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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘Orca Network’

Orca Awareness Month marks whales’ return

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

UPDATE, June 7, 2013
Orca Network reported last night:
The L12s, who had been with J pod for a two days, departed late in the afternoon June 2, then returned June 5 with most, if not all, of the rest of L pod. These 60+ orcas traveled up and down their familiar route from south of San Juan Island well into Georgia Strait for the past two days, passing Lime Kiln Lighthouse this evening, heading south.
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June is Orca Awareness Month, as proclaimed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and whale observers are now waiting for all three pods to get back together for their annual salmon feast in the Salish Sea.

In previous years, the three Southern Resident pods might have shown up by now, but it would not be surprising to see them as late as the end of this month or even early July.

Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night. Photo by Capt. Jim Maya

Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night.
Photo by Capt. Jim Maya

J pod has been around our local waterways following an unusual absence, as I reported in Water Ways last month (May 16). As of last night, J pod was near Stuart Island, which is just south of the Canadian border, according to a report from Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters. Jim, who sent the photos shown on this page, called it “one of my best evenings ever on the waters of the San Juan Islands.”

Earlier this week, J pod was seen several times with 10 members of L pod, known as the L-12 subpod, which includes a year-old calf, L-119.

The rest of L pod and K pod have not been back for awhile, although K pod was spotted along the west side of Vancouver Island on May 20. K pod is the one tracked for three months this past winter by researchers with the National Marine Fisheries Service. See Water Ways, April 5.

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First Olympic class ferry shares name with an orca

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

A female killer whale named Tokitae remains in an aquarium in Miami, but a future Washington state ferry will carry her name for years to come.

The Washington State Transportation Commission named two new ferries today, choosing Northwest Indian names. And both names — Tokitae and Samish — are associated with killer whales, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who attended the commission meeting. See the WDOT’s news release (PDF 29 kb).

Tokitae will be the name of the first Olympic Class ferry.
Rendering courtesy of Washington DOT

“I was reserving excitement until it happened,” Howie told me. “Then it was, ‘Wow, they really did this!’ I am reinvigorated with all the feeling of support.”

Garrett is leading an effort to return Tokitae — known in Miami as “Lolita” — to the waters of Puget Sound, where her extended family still lives. See “Proposal to retire the orca known as Lolita.”

He says naming the ferry could indirectly help the cause of relocating Lolita/Tokitae, although the action carries no endorsement of any kind.

“It demonstrates an understanding and awareness of her predicament, and it honors her and her family,” he said. “I think that goes a long way.”

The second ferry was named for “Samish,” which means “giving people.” It is the name of a tribe that once ranged from Northern Puget Sound into the Cascade Mountains. It’s also the name for J-14, a 38-year-old female orca who became a grandmother in August.

So, if the ferry Tokitae is named for an orca, where did the orca get her name?

The answer to that question goes back to 1970, when a veterinarian from Miami’s Seaquarium, Jesse White, came to Seattle to select an orca to be trained for public viewing.

“He had a couple to choose from, and he chose this young female,” explained his daughter, Lisa White Baler. “They really bonded right away.”

As Lisa tells it, her dad saw something special in the young whale and wanted a name that would fit the orca’s beauty, courage and gentleness.

“He was in a gift store, probably buying gifts for myself and my brother when he saw something with ‘Tokitae’ on it … and he decided that had to be her name.”

The Coast Salish greeting means, “nice day, pretty colors,” according to the ferry-naming proposal (PDF 68 kb) submitted by Orca Network.

When the young whale arrived in Miami, the owners of the aquarium decided to change her name to Lolita.

Howard Garrett says it was one way to divest the animal of her history, allowing people to believe that she was just taken off a shelf, not captured from the open waters of Puget Sound. As the story goes, the name Lolita was chosen because she would become the young bride of an older male killer whale named Hugo, also from Puget Sound. (Check out the Wikipedia summary of the Vladimir Nabokov novel.) The two orcas performed in shows together until Hugo died in 1980.

Lisa says her father, while serving as staff veterinarian, argued that the marine mammals at the aquarium needed bigger quarters. Later in life, her father got to know researcher Ken Balcomb, a San Juan Island resident who was studying the orca families. Dr. White came to support Lolita’s return to Puget Sound, according to Lisa.

Lisa, who was born in 1966, says she recently realized that she is the same age as Tokitae/Lolita, and she is especially thrilled for the ferry to be named after the whale.

“I grew up with her,” she said. “My father died in 1996, and so much of his legacy is left for me to deal with. I am thrilled and excited for all the people who have become Toki’s champions.”

In Miami, Lisa said, trainers still use the name “Tokitae” or “Toki” when working behind the scenes; she’s only “Lolita” for an audience. Some of the trainers signed the petition to name the ferry after her.

Lisa said she would like to visit Puget Sound when the new ferry is launched or at the time of an official naming ceremony. She says she feels a special pull to this area.

Howard Garrett says he reluctantly uses the name “Lolita” in his campaign to bring her back, because that is the name the public knows.

