Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast
will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could
become harmful to humans and marine species.
The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete
samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules
can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up
in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins
are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.
The equipment was installed by scientists with the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of
Washington. The device was developed at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of
the device in the first video on this page. The second video
provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of
The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway
for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The
remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet
One of the primary targets of the monitoring is
Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing
domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause
diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe
illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled
scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold
The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast,
from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting
bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean
“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and
crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,”
says a factsheet
from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in
Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would
be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia
“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast.
Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from
paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish
Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of
plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium
catenella in the Puget Sound region.
In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four
species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for
Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive
fish kills, including farmed salmon.
A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is
underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36
scientists from five countries.
Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the
researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological
measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on
marine species. They will take note of changes since the last
cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the
researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out
in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National
Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument
The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base.
Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their
work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean
The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in
areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007
that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the
California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The
video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of
the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.
As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies
of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod
abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone
Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.
“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new
analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in
her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be
employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics)
to study the response of marine organisms to their
“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and
metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first
time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton —
important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise.
Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating
measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from
To learn how satellites gather information about the California
Current, check out
With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters
along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that
could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in
the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may
have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to
Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a
piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint
Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University.
Her story begins:
“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise,
many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and
jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the
photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never
“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs
on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from
flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells.
Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to
Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway.
After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found
entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least
minimize public clumsiness.”
Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a
delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a
blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral
student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine
Science posted a
blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a
basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record
conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered
down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water
samples at any level.
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA
Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance”
for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and
dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic
explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used
for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have
acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in
Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command.
I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.
The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the
behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud
noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among
whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how
animals may be affected in other ways by noise.
The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for
minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information
may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other
cases protections may be reduced, according to information from
Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans
(whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals
and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing
abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may
The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups:
1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from
airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in
which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as
from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both
peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.
Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their
general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans,
including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans,
including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including
The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals,
including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true
seals, including harbor seals.
After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise,
I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is
measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various
locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more
complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds
account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the
intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the
animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’
Fisheries webpage on the guidance.
Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some
acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods
used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of
the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental
group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy
over sound exposures for marine mammals.
“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting
that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the
methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with
the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s
science has been sharply criticized.”
The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed
that they call into question how they could be used to protect
marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.
“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We
are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that
depend on their hearing to survive.”
The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the
new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much
noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake
social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species.
NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of
protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other
effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on
“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address
fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that
they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,”
Michael told me.
Sonar in Puget Sound
As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to
Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam
Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in
the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to
the south in Haro Strait.
At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the
Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick
to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was
disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS
Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my
story in the
Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.
Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet
command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the
letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries.
The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals
during testing and training operations.
Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from
observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait
about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy
Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.
Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy
public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed
that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of
Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile
destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never
“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the
requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical
error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of
the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s
email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting
less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the
procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any
Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind
of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some
loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary
actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has
taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance
of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.”
The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”
After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic
calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report
on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source
levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine
mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise
levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).
Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether
the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range,
but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any
changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was
used for a relatively short time.
“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making
mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for
doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at
least have a chance to spot the animals.
More than three years after first proposed, “critical habitat”
has been designated for Puget Sound steelhead, a prized fish whose
population has declined drastically in the Puget Sound region.
The new designation, announced last week, is the first time that
critical habitat has ever been designated on the east side of the
Steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species
Act in 2007, and this critical habitat designation is required
under federal law to protect habitats — in this case streams — that
are considered essential to the recovery of the species.
Under the law, any federal actions that could affect critical
habitat becomes subject to careful review to avoid degradation of
the habitat. In most areas, this high-level review would apply to
alteration of streams, wetlands or estuaries, or any construction
covered by federal grants or permits — such as transportation
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has
designated many Puget Sound streams as critical habitat for one or
more listed species — such as Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal
summer chum or bull trout. But this is the first time the agency
has provided federal protection for streams on the eastern side of
the Kitsap Peninsula.
Interestingly, the marine shoreline all around the peninsula has
been designated as critical habitat for chinook. Although the
numerous streams are considered too small to support chinook
spawning, the shorelines are critically important for juvenile
chinook, which must find places to feed, grow and escape predators
on their migration to the ocean.
