Tag Archives: Salish Sea

New publications provide fascinating info about local sea life

Those interested in the creatures that inhabit our local waterways may find themselves enthralled by two recent publications — one describing the many species of fish found in the Salish Sea and the other examining the lifestyles of crabs and shrimps living along the Pacific Coast.

The new fish report (PDF 9.2 mb), published by NOAA Fisheries, documents 253 species found in the Salish Sea, including 37 additional species not listed in the previous comprehensive fish catalog, now 35 years old.

Fourhorn poacher Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Fourhorn poacher // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

What caught my immediate attention in the report were the beautiful illustrations by Joe Tomelleri, who has spent the past 30 years capturing the fine features of fish from throughout the world. Check out the ornate fins on the fourhorn poacher and the muted colors of the spotted ratfish. I never realized that common ratfish wwere so beautiful.

The new report offers a preview of a much-anticipated book by Ted Pietsch, retired fish curator at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, and Jay Orr, a biologist at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. The book, “Fishes of the Salish Sea,” will provide extensive descriptions as well as illustrations of all known species — including some early discoveries that came to light after publication of the new NOAA report. The book could be 600 pages or more.

Spotted ratfish Illustration: Joe Tomelleri
Spotted ratfish // Illustration: Joe Tomelleri

I interviewed author Ted Pietsch of Seattle and illustrator Joe Tomelleri of Leawood, Kans., for a piece incorporated into the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The other book, “Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast” by Greg Jensen of Bremerton, pulls together information about 300 of these various crustaceans. The book, which has been on my review list for more than year, has won acclaim from experts in the field as well as casual observers of nature. The book comes with an associated computer disc of the book’s text, which allows one to link to other articles and reports. One can also load much of the book onto a smart phone, which can be taken to the shoreline and used as a field guide.

Book cover

“My goal was to make a book that would appeal to someone who just wants to learn about this stuff and would also be valuable to someone, like myself, who is a specialist in the field,” Greg told me.

I enjoy Greg’s light writing style, as he tells little stories in sidebars, shares brief biographies of key scientists and clears up myths and confusion. One sidebar, for example, tells us that the lines between shrimp and prawns have become blurred.

In Great Britain, he said, Crangonids, “with their stout, somewhat flattened form, were called ‘shrimp,’ while palaemonids were known as prawns.” In other places, prawns are considered larger than shrimp. Sometimes prawns refer to freshwater versus saltwater species.

Spot shrimp Photo: Greg Jensen
Spot shrimp // Photo: Greg Jensen

“Bottom line: There is no formal definition separating the two. Like the Queen’s English, once they left home for America and Australia, they became bastardized beyond recognition,” he wrote.

Greg, a scuba diver, shot about 90 percent of the pictures shown in the 240-page book. If nothing else, he told me, the book provided an excuse for him to dive in waters all along the coast.

“It was like a big scavenger hunt,” he said. “You look through the literature and you have this list (of crabs and shrimps). You dig up anything and everything about where to find them.”

Pacific rock crab Photo: Greg Jensen
Pacific rock crab // Photo: Greg Jensen

Like Ted Pietsch has done for fish, Greg has gone back to the original references about crabs and shrimp, taking pains to correct mistakes passed down through scientific literature. It has taken years to track down the many references to ensure accuracy and give credit to the right people, he said.

Greg, who grew up in Bremerton, was in grade school when a field trip took him to Agate Passage on a low tide, where he became intrigued by crabs. He soon started an extensive collection of dried crab shells. Looking back, Greg credits marine biology instructors Ted Berney at East High School and Don Seavy at Olympic College for helping him pursue his interests, eventually launching his career at the University of Washington.

Today, Greg still lives in Bremerton, researching, writing and teaching at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science.

The book can be purchased directly from Greg Jensen, from Amazon and from Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”

Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.

View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.

Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.

Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:

“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”

In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.

In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.

Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved, including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:
Continue reading

Killer whales return to Salish Sea — with new baby

Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a story for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The newborn orca, K-44, was photographed with his mother in Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not been around for weeks.

I was ready in early June to write about their return, because that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the orcas away.

I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.

Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they will travel over the next few months before heading into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall.

The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how you can tell males from females.

Websites worth watching:

Orca Network’s sightings page (with signup for e-mails)

Salish Sea Hydrophone Network (with links to past and present underwater sounds)

Whale of a Purpose

Center for Whale Research

It's a boy! / Photo: Center for Whale Research

Will Salish Sea killer whales each get two names?

