Tag Archives: Orca Network

Orca celebrations and environmental learning are filling our calendar

From killer whales to native plants, it’s a potpourri of activities and events I would like to share with you. June is Orca Month. But first, on Saturday, we can celebrate the 15th anniversary of the remarkable rescue of a young killer whale named Springer.

Also coming in June are gatherings small and large, including a water-based festival in Silverdale later in the month.

Celebrate Springer!

This Saturday, May 20, folks will come together to celebrate Springer — the lost baby orca who was rescued and returned to her home in British Columbia. The 15th anniversary of the rescue will be commemorated on Vashon Island, at the Vashon Theatre, 17723 Vashon Highway SW.

Springer and her calf, named Spirit, who was born in 2013. // Photo: Christie MacMillan

The celebration will include stories recounting the event, starting when Springer was found alone near the Seattle-Vashon Island ferry lanes and continuing through her return to the north end of Vancouver Island after being restored to good health. The celebration will include dancing by the Le-La-La Dance Group. These are the First Nations dancers who welcomed Springer back to her home waters 15 years ago.

For details, check out the web site of The Whale Trail, which is sponsoring the celebration, which I wrote about in Water Ways on the 10th anniversary of the rescue.

Orca Month

The kickoff of Orca Month will include a tribute to Granny, the elderly matriarch who led J pod for decades until her death this past year. The opening event, sponsored by Orca Salmon Alliance, will be Sunday, June 4, at Golden Gardens Bathhouse in Seattle. RSVP on the Orca Month Facebook page.

If you would like to immerse yourself in information about the Southern Resident killer whales, you may enjoy the annual “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop on Whidbey Island on Saturday, June 10. Speakers will include Howard Garrett of Orca Network discussing the status of the Southern Residents, Mike Ford of NOAA talking about killer whale genetics, and Jacques White of Long Live the Kings addressing the critical Salish Sea Salmon. For details and reservations, visit the Orca Network website.

Other events during Orca Month include a screening of the film “The Unknown Sea” in Burien on June 1, naturalists in the parks on June 3, “Day of the Orca” in Port Townsend on June 3, beach cleanups on June 13, Orca Sing on San Juan Island on June 24, and Orca Awareness Weekend at Seattle Aquarium on June 24 and 25. All events, including those in Oregon and British Columbia are featured on the Orca Awareness Month webpage.

Native Plants in Your Garden

This Sunday, Sami Gray, a botanist and landscaper, and Sally Manifold, a retired specialist in native plant restoration, will hold a workshop on how to bring color, beauty and habitat to your own property with the appropriate use of native plants. An illustrated talk will begin indoors, followed by a tour of Sally’s landscape.

The workshop will be from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Poulsbo-Suquamish area. For details and reservations, email Sami at bi.horticulture@gmail.com. A $10 donation is suggested.

Beach walks

Kitsap Beach Naturalists, a group of trained volunteers, have scheduled a series of low-tide explorations at Kitsap Memorial State Park in North Kitsap. These are special opportunities for children and adults to learn about local sea life, the dynamic shoreline and food web connections.

The events will be Saturday, May 27, from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 24, from noon to 1:30 p.m.; Monday, July 10, from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 23, from noon to 1:30 p.m.; and Monday, Aug. 21 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Kitsap Beach Naturalists is a program of the Washington State University Extension in Kitsap County.

Kitsap Peninsula Water Trail Festival

A two-day festival, including food, music, games, sports and environmental activities, is scheduled for June 24 and 25 at Silverdale Waterfront Park. The festival, which includes numerous paddle events, celebrates the Kitsap Peninsula’s diverse ecosystem and water trails that have been officially designated by the National Water Trails System.

For a list of events, including explanatory videos, check out the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails Festival website.

ABC Environmental Conference

A few tickets remain for Sunday’s Environmental Conference, sponsored by the Association of Bainbridge Communities. The conference, titled “Changing the Nature of Puget Sound,” is focused on various aspects of industrial aquaculture. The event is at IslandWood Environmental Learning Center. Because of limited space, reservations are required. Visit the conference website for details.