The designation of East Kitsap as critical habitat for steelhead
could bring increased scientific scrutiny to this area along with
possible funding for the restoration of habitat, as I outlined in a
Kitsap Sun story when the habitat was first proposed in 2013. See
Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2013, and
Water Ways, March 15, 2013.
Even though steelhead were listed as threatened eight years ago,
knowledge remains sparse about the number of steelhead coming back
to the Kitsap Peninsula or the habitat needs of the fish, local
biologists tell me. Steelhead are stealthy fish, not easily found
in the streams, although some information is being revealed by a
handful of fish traps used by researchers to measure steelhead
Steelhead can still be found in Kitsap streams, but in numbers
far below what old-timers talk about. Many Kitsap streams have
become “flashy,” meaning that streamflows rise and fall suddenly
with the rains, because so much of the landscape has been paved or
otherwise hardened. Those conditions limit the habitat, especially
for fish like steelhead and coho, which make their way far upstream
in Kitsap’s numerous little creeks. One difference between the two
species is that coho die after spawning, while steelhead often head
back to the ocean to spawn again on their next journey.
As for the designation of critical habitat, the Suquamish Tribe
was able to convince NOAA Fisheries to maintain closer jurisdiction
over 90 miles of steelhead streams on the Kitsap Peninsula where
they were originally proposed for exclusion from the designated
In all, more than 2,000 miles of streams throughout the Puget
Sound region were finally designated as critical habitat, but more
than 1,500 miles of stream escaped the formal designation. That’s
because the habitat was said to be protected in other ways or
because the cost of protecting the habitat outweighed the
The Lake Washington watershed was excluded under the
cost-benefit rationale, but most of the excluded streams are on
private and state forestlands managed under approved habitat
conservation plans, which protect a variety of species. About 28
miles of streams on military bases were excluded because they fall
under “integrated natural resource management plans.” About 70
miles of streams on tribal lands were excluded out of respect for
tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribes in conservation.
While many of the forestlands on the Kitsap Peninsula come under
existing habitat conservations plans, the Suquamish Tribe argued
that even greater oversight is needed. Streams subject to the HCP
are not clearly delineated, nor are areas that would not be
regulated by HCPs, the tribe argued. Kitsap County is undergoing
urbanization, and these forests are threatened with conversion to
residential and commercial development, the tribe said. NOAA
Fisheries accepted the tribe’s point of view.
In practice, the listing of Kitsap forests as critical habitat
won’t have much effect, since forestland owners are already subject
to state rules that are highly protective of stream habitat, said
Adrian Miller, policy and environment manager for Pope Resources,
the largest forestland owner in Kitsap County. Besides, Adrian told
me, federal oversight only kicks in when there is a federal action
— such as a new road or stream alteration, and these are rare on
For Puget Sound, most areas designated as critical habitat are
considered “occupied” by fish at this time. One exception is the
Elwha River, where steelhead have been moving into areas not
occupied by anadromous fish since the Elwha Dam was built in 1910.
Since removal of the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam upstream,
biologists have not fully documented the full extent of the habitat
used by steelhead.
Since much of the upstream habitat is within Olympic National
Park, I’m not sure the habitat needs special protection under the
Endangered Species Act. But it is nice to know that steelhead
habitat in the Elwha is protected at the highest level and just
waiting for steelhead to arrive.
Two weeks ago, five conservation groups filed a lawsuit against
NOAA Fisheries for not completing the recovery plan within a
reasonable time. See Wild Fish Conservancy
news release, which includes a link to the legal documents.
Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of
their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod
were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb.
The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when
J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s
“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb.
25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the
newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken
stated in a news release
The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA
researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn
swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her
daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced
Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn,
apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing
around her deceased calf. See
Water Ways, Jan. 19.
The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been
Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was
12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish
who is just entering the reproductive age.
J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after
the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some
members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he
photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see
J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.
The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay
the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents
until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted
Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was
carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.
“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern
Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population,
it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves
did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news
release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive
their first year.
“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores
the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon
– if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and
The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a
year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have
infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is
listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents
to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami
Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel
Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the
Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team,
said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but
they include various family groups in both pods.
The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed
them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the
Water Ways, Wednesday.)