UPDATE, Nov. 24, 2010
Sometimes it takes a vacation to catch up on things. I always intended to list the new names given by the Whale Museum in this entry. I’m only two months late, after more than 7,500 votes were counted. Nevertheless, here are the new names as announced in a Sept. 15 news release:

J-44: The Whale Museum’s name is “Moby.” Other alternatives were “Kellett” and “Fin.” Ken Balcomb did not announce a name for this one.

J-46: “Star” is the name chosen by Ken, and Whale Museum voters concurred. Other options were “Galaxy” and “Dubhe.”

L-112: “Sooke” will be the name listed by the Whale Museum. Ken had already named her Victoria. The Whale Museum also proposed “ReJoyce” and “Wonder.”

L-113: Ken named her Molly. Whale Museum voters chose “Cousteau.” “Haro” and “Talise” were other alternatives.

I still have not decided whether to list one or both names in my stories or simply call them by their alpha-numeric designations.

Ken Balcomb, who heads the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, has announced new names for six young killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea.

Balcomb’s names apparently will be different from names chosen by the Whale Museum, which has traditionally named the orcas. Could this cause confusion among those interested in whale families?

Since the 1970s, the Center for Whale Research has kept a census of the whales, designating new calves with a letter for their pod (J, K or L), along with the next available number in sequence. Until last year, when Ken named one young orca “Star,” the naming process was left up to the Whale Museum, based in Friday Harbor. See Water Ways, Nov. 19.

By the way, the Whale Museum is currently conducting a public vote to name four killer whales as part of its Orca Adoption Program. Check out the Whale Museum’s site.

Ken told me that people may choose to use his names, or not, as they wish, but he intends to list the names with their designations for identification purposes. As he stated in a blog entry announcing the names:
Continue reading

New L-pod calf joins the Salish Sea clans

Killer whale observers are celebrating the birth of a new calf born in L pod, one of the three groups of whales that frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. The proud mom is L-47, also known as “Marina.”

A new calf has been born to L-47, known as Marina. The calf has been designated L-115.
Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The calf, less than three weeks old, appears to be doing fine, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Excitement over the birth is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that Marina has lost five of her seven known calves, with survivors being two of her older offspring.

In phoning Ken to confirm the new calf, I knew I needed to ask about missing orcas — the ones not seen this summer. In the spring, observers will keep looking intently for missing whales. Late in the summer, it becomes time to face the fact that some individuals will never be seen again.

Unfortunately, three killer whales must be placed on the list of those “missing and presumed dead.” Two orcas born in 1986 — L-73 (“Flash”) and L-74 (“Saanich”) have been missing for several months.

Until now, Ken was not quite ready to give up on K-11, “Georgia.” At an estimated age of 77, she was the oldest whale in K pod.

“We’ve been hoping we would see K-11,” Ken told me. “We did see her in May, but she didn’t make it to July, and we did not see her recently. I think that’s enough time.”

So the new total for all three pods drops to 87, from 89 in my previous report.

To end on a positive note, the whales appear to be successfully hunting for salmon this summer in the San Juan Islands and up into Canada. They will likely go into winter with adequate body mass.

Transient orcas must be finding seals to eat

UPDATE: MARCH 20, 2010
The transient killer whales moved up into the San Juan Islands for a couple of days, according to commercial whale watchers. Today, they were sighted at the south end of Whidbey Island.

UPDATE: MARCH 17, 2010
The transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound for about a week may have moved up to the Whidbey Island area, where a group of about five orcas were reported yesterday and today.

Swift and silent killer whales, known as transients, must be finding a good number of seals or sea lions to eat, because a group of a half-dozen or so of these animals appear to have been swimming around Puget Sound for about a week.

This video was recorded this afternoon in Puget Sound by KOMO News. Although KOMO’s Web site does not say specifically where the whales were sighted, they were reported between West Seattle and Vashon Island.

Orca Network’s recent reports include sightings of T87, 88, 90 and 90B south of Victoria last Tuesday. Later that night, transients were heard on the hydrophone off the West Side of San Juan Island. They stayed around the San Juans on Wednesday.

Then on Thursday, they were spotted in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and near the ferry lanes on the Fauntleroy-Vashon Island route. From a KOMO video that day, Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research identified T87, T88, T90 & T90B, plus the T30s (which may include a mother and two adult offspring).

Since then, these same whales apparently have been spotted several times in Central Puget Sound. About halfway through the video above, it appears the orcas catch and kill a seal, evidenced by blood in the water.

Transients are orcas that eat marine mammals rather than fish — the primary food of our familiar Southern Residents of the Salish Sea. Transients usually travel in smaller groups and seem to give residents wide berth when they come within range of each other.