Folk and Traditional Arts in the Parks

A Salish Sea Native American Cultural Celebration on June 3 at Bowman Bay State Park will feature free canoe rides sponsored by the Samish and Swinomish tribes at Deception Pass State Park. The event is part of an ongoing program by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

The celebration also will include native singers, drummers and storytellers. Artists from the two tribes will demonstrate traditional cedar weaving and woodcarving. A salmon and fry bread lunch will be available for a fee.

For information about this and similar programs through September, visit the Folk and Traditional Arts in the Park website.

Dosewallips State Park programs

A variety of environmental topics for children and adults are discussed during evening events at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Most begin at 8 p.m.

The lineup: Saturday, May 20, “Identifying the Trees of Dosewallips”; Sunday, May 28, “Hidden in Hood Canal”; Saturday, June 3, “Things that Sting”; Saturday, June 10, “Berries and Edible Plants”; Saturday, June 17, “Recycle in the Park”; Saturday, June 24, “Wildlife Visit from West Sound Wildlife Shelter” with Ranger, a Peregrine falcon; Sunday, July 2, “July 4 Special” about Independence Day, including historical reenactments; Saturday, July 8, “Roosevelt Elk”; Saturday, July 15, “How to Make Rescue Bracelets,” Saturday, July 22, “Wildlife Visit from West Sound Wildlife Shelter” with Cedar, a red-tailed hawk; and Saturday July 29, “The Story of Smokey Bear.”

Check out the news release about Dosewallips State Park or go to the interactive Calendar of Events and Meetings through September.

National Parks Guides

The National Parks Foundation offers free travel guides, tips and reviews in a series of impressive publications available on the Explore Parks webpage. They include “National Parks Owner’s Guide,” including maps, travel tips and inside information, “I Heart Parks” about ways to create romantic and lasting memories in the parks, “Recharge in the Parks” with ways of gaining health benefits from being outdoors, “National Parks by Rail” containing passenger train routes in and among the parks, “Urban Playgrounds” with a list of parks close to 24 major cities, “Happy Trails” with 25 “unforgettable national park hikes,” and “The Places Nobody Knows” with tips and descriptions of “hidden gems” in the parks that few people know about.

Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

In terms of family structure, both residents and transients live in matriarchal societies, with individual groups led by elder females. For the most part, resident orcas will stay with their moms for life. Young whales will often be found with their extended families, including aunts, uncles and cousins and quite often their grandmothers and even great-grandmothers if they are still living.

Traditionally, multiple matriarchal groups — known as matrilines — come together to form larger pods. Together, the residents hunt for schools of salmon by working together in these extended groups.

Transients often travel in much smaller groups, perhaps because they hunt individual seals and sea lions, making the smaller groups more efficient. Younger females generally stay with their mothers until they have calves of their own. The confusion comes in because an adult female with multiple calves may be seen swimming with her mother at times, but leading her own little group at other times. With various families doing different things and going different ways, transient groups are hard to define.

During the month of April, about 20 different transient groups were positively identified in the Salish Sea, according to Orca Network. That does not count any groups seen by ordinary observers unable to identify the individual whales.

For the month, 442 killer whale sightings were recorded — mostly of transients, although J pod was around for part of the month, according to data from Orca Network. And, going into May, the rate of sightings does not seem to be slowing down. In comparison, sightings totaled 275 during April of last year.

The number of transient orcas spending time in Puget Sound is definitely growing, said Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research, while acknowledging that some of this year’s increase may be the result of more people out watching for whales from shore. Sighting locations are provided by both Orca Network and a separate group, The Whale Trail.

Another unusual observation, Giles said, is the congregation of small groups of transients into 20 or more whales, something seen last year for the first time in Puget Sound and experienced again this year.

Six killer whales hunt for seals on an extended stay in Hood Canal in 2005. // Photo: Josh London

Many of the whales we see range widely from Northern California to Southeast Alaska. In 2005, I was thrilled to talk to Dena Matkin, a whale researcher in Glacier Bay, Alaska, who was familiar with six orcas that had been hanging around in Hood Canal. Puget Sound experts had identified the two older females as T-71 and T-124A, as I reported in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 5, 2005.

“These are my friends, and I am so happy to hear that they are doing well down there,” Dena told me by phone.”T-71 I call Bonkers, because the first time I got to know it, it was bonking a harbor seal on the head with its tail. T-71A I call Hopkins, because I saw the new calf in John Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay, where harbor seals breed.”