“Tokitae is her Northwest name,” he said, “and this (new ferry name) helps connect her to her family. The minute she touches her home waters, she loses ‘Lolita.’”


If only whales could vote …

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

UPDATE, Nov. 13, 2012
We still don’t know much about the methods that campaigns use to persuade voters, including the mining of Facebook data. But ProPublica brings us some information in an article titled “Everything We Know (So Far) About Obama’s Big Data Tactics.” While this doesn’t have much to do with water issues, it certainly ties into the email that Susan Berta received on election day.
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Earlier today, Susan Berta of Orca Network received what appears to be a computer-generated email from President Obama’s campaign headquarters. The email, probably part of a final push for votes, has generated some election-day levity.

Here’s the message:

“Hey Susan — don’t wait a moment.
“Share this on Facebook with Lolita and xxxx — and tell them to vote today. They live in battleground states where, even at this time on Election Day, this is still anybody’s race. They’re more likely to vote if you remind them — and when the polls close, you’ll know you gave President Obama a nice last-minute lift.”

Lolita, of course, is the killer whale from Puget Sound who has spent most of her life in a tank in Miami’s Seaquarium. (See Water Ways, Oct. 24.) Florida is indeed a battleground state where both President Obama and Mitt Romney are looking for every vote they can get.

Susan probably received the message based on her personal Facebook page, where she is signed up as friends with numerous advocates who would like to bring Lolita back home to Puget Sound. Some people use the word “Lolita” in the name of their Facebook page dedicated to the whale. No doubt some computer made the connection between Susan and her “friend” Lolita, who is old enough to vote … if only she were human.

Susan told me she didn’t want to post anything political on Orca Network’s Facebook page, but she couldn’t resist sharing this email with a wider audience. I told her this isn’t political; it’s just funny.

Now, if whales were given the power of the ballot, what kind of voting block would they become? And how would candidates appeal to this minority group?


New L pod calf reported among rare superpod

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

A new calf was spotted today in L pod. The baby, L119, is the offspring of L77, Matia.
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Hyde via Capt. Jim Maya

UPDATE, June 3

The Center for Whale Research has reported the apparent absence of two additional Southern Resident killer whales as a result of an encounter last Tuesday by center researchers Dave Ellifrit, Erin Heydenreich and Barbara Bender.

In addition to L-112, the 3-year-old female found dead near Long Beach in February, and J-30, a 17-year-old male who has not been seen since December, the research team reported that two older females appear to be missing. They are L-5, estimated at 47, and L-12, estimated at 78. (Their ages are estimates, because the annual census that keeps track of every birth and death began 36 years ago.)

“We will wait for a couple more good encounters with L pod before writing them off to make sure they were not just missed,” the researchers said in their report of the encounter, which also includes 10 photos.

Orca Network has tentatively removed all the missing whales from its list of living orcas, leaving the number of survivors at 85.
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Earth Day activities scheduled for the weekend

Friday, April 20th, 2012

A few quick notes on Earth Day activities this weekend.

First, if you haven’t been to Pacific Science Center in Seattle lately, you may be surprised by some of the new events and exhibits on tap for this weekend.

Of special note is “Science on a Sphere,” a new permanent exhibit that uses computers and video projectors to animate a globe, which is used to demonstrate atmospheric changes and the effects of heating and cooling across the Earth’s ocean and land masses.

Special programs on the sphere Sunday include “Chasing The Rain” at 10:50 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. along with Oceans, Earthquakes & Tsunamis. The exhibit, provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is similar to spheres installed in about 80 locations throughout the world.

“To the Arctic 3D,” being shown throughout the day in the Boeing Imax Theater, presents an up-close look at a landscape of immense glaciers, spectacular waterfalls and snow-crusted peaks while telling the story of a polar bear and her cubs. Check ahead for reservations.

Check out the Earth Day page for other events at Pacific Science Center on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Orca Network is holding its annual “Welcome the Whales Day” tomorrow on Whidbey Island. Costume-making and a critter parade are part of the fun. On the educational side, Bruce Mate, director of the Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, will discuss gray whales and the animals he has tracked throughout the Pacific Ocean to discover their migration patterns.

For local events, I wrote a piece in the Kitsap Sun about Earth Day activities in Kitsap County.


Environmental groups will boycott Navy meetings

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine “scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of studies regarding testing and training activities in the Northwest.

In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically important areas, they say.

Navy's Northwest testing and training ranges. Click to enlarge.
Map by U.S. Navy

The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental harassment of marine mammals during testing and training activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking place now, but some new activities are added — including the testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.

Between now and 2015, Navy officials will describe and study the effects of various activities on marine life and update existing mitigation with new research findings. See my initial story in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27, and a related post in Water Ways, March 6. Also, you may review the official notice in the Federal Register.

Back to the letter, which states in part:

“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to help citizens and organizations effectively participate in agencies’ environmental reviews.”

