injury reported from aggressive attacks are rake marks, musculoskeletal and/or intra tissue trauma (bruising, tearing) attributed to ramming and sometimes death. Contrary to the cases reported in the literature, L-112 was a juvenile animal (older and larger than a calf or neonate), and the examiners did not document tooth rake marks associated with the signs of hemorrhage they observed during the gross examination. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that L-112 suffered injuries from an aggressive attack, such as ramming, by a larger animal.”

Ken’s comment: “The presumed hypothesis suggested by the last sentence is absolutely preposterous, given the evidence of a massive single traumatic event causing the mortal injury. To not rule out the attack hypothesis while ruling out blast trauma is ludicrous.”

On currents:

Report: “Because of prevailing currents and eddies it is unlikely that L-112 died in Canadian waters or the Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted south, but instead likely died in the Columbia River plume or farther to the south along the coast of Oregon. Given the state of decomposition at the time of stranding the body was either carried by eddies for several days or may have drifted a substantial distance from the south before being trapped by the eddies and cast ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula.”

Ken’s comment:
“The drift patterns can be quite different from year to year, as well as from season to season, or even week to week. It is regrettable that drifters were not deployed near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in February 2012. There was a NOAA cruise in these waters at that time, and I asked the chief scientist to deploy drifters or some identifiable devices to ascertain the real time drift pattern at that time. One can surmise from the temperature regimes that were documented real-time that there was an anomalous cold water regime moving in a southerly direction in February 2012, but there were no current measurements.”

On the possibility of transport by another orca

Ken’s comment:
“I further request that the investigation team thoughtfully consider the relevant cetacean epimeletic behavior … (He mentions two studies.) Hoyt (1981) in ‘Orca, the Whale Called killer” on page 92 states: ‘Among cetaceans, and especially the dolphin family (including orca), care-giving behavior to sick or wounded family members seems exemplary. Moby Doll was supported by members of his family after he was harpooned in 1964. On another occasion off the B.C. coast, a young killer whale was hit by a government ferry boat, the propeller accidentally slashing its back. The ferry captain stopped the boat and watched a male and a female supporting the bleeding calf. Fifteen days later, two whales supporting a third – presumably the same group — were observed at the same place.’”

Ken concludes his remarks with this: “These comments are dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate mother/offspring pair of whales I have ever seen. Rest in peace, L112. We miss you.”

Mystery of L-112′s death may never be solved

It appears we’ll never know what killed L-112, known as Victoria or Sooke, found dead at 3 years old, after she washed up on an ocean beach in Southwest Washington.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February 2012, and the cause of her death remains a mystery.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

If you recall from two years ago, much speculation swirled around the notion that the female orca was killed by military operations, such as sonar or an explosion. The Royal Canadian Navy confirmed the use of sonar and small underwater detonations west of Vancouver Island. But that was far from Long Beach, where the orca washed up, and ocean currents suggest she was killed even farther south. For a quick history, see Water Ways from Feb. 18, 2012, followed by an entry on May 16, 2012.

The latest report concludes, as early ones did, that L-112 died from “blunt force trauma.” But the cause of the trauma could not be determined. No sonar activity or explosions were identified in the area where her death probably occurred, although a physical examination was not able to totally rule out those causes.

A new bit of information emerges from the long-term acoustic recorders that listen for sounds off the coast. Calls identified as coming from L pod were reported near Point Reyes in California on Jan. 30, off Westport in Washington on Feb. 5, and near Newport in Oregon on Feb. 20. L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11 after floating for several days. It appears likely that the young whale was with her pod at the time of her death.

As the report states:

“This multi-disciplinary investigation could not determine the source of the blunt trauma despite gathering and evaluating all available information on the whales, the environment, and human activities. We evaluated the sighting history of the whales to provide insight into the circumstances of the stranding.

“Autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California indicated that the main group of L Pod, possibly including L-112, was off California in late January, heading north, and possibly off Westport, Washington in the first week of February and detected near Newport, Oregon after the stranding…

“A major source of trauma from sonar, explosives, or a seismic event would likely have affected multiple individuals traveling together as killer whales are known to do. All other members of L-112’s family group were sighted following L-112’s stranding. No other members of the L4 sub-group were reported missing, injured, or stranded between the time of the L-112 stranding and the summer of 2012.

“This observation leads us to believe that the trauma suffered by L-112 was likely borne individually and was not an event that covered a large area or that directly impacted the young whale’s most likely traveling companions in the L4 sub-group. For these reasons, we do not believe that L-112 succumbed to blast injuries or exposure to other high intensity sound.”

So was L-112 struck by a ship? Did she encounter another aggressive whale or large shark? Or was she hit by another unknown force or object? We’ll probably never know, as the mystery goes on and on and people continue to ask, “Who killed L-112?”

To review a copy of the report, go to the website “Wild Animal Mortality Investigation: Southern Resident Killer Whale L112 Final Report.”

Reporter Phuong Le covered the story today for The Associated Press.

Attack by orcas scatter dolphins near Nanaimo

John Buchanan of Squamish, British Columbia, was in the right place at the right time when a group of transient killer whales mixed it up with hundreds of fleeing white-sided dolphins.

John said it appeared that the orcas had formed a line to herd the dolphins into shallow water in Departure Bay near Nanaimo.

“The only way they could escape was going through the orcas,” he told me. “I was wondering if they would swim right into the ferry. The ferry may have made the escape a little narrower for them.”

John happened to be on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay on Vancouver Island when the wild encounter occurred on Monday.

“I was just traveling on the ferry to meet someone at Nanaimo,” said Buchanan, who is active in the environmental groups, including Squamish Stream Keepers. “I always have my camera close by.