On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark
Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of
Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.
“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark
wrote in a report to the Center
for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were
doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30
p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were
still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of
the Olympic Peninsula).”
After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the
south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day
Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.
“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact
with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no
vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook
post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to
stay with them all night.
“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the
Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned
north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the
Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon
were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations
with the whales.”
In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed
“surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they
have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were
eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad
but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce
winds and waves tomorrow.
As luck would have it, the satellite transmitter used to track
K-33, a male orca named “Tika,” fell off or stopped transmitting
last Thursday — just three days before a research team set out from
Newport, Ore., to find the whale and any others traveling with him.
That satellite tag had been transmitting regularly since New Year’s
Eve, when it was first attached.
It might have been easier to locate the whales if the
transmitter had been working, but the researchers, led by Brad
Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, were well
aware of the whales’ recent movements, and there seemed to be at
least a general pattern.
After researchers and crew aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M.
Shimada left Newport on Sunday, they traveled up the coast to the
area from where the last satellite signal was sent — a region
between the Columbia River and Westport.
To catch up with the whale’s travels since my last report back
on Feb. 10, the orcas continued south from Westport to the Columbia
River, where they turned and headed north in no particular hurry.
By Feb. 13, they were halfway up the Olympic Peninsula near the
Quinault Canyon, a major underwater feature with deep grooves
between the continental shelf and deeper waters of the Pacific
Two days later, on Feb. 15, they were back offshore of the
Longbeach Peninsula and Willapa Bay, where they stayed until the
transmitter stopped sending signals on Feb. 17.
This past Sunday, Feb. 21, the research teams aboard the Shimada
headed north from Newport to that area near Westport, hoping to
“After three sweeps through that area with no detections, we
headed up the Washington Coast Monday night in the nearshore
waters,” Brad wrote yesterday. “As we neared LaPush this morning,
with 25 knots of wind howling out of the east, we saw numerous
small blows close to shore heading south. About an hour later, we
were able to close on the whales and confirm that we were with
members of L pod.”
Brad has not yet reported which whales were together, but the
research crew — which includes scientists from NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective
and Bio-Waves — were able to get
on the water after noon yesterday in a small research boat.
The researchers observed foraging behavior as the whales hunted
for salmon, and they were able to attach a new satellite tag to
L-95, a 20-year-old orca named “Nigel.” With regular transmissions,
they hope to stay with the whales or find them again quickly if the
animals become difficult to follow in darkness or heavy
As of last night, the whales had moved back offshore near the
entrance to Quinault Canyon with the Shimada staying nearby.
On the first day, the research team was unable to obtain fecal
samples or scales to identify what kind of fish the animals are
eating, but that will be one of the goals in the coming days.
Information gathered on this cruise may be used to update critical
habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although it now seems
clear that the whales are foraging in the ocean, the original
critical habitat designation listed only Puget Sound.
Over the past week, the young male orca K-33 and presumably most
of K pod has traveled out to the Pacific Ocean and down the
Washington Coast into Oregon.
The 15-year-old named Tika has been carrying a satellite
transmitter since New Year’s Eve. A week ago, Tika and the other K
pod whales were in the northern portion of the Strait of Georgia in
Water Ways, Jan. 7, and NOAA’s
Satellite Tagging page, Jan. 7.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, the whales turned to the south and by the
next evening they were headed through the San Juan Islands,
reaching the ocean late Saturday. On Sunday, the whales spent most
of the day near Swiftsure Bank, a well-known ocean fishing area on
the U.S.-Canada border, then headed south along the coast.
After pausing briefly near the Hoh River and again near Grays
Harbor, the whales reached the mouth of the Columbia River on
Tuesday. They didn’t stop there but continued south into Oregon.
Midday on Wednesday, they were off Depoe Bay. They reached the
Umpqua River yesterday and by this morning were rounding Cape
Blanco in Southern Oregon.
“This southerly excursion in January is similar to what we
observed in 2013 when we had K-25 tagged,” noted Brad Hanson, who
is heading up the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science
Center. See his
2013 blog and
notes from this year’s tagging program.