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Resident orcas check out Whidbey, North Kitsap

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Susan Berta of Orca Network shot some nice video of J pod, one of our three resident pods, about 50 feet off Whidbey Island’s Bush Point Lighthouse on Saturday. (Click on video player.)

The orcas haven’t been spending as much time in Puget Sound this year as usual, and nobody is sure why. As of last week, lower-than-usual numbers of chum salmon were reported in local streams — but that doesn’t mean the salmon are not somewhere in Puget Sound. It’s kind of a waiting game at this point, and I plan to write a story updating the salmon picture in the next day or two.

On Saturday, orcas were first reported heading south between Whidbey and Marrowstone islands about 1 p.m., according to several reports made to Orca Network. They seemed to linger at Bush Point.

During the night, they must have headed farther south along the Kitsap Peninsula, because about 8 a.m. Sunday they were headed back north past Point No Point near the tip of the peninsula. Then they rounded the point and stayed awhile off Hansville’s Foulweather Bluff, according to one resident.

By Sunday afternoon, they were slowly heading back toward Point No Point, which they reached late in the day, still traveling south. Not surprisingly, nightly reports are few and far between, and the whales often pop up somewhere else the next day.

No confirmed sightings were reported until yesterday afternoon, when J and K pod, along with L-87, were spotted off the south end of Vancouver Island. They were widely spread out and heading west out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to observers.

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A chance to learn about the ‘Ways of Whales’

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

We’ve talked a bit lately on this blog about research involving orcas and other whales. For that reason, I’d like to call your attention to the annual Ways of Whales workshop, where you can meet some of the region’s leading cetacean scientists.

Sponsored by Orca Network, the all-day event will be Saturday, Jan. 29, at Coupeville Middle School on Whidbey Island.

This year’s lineup of speakers includes:
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Killer whales have been in and out of Puget Sound

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

The three pods of Southern Resident killer whales have been in and out of Puget Sound the past few weeks, according to reports from Orca Network and the Center for Whale Research.

Today, people began reporting sightings of the killer whales from the Bainbridge Island ferry before 9 a.m. Apparently, there were lots of orcas and spread out, as folks began seeing them about the same time in Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to reports from Orca Network.

By 10:30 a.m.,they were between West Seattle and Vashon Island. They continued south and reached about the halfway point on Vashon Island about 12:30 p.m., when they turned around and headed back north, according to reports. Some whales may have continued south around the southern tip of Vashon Island and came back north through Colvos Passage, as five or six whales were spotted near the Southworth Ferry Terminal about 5 p.m.

Below are videos taken from news helicopters over Elliott Bay in the morning, top from KOMO-4 and bottom from KING-5.


Baby boom continues for Southern Resident orcas

Friday, June 11th, 2010

A new calf born in K pod is seen swimming with its mom, K-12, also known as Sequim.
Photo by Emma Foster, courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Everyone I know who studies and loves killer whales is pleased to see a continuing series of births among all three pods that frequent the Salish Sea. It’s a good sign to have such a variety, and the calves seem to be surviving at a high rate.

The population is gradually rebuilding itself, with the latest news being a new calf in K pod. Here’s the story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun, which was posted on the website:

FRIDAY HARBOR — A new orca calf has been born in K pod, one of the three groups of killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea and Puget Sound, experts say.

The young calf, designated K-43, was spotted Tuesday swimming with K-12, presumed to be the mother, according to biologists with the Center for Whale Research. It is the third calf born to the three Southern Resident pods this year.

K pod returned to the San Juan Islands this week by way of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but apparently turned back. All three groups are beginning to settle in for a summer of fishing in and around the islands. J pod and portions of L pod have already arrived, but both pods have been coming and going, apparently not finding many chinook salmon, experts say.

The new whale apparently was spotted by observer Jeanne Hyde on Feb. 21 while K pod traveled with J pod in the San Juan Islands. At that time, the calf could not be positively confirmed, but it now looks to be five months old.

K-12, the new mother, is believed to be 38 years old.

She was a young animal when Ken Balcomb, the center’s director, began to identify individual whales and maintain an annual census. She has two other offspring, K-22 and K-37.

The new birth brings the number of whales in K pod to 20. J pod has 28 whales, and L pod 42. Final counts for this year won’t be made until all the whales have returned.

For the past few years, the Center for Whale Research has been reporting births and deaths as they are observed. It is much easier to take note of births, because the young whales are quite obvious. Deaths are tougher, because it takes time to decide whether a whale is gone for good or just off somewhere else. A good count of the whales traditionally comes in summer, when all three pods are around long enough for Ken Balcomb and his crew to make a complete tally.

As of now, the total count of the three pods stands at 90, according to a running tally kept by Orca Network, based on reports from the Center for Whale Research. That number was last reached in 2004. (See chart by Orca Network.) A recent high of 96 animals was reached in 1996, the year before 19 members of L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet. If I recall, the number of killer whales was estimated to be close to 200 before the decline brought about by capture for aquariums during the 1960s and early ’70s.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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