Transients roam widely from Alaska to California, though some stay farther north and others farther south. Because they hunt seals and sea lions, which can hear them coming, they are stealthier in their hunting than residents and appear to have a more limited vocabulary of vocalizations.

According to estimates by biologists, transients generally need to eat an average of one or two harbor seals a day to maintain their caloric needs. In that sense, transients are friends to both resident orcas and fishermen, because they eat the animals that eat the salmon.

In 2005, a group of six transients stayed in Hood Canal a remarkable 18 weeks, consuming a feast that amounted to an estimated 700 seals and sea lions. See Kitsap Sun, June 3, 2005.

With the help of Orca Network, we’ll report where these animals go over the next few days.

The baby orcas just keep on coming

Excitement continues to build among killer whale observers, as seven newborn orcas have arrived in the past year. There have been no deaths during that time.

A newborn calf, L-114, is seen swimming with its mother, L-77, named Matia. The photo was taken Sunday in Cordova Bay on the eastern side of Vancouver Island near Nanaimo, B.C. (Click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research

He’s a story I prepared this morning for the Kitsap Sun Web site:

A new calf has been born into L Pod, one of the three groups of orcas that frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

The young whale was spotted Sunday in Cordova Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, by Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. The center maintains an ongoing census of the Southern Resident killer whale population.

The two researchers later confirmed that the newborn, designated L-114, is the offspring of L-77, a 22-year-old named Matia. This is her first known calf, though it is possible she has had one or more offspring that did not survive.

The mother and calf were traveling with another mother-calf pair, L-94, Calypso, and her calf, L-113, born last fall. Calypso is Matia’s sister. The four whales are part of a portion of L pod that often travels together. They have become known as the L-12 subpod.

Balcomb and Ellifrit reported that they observed the newborn calf Sunday afternoon while the whales were headed south in Cordova Bay. At about 5 p.m., they reached the southern shore and headed east toward open water. They appeared to be hunting for fish, with “lots of taillobs, cartwheels and pec slaps,” according to a report on the center’s Web page.

This is the seventh orca calf born to the three Southern Resident pods in the past year. There have been no deaths during that time. This latest birth brings L Pod’s population to 42 animals and the overall population to 89.

“This continues the streak,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “I am at a loss for an explanation. I am just celebrating.”

“It’s great news for the population,” Balcomb said. “So far all of them are doing well.”

It’s time to sit back and relax about the ‘Salish Sea’

I guess we can quit talking about the Salish Sea as if this body of water has a new, exotic name.

After all, many folks have been using this name for years. In my effort to be formal and proper, I’ve rarely used it. But things have changed since “Salish Sea” became an official, formally approved name at the end of last year.

Now, in the latest development, the American Name Society declared “Salish Sea” the “Name of the Year” last weekend. That should end the discussion for good.

I interviewed the man who conducted the competition and wrote the following for today’s Kitsap Sun:

The name “Salish Sea” has been chosen over “Twitter” as the American Name Society’s “Name of the Year.”

The Salish Sea is defined as the inland waterway in Washington and British Columbia that includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.

“I think it is significant because it is a brand new name,” said Cleveland Evans, who conducted the competition for the American Name Society, an academic organization. “It fits ecological interests, being invented by a biologist. And it has a Native American connection, chosen from a name for a broad ethnic group…”

The Canadian connection didn’t hurt either, Evans said, because his organization has a significant number of Canadian members.

The name “Salish Sea” was conceived a decade ago by Bert Webber, a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Webber, a biologist, wanted to stress the ecological connections between the branching waterway that crosses the international border. He took “Salish” from Coast Salish, an ethnographic designation for many Northwest native people.

“Salish Sea” became an official name in 2009, when it was adopted by the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and the Geographic Names Board of Canada.

Please read the story for information about the names that “Salish Sea” beat out to become the “Name of the Year” and why “Barack Hussein Obama” was chosen as the “Name of the Year” last year.

While the American Name Society gets to choose the “Name of the Year,” its sister organization, the American Dialect Society chooses the “Word of the Year.”

The dialect folks chose the word “tweet,” as the favored “Word of the Year” and “google” as the “Word of the Decade.”

In reading through the ADS announcement about the winners of the word contest (PDF 205 k), I found that the word declared “Most Likely to Succeed” was “twenty-ten,” the chosen pronunciation for the year 2010.

Speaking of 2010, I have noticed something very strange in how people are speaking. It’s not so unusual to choose “twenty-ten” as the pronunciation for this year. After all, we have to call it something. But after nine years of saying “two-thousand-one,” “two-thousand-two,” etc., up to the end of last year, why are a growing number of people suddenly saying “twenty-oh-nine”? Figure that one out.