It is interesting to note that the T-71 group was seen in January of this year at the southern tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. The T-124A group was seen within the Salish Sea in January, March and four times in April. T-124A was among a group of 28 transients gathered in the Strait of Georgia on April 14.

In the 1970s, during the early days of killer whale research, Michael Bigg of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans figured out that individual whales could be identified by the shape and size of their dorsal fin along with pigmentation at the base of the fin, called the saddle patch. Eventually, the researchers in Puget Sound and British Columbia realized that two large groups of orcas were seen again and again. They eventually became known as Northern Residents and Southern Residents.

In those days, researchers documented other whales coming into the inland waterways, but few would be seen a second or third time. Bigg called these whales transients — although some people now refer to them as Bigg’s killer whales in his honor. For a nice account of this history and other information about transients, check out a piece by Jared Towers in Orcazine, an online magazine about killer whales.

It is now understood why transient killer whales were rarely seen in the Salish Sea before passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the U.S. and similar laws in Canada. Seals and sea lions had been hunted to extremely low levels before 1972 in an effort to increase the commercial harvest of salmon. What isn’t clear is why it took the transients so long to figure out that marine mammals were back on their exclusive Puget Sound menu.

A study by Juliana Houghton of the University of Washington and other researchers describes an increase in transients in the Salish Sea from 1987 to 2010, but it appears that the whales’ presence has grown much more since that time.

Total populations of West Coast transients are hard to calculate, but the rate of growth has slowed since an initial surge from 1975 to 1990. The best estimate for today’s population is more than 500 animals. Gary Wiles of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife produced a Periodic Status Review (PDF 3.1 mb) last summer.

Transient killer whales are quite different from residents, and the two ecotypes are not known to interact except for rare accidental encounters. When they meet, the transients normally skedaddle, apparently out of respect for the residents. Dave Bain, a University of Washington instructor, once told me of an encounter in which J pod seemed to give chase to a group of transients. I related Dave’s account in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun, a piece that addressed critical interactions among Puget Sound’s marine mammals. Check out “Scientists weighing what mammals’ health says about Puget Sound.”

I should mention that through the years many observers have secretly or even openly hoped for a resurgence of transients in the Salish Sea to benefit the Southern Residents. Seals and sea lions are often direct competitors for the salmon needed to keep the endangered Southern Residents alive. Seals and sea lions eat lots of other fish as well, complicating the relationship. Check out a story I wrote in January for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because the resident and transient populations remain isolated, they have developed their own hunting styles, with the transients being generally quieter to sneak up on seals and sea lions. Meanwhile, the residents not only make more noise as they go after chinook salmon, their repertoire of calls is more complex and extensive.

Physically, transients are larger, presumably because their prey — marine mammals as opposed to fish — are larger and stronger. This is likely evolution at work. The dorsal fin of a female transient is sharper and looks a little like a shark fin, whereas a female resident’s dorsal fin is generally more curvy. The saddle patch of the two types is also different, with residents having more variation in shape and shading.

If you would like to identify individual transient killer whales, Orca Network has posted a catalog of photos (PDF 116.3 mb) produced in 2012 by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A newer catalog, in color, was compiled for members of the Center for Whale Research.

Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

Continue reading

Endangered Species Act can’t help Lolita, judge says in legal ruling

When Lolita, a female orca held captive since 1970, was listed among the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales, advocates for Lolita’s release were given new hope. Perhaps the listing would help Lolita obtain a ticket out of Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived since the age of 5.

Lolita has lived in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium since age 5. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita has lived at Miami’s Seaquarium since age 5.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

But a U.S. district judge ruled last week that the Endangered Species Act could not help her. While the federal law prohibits human conduct likely to “gravely threaten the life of a member of a protected species,” it cannot be used to improve her living conditions, according to the ruling (PDF 3.3 mb) by Judge Ursula Ungaro in the Southern District of Florida.

“We very much disagree with the decision, and we will be appealing it,” said attorney Jared Goodwin, who represents the plaintiffs — including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network.

Over the objections of attorneys for Miami Seaquarium, the judge said the plaintiffs have a right to sue the aquarium, but Lolita’s care and well-being falls under a different law: the Animal Welfare Act.