On a related topic, Ken Balcomb and other researchers for the
Center for Whale Research have been getting out on the water more
this winter to observe both resident (fish-eaters) and transient
(seal-eaters) killer whales. I enjoyed listening to his description
of the latest encounter with the two groups of transients on
Wednesday. Ken offers a voice-over while shooting video on the
water as well as later at the center while identifying the whales.
As he describes, the encounter took place near Kelp Reefs in the
northern portion of Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). Watch
the video on the website of the Center for Whale
Last year was the warmest year on record for Washington state,
as well as Oregon, Montana and Florida, according to climatologists
with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For the entire contiguous United States, 2015 was the
second-warmest in 121 years of temperature records going back to
1895. The average temperature last year was 54.4 degrees, some 2.4
degrees above the long-term average, according to NOAA. Only the
year 2012 was hotter.
Those extreme U.S. temperatures will contribute to what is
expected to be the highest worldwide temperature average on record.
Findings are to be completed later this month.
If 2.4 degrees above average does not seem like much, think
about raising your home’s thermostat by 2.4 degrees and leaving it
there for the entire year, said Deke Arndt, chief of the NOAA’s
Climate Monitoring Branch.
“You would feel the difference,” Arndt said during a telephone
briefing this morning, when scientists reported an increasing
number of extreme weather events across the United States — from
severe winter storms on the East Coast last February to wildfires
in the West during the summer to tornadoes across Texas and the
Midwest in December.
Changes in temperatures and precipitation are changing
ecosystems for plants and animals across the United States and
throughout the world.
For the year 2015, every state in the nation was warmer than the
long-term average, although various regions of the country acted
quite differently. In the West, the year started out warm but ended
up cool. In the East, residents began the year with record cold
temperatures but ended with unseasonable warm conditions.
In terms of precipitation, 2015 was the third-wettest year on
record in the contiguous United States, with a total average of
34.47 inches. That’s 4.5 inches above the long-term average. It was
the wettest year on record for Texas and Oklahoma, but Washington
was close to average for annual rainfall.
Washington state and the entire West returned to normal
temperatures for the month of December, but 29 states across the
East, Midwest and South recorded all-time-record highs for the
Twenty-three states — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho —
were much wetter than average in December, which ranked as not only
the warmest December on record across the U.S. but also the
Record flooding was reported along the Mississippi River and its
tributaries, with floods coming several months earlier than
“Record crests and overtopped levees were observed along parts
of the Mississippi River and its tributaries; deadly tornadoes
ripped through the Southern Plains and Mid-South; and heavy
snow/ice was observed from the Southern Rockies to Midwest and New
England,” state’s a summary report
released by NOAA. “This storm system resulted in at least 50
fatalities across the country — the deadliest weather event of 2015
— and caused over $1 billion in losses, according to preliminary
Across the country last year, 10 separate weather-related events
caused more than $1 billion each in damages — specifically, a major
drought, two major floods, five severe storms, a series of
wildfires and a major winter storm, each defined by NOAA based on
their timing and location.
Across the West, more than 10 million acres of forestland
burned, the greatest extent of fire since record keeping began in
“We live in a warming world, bringing more big heat events and
more big rain events,” Arndt said, adding that the pattern is
expected to continue in the coming years.
The extremes seen in the U.S. are being experienced across the
globe, he added. The U.S., which takes up 2 percent of the Earth’s
surface, experienced its second-warmest year on record. Worldwide,
however, it appears that 2015 will go down as the warmest year so
far. Global findings are due out in about two weeks.
Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its
overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important
advancement in orca research.
By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe
level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month,
researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a
healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further
observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.
I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could
track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that
the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible
reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic
chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic
chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser
amounts of the chemicals.
Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in
the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human
observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod
returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was
lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and
after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when
something goes wrong with a calf.
Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and
fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the
health of individual whales and the overall population.
Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to
those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to
assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop
wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher
elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be
general agreement that drones are the way to go.
John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115
flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that
their overall condition appeared better than in the past few
“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is
good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to
have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and
their predators,” Durban said in a
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat
different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and
neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is
the only way that they are able to control their population within
the carrying capacity of their food supply.
“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving
since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric
surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a
seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your
chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”
The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it
comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management
has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River
dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing
Canada’s Fraser River.
“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot
fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what
little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while
counting unborn whales.”
Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were
well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below.
The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press
can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and
links about the new tool. See
Water Ways Sept. 9.