Tag Archives: Pacific Whale Watch Association

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

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 mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

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 multiple times.

“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 release:

“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 lion.

“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 direction.

“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 Mammal Science.

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 fight species.”

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 age.

“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.”

Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro
Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet
Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Whale-watch regulations delayed for more discussion

The comment period for proposed federal regulations to restrict the operation of boats around killer whales has been extended to Jan. 15, pushing back the implementation date.

It looks like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is throwing open the door for “cooperative efforts” that might even include some new on-the-water research this coming year.

“We recognize that by extending the public comment period, we won’t have enough time to issue a final rule before the 2010 summer boating season,” states an e-mail sent out this morning by NOAA.

The statement adds:

“We continue to believe that it’s important to address the adverse effects of vessel traffic on killer whales in the near future. In light of the requests we’ve received for an extension of the comment period, however, we believe additional public outreach will enhance both NOAA Fisheries’ understanding of public concerns and the public’s understanding of the basis for our proposal. This will also allow time for cooperative efforts to refine the proposal. We’ll work toward adoption of a final rule before the 2011 summer boating season.”

The proposed rules would create an enforceable 200-yard protective zone around the whales. That’s twice as far as existing federal guidelines call for. See my July 28 story in the Kitsap Sun.

During three recent hearings, many people raised questions, concerns and objections to the proposed rule. Some even offered suggestions.

Donna Darm of NOAA told me that the extra time would allow biologists to explore and discuss some of the ideas, including issues related to recreational fishing and kayaking within a “no-go zone” off the west side of San Juan Island.

Research is ongoing, she said, and another year of data would not hurt. New on-the-water studies may or may not be proposed. When I raised the idea of an experiment using the entire whale-watch fleet to test various scenarios, she seemed intrigued by the notion.

“We have lots of comments to think about related to this alternative or that alternative,” she said.

NOAA officials were surprised by the number of people who showed up at the three public hearings: 180 or so each in Anacortes and Seattle, followed by about 260 in Friday Harbor, according to NOAA spokeswoman Janet Sears. That compares to between 40 and 60 people at planning meetings before the regulations were announced.

Shane Aggergaard, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said he is pleased to see the willingness of NOAA officials to discuss the issue further. At first, NOAA officials did not seem to be listening, he told me.

“In the first part if it, it seemed like, ‘this is the proposal and this is the way it’s going to be,’” he said. “The fact that they’re looking at our recommendations or anything outside their original proposal is a positive step.”

The outpouring of opposition, including comments collected from passengers of whale-watch boats, has been huge, he said. “I would be surprised if there are not 20,000 comments that they will have to deal with.”

To comply with a strict 200-yard limit, whale-watch boats would need to stay close to 300 yards away most of the time, he said, and that is something that could kill much of the whale-watching business, he said.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has proposed a combination of two ideas advanced by NOAA. The PWWA option would prohibit vessels within 100 yards under most conditions, though it would allow fishing boats to hold their position and kayakers to let orcas swim by. Other vessels would need to stay out of the path of the Southern Residents and observe a 7-knot speed along San Juan Island from Eagle Point to Mitchell Point out one-half mile.

Some folks have let me know that they are alarmed that strict regulations will not be approved in time to better protect the whales this year. (Washington state law includes a 100-yard restriction.)

Peter Hamilton of the whale-protection group Lifeforce sent this message:

It’s really unfortunate that the orcas will not get more protection in 2010 under improved vessel regulations. But of course enforcement would still be an issue. In order to provide more protection, Lifeforce hopes that NOAA and WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) will get more funds to step up enforcement in 2010.
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What would Puget Sound’s killer whales really want?

Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial fishers.

Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales, blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:

“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research) voted for no action.

“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”

I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the scientific issue.

To dig more deeply, take a loot at the extensive list of comments compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 when “potential vessel regulations” were being discussed. Information about the proposed rule — including questions and answers — can be found on the page “Regulations on Vessel Effects.”

A few odds and ends in recent days:
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Feds get serious about the effects of whale watching

The idea of regulating whale watching around killer whales, particularly in the San Juan Islands, has gotten a lot of attention the past few years.

First, San Juan County approved an ordinance in 2007 that required boaters to stay back 100 yards from the whales. That was followed by a state law in 2008. Now, the federal government proposes to turn their longstanding 100-yard “guidelines” into a 200-foot enforceable rule. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

I first wrote about the concerns of whale watching nine years ago — before the whales were listed under the Endangered Species Act. (See my story from July 2, 2000.) I think it is safe to say — and Kari Koski of Soundwatch confirms this — boaters have generally gotten more responsible, particularly commercial whale-watch operators based in the U.S.

This is a complex issue, in part because the killer whales themselves are complex creatures with a high level of intelligence. Trying to rebuild a population of killer whales is nothing like rebuilding a population of salmon. I could say a lot more about that, but instead I’ll make a few observations about the federal action.
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