The judge noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for marine species under the ESA, had previously stated that keeping threatened or endangered species in captivity is not a violation of the ESA. NMFS also deferred enforcement activities to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the ESA prohibits listed species from being “harassed,” Judge Ungaro said the term takes on a different meaning for animals held in captivity, since the law is designed to conserve species in the wild along with their ecosystems.

The judge took note of the complaints about Lolita’s living conditions, including the small size of her tank, harassment by white-sided dolphins that live with her and the lack of shade or other protection from the weather. But those aren’t conditions to be judged under the ESA, she said.

“Thus, while in a literal sense the conditions and injuries of which plaintiffs complain are within the ambit of the ordinary meaning of ‘harm’ and ‘harass,’ it cannot be said that they rise to the level of grave harm that is required to constitute a ‘take’ by a licensed exhibitor under the ESA,” she wrote.

Judge Ungaro also cited statements made by NMFS in response to comments from people who want to see Lolita released into a sea pen or possibly into open waters. Such a release, “could itself constitute a ‘take’ under Section 9(a)(1) of the act,” she said, quoting NMFS.

“The NMFS noted concerns arising from disease transmission between captive and wild stocks; the ability of released animals to adequately forage for themselves; and behavioral patterns developed in captivity impeding social integration and affecting the social behavior of wild animals,” the judge wrote.

Jared Goodman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the judge needlessly applied a separate definition of “harassment” to captive versus wild animals. Conditions at the aquarium are clearly harassment for Lolita, he said, and the Endangered Species Act should provide the needed protection.

The Animal Welfare Act, which should require humane treatment for captive animals, is long out of date and needs to be revised based on current knowledge about marine mammals, he said.

The same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in May against the Department of Agriculture for issuing a new operating license to Miami Seaquarium without adequately considering the conditions in which Lolita is being kept. Previously, a court ruled that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted properly when it renewed the license for Miami Seaquarium each year, because the law does not require an inspection for an ongoing permit.

That is not the case with a new license, which was required when the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership as the result of a stock merger in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Federal inspectors should have reviewed the legal requirements to certify that Lolita’s tank and other facilities met the standards before issuing a new license, Jared said. According to documents he obtained through public disclosure requests, it appears that the federal agency simply “rubber-stamped” its previous approvals, he said, adding that a formal review would show that the aquarium in violation of animal welfare rules.

As the legal battles go on, it is difficult to see how Lolita is any closer to being “retired” to a sea pen in Puget Sound where she was born, although Howard Garrett of Orca Network and other supporters have developed a plan for Lolita’s return and even have a specific site picked out. See “Proposal to Retire the Orca Lolita.” (PDF 3.5 mb).

Meanwhile, with SeaWorld’s announcement that it will no longer breed killer whales or force orcas to perform for an audience, a new group called The Whale Sanctuary Project is looking for sites to relocate whales and dolphins that might be released. The project has received a pledge of at least $1 million from Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company. For details, check out the group’s website and a press release announcing the effort. I should point out that SeaWorld officials say they won’t release any animals.

Previous “Water Ways” blog entries:

Killer whales begin their annual excursion into Central Puget Sound

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point early this afternoon. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The Southern Resident killer whales appear to be making their annual excursion into Central and South Puget Sound — up to a month later than normal.

As I write this, a group of whales — believed to be J pod — is heading south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula. The video was shot yesterday morning by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

So far, nobody seems to have a good idea why the whales are late. Typically, they spend their summers in the San Juan Islands, then begin checking out the rest of Puget Sound in September. Presumably, they are looking for salmon to eat. We know their preference is for chinook, but they will eat coho and chum if that’s all they can find.

In the fall, chum salmon are abundant throughout much of Puget Sound, and they often become the main food source for all three pods of killer whales. J pod, however, is the one that spends the most time in the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that includes Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).

On a stormy Sunday night, the first day of November, all three pods headed south past Port Townsend and into Puget Sound, as reported by Orca Network.

“All of October, we waited patiently as we followed the reports of Js, Ks, and Ls following chum salmon runs far to the north when typically they follow the chum into Puget Sound,” states Orca Network’s sighting report from Sunday.

“We have been compiling these Sighting Reports since 2001, and this was the first October to come and go without the Southern Residents,” the report continues. “Come morning, many joyous people will perch themselves atop favored viewpoints, on nearby bluffs, and along the many shorelines in hopes of seeing the beloved J, K and L pod members-including perhaps their first glimpse of any of the new calves who might here. We do hope they find plenty of chum!”

