Tag Archives: killer whale

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.

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.”

Amusing Monday: Swimming with orcas and a GoPro camera

I’d like to offer something quite different for this week’s “Amusing Monday.” It’s a 19-minute video featuring Ingrid Visser, one of the world’s leading experts on killer whales.

One of the highlights of the video is the rescue of an orca imperiled with a rope and buoy caught around her tail. Without the rescue, which begins at 10:25 into the video, the whale probably would have died. If you continue watching, you’ll see shots taken from a camera on the whale’s dorsal fin, giving you a glimpse into the life of a killer whale.

Ingrid’s base of operations is New Zealand, but she has been to Puget Sound numerous times, as well as many other places where orcas reside. I’ve always admired her for her personal approach to understanding orcas throughout the world.

The video provides an insight into Ingrid’s life, research and interests. It’s appropriate that it begins with her discussing orcas with a group of young students. For more information, check out the Facebook page for Orca Research Trust or the related webpage for her nonprofit group.

The video was produced by a team of photographers to introduce the new high-speed, high-definition GoPro camera called HERO4.The video was the sixth in a series called “The Adventure of Life in 4K.”

Click on these links to watch the full series:

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”

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.”