“We were just coming into Departure Bay. Someone spotted the orcas, then the water just exploded with all these dolphins in the bay. The orcas had them pinned in.

“I bet there was all kinds of action going on under the water,” he said. “It was spectacular, especially when one orca was breaking in one direction and another was breaking in the other direction.”

John recorded that exciting shot of a double breach on his camera, which you can see toward the end of the video.

Later, he was informed by a biologist at Vancouver Aquarium that breaching is often how the whales celebrate a kill. Although he noticed a lot of chasing at the time, he never spotted any dead or dying dolphins nor was any blood in the water.

John posted the video on YouTube on Monday, the same day he recorded the dramatic encounter. As of this morning, the number of views was approaching 100,000.

CBC News posted the video on its webpage, and John has been approached by people who would like to purchase the footage, but he plans to keep it available for public viewing.

“I’ll never see anything like that again,” he said.

At my suggestion, John sent photos to Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. Ken reported that the orcas included T-100s. According to the book “Transients” by John Ford and Graeme Ellis, they are a group of killer whales seen mainly in Southeast Alaska.

Will ‘endangered’ status change Lolita’s plight?

The legal stage was already set for Lolita, the last killer whale from Puget Sound to survive in captivity.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

Putting Lolita on the Endangered Species List, along with her wild relatives who were already listed, follows a pattern established over the past decade, going back to a 2001 court ruling about salmon. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service intends to include Lolita among the listed Southern Resident killer whales. See “Petition to list the killer whale known as Lolita….”

But what the endangered designation will mean for Lolita herself is yet to be seen and is likely to be the subject of further legal battles.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed the petition along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, hailed the latest decision by NMFS. The group said in a news release that the decision “opened the door to the eventual release of Lolita.”

Jarred Goodman, who handled the case for PETA, told me that it is PETA’s belief that holding Lolita in a small tank at Miami Seaquarium constitutes “harm and harassment,” which are violations of the Endangered Species Act.

After NMFS completes changes to the listing, PETA has several options, he said, although he is not authorized to discuss specific strategies. Calling on NMFS to take action on behalf of Lolita or filing a citizen lawsuit are among them.

Nothing in the NMFS findings would change anything for Lolita, however. The bottom line is that NMFS could find no legal justification in the Endangered Species Act (PDF 147 kb) or related court decisions for separating the captive orca from wild Southern Residents when it comes to identifying which ones are at risk of extinction.

As NMFS stated in the Federal Register (PDF 273 kb):

“While the ESA authorizes the listing, delisting, or reclassification of a species, subspecies, or DPS (distinct population segment) of a vertebrate species, it does not authorize the exclusion of the members of a subset or portion of a listed species, subspecies, or DPS from a listing decision….

“The ESA does not support the exclusion of captive members from a listing based solely on their status as captive. On its face, the ESA does not treat captives differently. Rather, specific language in Section 9 and Section 10 of the ESA presumes their inclusion in the listed entity, and captives are subject to certain exemptions to Section 9.”

In other words, the original decision not to include captive killer whales in the population at risk of extinction was a mistake.

In finding that Lolita is part of the endangered population, NMFS noted that agency officials agreed with a 2001 court ruling in which a judge determined that hatchery salmon should be considered part of the salmon population at risk of extinction.

Following that logic, the NMFS included captive fish in the listing of endangered smalltooth sawfish and endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year that captive chimpanzees should be included among the wild population listed as endangered.

The ESA does allow captive animals to be treated differently, provided they were in captivity at the time of the listing and “that such holding and any subsequent holding or use of the fish or wildlife was not in the course of a commercial activity.”

For Lolita, NMFS has stated that continued possession of captive animals does not require a permit under ESA and that Lolita can continue to be managed under the Animal Welfare Act. (See “Questions and answers …”)

Advocates for Lolita say NMFS may not have taken a position on Lolita, given the latest findings. The notice only says that holding an endangered animal in captivity is not a violation of the ESA per se.

I’ll continue to follow the case as it moves forward. Meanwhile, here are some past of my past observations about Lolita in Water Ways:

April 24, 2013: Lolita, the captive orca, could gain endangerd status

Oct. 24, 2012: Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

Nov. 20, 2011: Legal actions swirl around orcas Morgan and Lolita

Aug. 8, 2010: Thinking of Lolita, the captive killer whale

July 15, 2010: Lolita’s fate could become linked to Gulf disaster

Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.

Here’s Jim’s message for the year:

“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”

I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
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Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.
A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Unique ‘tropical oceanic’ orcas still traveling west

UPDATE, Dec. 7

I have received word from researcher Robin Baird that the last remaining transmitter tracking the “tropical oceanic” killer whales stopped working on Nov. 26, six days after this report. The transmitter presumably fell off. I’ve attached a map provided by Robin in the comments section at the bottom of this page. It shows the whales’ last 10 days of travel. They kept on moving southwest.
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KW 2013NOV1-19_WM

“Tropical oceanic” killer whales, which were tagged near Hawaii and tracked by satellite, have now moved about 860 miles west.

As of yesterday, they were approaching Johnston Atoll, seen just to the left of their last known location shown on the map above, according to Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia.

Initially, three orcas were tagged in this first effort to track the unique breed of killer whale, which travels in the open ocean. For a description of tropical oceanic killer whales, including their varying diet, review the entry in Water Ways on Nov. 12.

Two of the three transmitters attached to the whales have stopped working, presumably because the barbed tags fell off the animals. One transmitter, attached to an adult female, continues to send out information about the location of the four whales, assuming they have stayed together.

After traveling northwest through the Hawaiian Islands, the whales have taken a pretty direct path toward Johnston Atoll, slowing down a few times along the way. It will be interesting to see where they go next.