On Monday, whale researchers — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Brad Hanson of the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center — met up with the whales heading north from Seattle. Late in the afternoon, the orcas split up. K and L pods continued north, and J pod headed south.

Brad told me that he was as surprised as anyone that the whales did not venture south before November. “I’ve been scratching my head over that one, too,” he said. “It was very strange.”

The whales did stay around the San Juan Islands longer this year, he noted, which might mean they were getting enough chinook to eat. Then they moved north into Canada, perhaps finding salmon in other areas besides Puget Sound.

Yesterday, the first whale sightings came from Maury and Vashon islands in South Puget Sound, where the whales — believed to be J pod — turned around without heading up through Colvos Passage, as they often do. By nightfall, they were between Kingston and Edmonds, where Alisa Brooks shot the video on this page.

This morning, they were headed south again from Whidbey Island, passing Point No Point. As I post this about 3 p.m., they are somewhere around Kingston.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network saw the whales go past Whidbey Island. “They were traveling fast with lots of porpoising,” he told me, referring to the high-speed maneuver that shoots them along above and below the surface.

We can expect the whales to stay around these waters as long as December. But, as orca experts always tell me, if you expect killer whales to do something, they are just as likely to do something else.

Here’s a population update, if you missed the recent news:

The orca baby boom continues with the birth of a sixth calf since last December. The baby, designated J-53, was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island on Oct. 17. The mother is J-17, a 38-year-old female named Princess Angeline. The calf has two sisters, J-28 named Polaris, and J-35 named Tahlequah, and a brother, J-44 named Moby. The newest whale in J pod also has a 6-year-old niece named Star (J-46), born to Polaris, and a 5-year-old nephew named Notch (J-47), born to Tahlequah.

While the birth of new orcas is encouraging, I also need to mention that 50-year-old Ophelia (L-27) has been missing since August and is presumed dead by most people. She outlived all four of her offspring.

The total number of whales in the three pods now stands at 82: 28 in J pod, 19 in K pod and 35 in L pod. This count, maintained by the Center for Whale Research, does not include Lolita, the orca taken from Puget Sound and now living in Miami Seaquarium.

J53
The newest calf, J-53, with its mother, J-17 or Princess Angeline.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS Permit #15569

Lolita joins endangered orcas; her supporters
push on for her return

Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales.

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

Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say they are prepared for that eventuality.

A news release issued today by NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among the endangered orcas:

“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of the population she came from, the decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”

The original listing created an exemption for captive killer whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in 2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts.”

NOAA received nearly 20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered, and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home. But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which does not plan to give her up.

Andrew Hertz, general manager at Miami Seaquarium, said in a statement issued today:

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44 years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment.”

As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:

“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.

“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed. These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity could impact wild animals.

“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with the death of the released animal.”

Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko (“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years after his release.

Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely different, since we can identify her family, including her mother, L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and still doing fine.

Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now. Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move about, Howie says.

Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said, because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their time.

The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the killer whale would be better off living out her life in now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the risks that come with moving her to open waters.

Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions for Lolita.

“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”

Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit” under the ESA.

Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said. The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be furthered and developed into an action plan.

Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita. The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her lack of animal companionship.

A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions, despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and aquariums.

Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release from Orca Network:

“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable today.”

For additional information from NOAA Fisheries, visit the website: “Southern Resident Killer Whale — Lolita.”

PETA and ALDF issued a joint news release today.

Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My post in Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions about Lolita.

Killer whales expected to head south any day now

UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
—–

As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.
Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.

These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days, so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the whales from shore.

From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas, because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you don’t find the whales right away.

Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based observers can help researchers track whale movements and occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our knowledge about what they are eating.

Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.

The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a known route of their travels.

I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas from others as well.

“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta by email, info@orcanetwork.org.

If offering a location for the map, please give a clear description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from that location or just believe it would work based on the view of the water.

Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased its reporting through the years and has not heard of many problems.

“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,” he said.

Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their travels. See the “Be Whale Wise” website.

When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted. Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.

Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network website, Facebook page or Twitter feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.

As Howard stated in a news release:

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Orcas Dyes

Orca Awareness Month marks whales’ return

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

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 …

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?