It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old
female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead
— even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now
appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will
not survive either.
I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in
Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks,
including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still
alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but
at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she
might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the
Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of
Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of
Puget Sound orcas.
Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for
the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to
provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.
Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting
that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was
easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the
distinctive mark when she was nine years old.
At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning
problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their
primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn
fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic
chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can
affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other
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.
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.
Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized
“rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have
intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine
The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they
have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke
whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions,
Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant
seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.
The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in
a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the
first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place
last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.
“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC
Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a
news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four
humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air
“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one
that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion.
The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were
safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again,
fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”
These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies
of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the
resident orcas that each fish.
The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea
Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news
“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with
humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then
two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we
know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea
“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the
sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the
humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while
he frantically struggled to get his breath.
“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns
diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on
and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family,
moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear
next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite
“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous
humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor
for another day!”
In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent
rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer
whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report
appeared in the journal Marine
Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation,
but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a
belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW,
attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.
“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting
mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that
is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report
states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific
anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford
and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen
whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two
general categories of response.
“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales)
use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer
whales and were classified as flight species. The
generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales,
bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely
on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and
flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as
Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen
whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for
them to go after killer whales when another species of marine
mammal is under attack.
In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58
percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42
percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer
whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a
few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved,
the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.
The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback
whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray
whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.
When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it
appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and
females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether
attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the
surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and
flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15
minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center
of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for
those cases when the outcome was known.
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that
deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off,
although southern right whales may also group together to fend off
MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding
that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can
shred the flesh of their opponents.
When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally
silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become
more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that
humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well
out of sight of the attack.
The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer
whales to save another species are listed in three categories:
Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or
closely related animal.
Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals,
generally as part of a social organization.
Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some
cost to the one taking action.
It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could
be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks
against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the
killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any
“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to
other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a
focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers
of interspecific altruism.”
I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales
that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary
prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.
It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough
to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could
be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a
growing fetus during times of a food shortage.
Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s
condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about
two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those
miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of
pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.
In a story published today in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with
other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft
(drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern
Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.
Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales,
which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how
hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated,
but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When
adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin
to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’
long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.
One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone
studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in
winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam
and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the
spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that
spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not
in significant numbers.
The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is
providing precise measurements about the length and width of each
killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it
will be important to document whether physical changes observed in
the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the
“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne
Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more
than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations
might be affecting their health and reproduction.”
Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and
oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern
By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its
five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition
to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the
risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether
actions proposed to help them have been carried out.
Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight
endangered species across the country that are headed for
extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight,
selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as
“Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans
were released for all eight species.
The plan called
“Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2
mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’
survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and
effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document
describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the
whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.
The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is
supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year,
but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.
For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically
wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things
have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have
remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible
for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low
this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to
get a complete count until September, he told me.
Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the
whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be
made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be
counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups
during multiple encounters.
“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the
end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there
is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”
As with this year, the census could not be completed at this
time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of
whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last
Water Ways, July 1, 2015.
As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has
requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an
early indication of their condition, but his requests have been
denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase
a membership in
the Center for Whale Research.
On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that
are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the
second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters
during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of
orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of
Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open
Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an
aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point
near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this
“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49
were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a
zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up
vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera.
The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls,
surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to
take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get
some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had
not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”
The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces
much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed
fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see
from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower
than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of
Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is
predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year
average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than
last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high
numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See
2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).
Considering the apparent difference between the number of
chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no
wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.
Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the
annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of
whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months.
Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with
the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can
tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still
living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that
when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in
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.
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
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,
“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.
I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
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.