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

Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and almost a complete mystery to scientists.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii, on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but rarely seen by human observers.

In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales only three times twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are few and far between.

This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and slightly south of Kauai.

By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career. (See video below.)

Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird

Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest, Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is difficult to see.

These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores, which are known to eat sharks.

We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins and occasionally larger whales.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Robin says little is known about how they group together, because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally, the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families, including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often joins with others.

Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats (and) whether they cross international boundaries.”

In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several volunteers.

Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species, now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of which are shown on Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project page on Cascadia’s website.


Researchers attach new tag to orca in L pod

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

A research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center has been tracking K and L pods off the coast of Oregon and California, most recently offshore of Washington’s Willapa Bay.

Tags from two killer whales, K-25 and L-88, show their pods crossing the Columbia River this morning. Map by Robin Baird with data from NOAA

Satellite transmissions from two killer whales, K-25 and L-88, show their pods crossing the Columbia River this morning.
Map by Robin Baird with NOAA data

The team left Newport, Ore., on Friday aboard the 209-foot research vessel Bell M. Shimada. The crew caught up with K pod the following day with the help of a satellite transmitter attached to K-25, according to reports. Most if not all of L pod was seen swimming with the K pod whales near Cape Blanco, off the southern coast of Oregon.

The research team attached a new satellite tag to L-88, a 20-year-old male named Wave Walker. The new tag will provide another method of following the whales if the tag attached to K-25 should fall off, as expected sooner or later. It has already stayed attached for more than two months, about twice the average life of the satellite tags.

I have not yet connected with Brad Hanson, but I talked to Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who has been getting reports from the crew. Robin told me that the researchers have been able to obtain multiple fecal and/or fish-scale samples on most of the days they have been at sea.

Those samples will aid in meeting the primary goal of the cruise, which is to figure out where the whales are going and what they are eating during the winter months while away from Puget Sound.

The satellite tags have allowed the research ship to stay with the whales even when the weather and their lack of vocalizations have made them hard to find, Robin said. As a result, this research cruise has been more efficient than past ones in terms of both time and fuel.

The research trip, which was scheduled for 21 days, will be cut in half because of the federal spending cuts related to the sequester, according to a statement issued by this afternoon by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The travels of K-25 over the past two months are shown in an animation produced by staff at Northwest Fisheries Science Center. (In my browser, the north and sound portions of the map are cut off even in full-screen view, but the movements shown are still amazing.)

The latest report shows both tagged whales swimming offshore of Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast, having crossed the Columbia River mouth this morning. The full trip can be viewed on maps posted on the website called Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.

Researchers are tracking K and L pods aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada. Click on the image and insert the ship's name to view its recent travels.

Researchers are tracking K and L pods aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada. Click on the image and insert the ship’s name to view its recent travels. / NOAA photo


Satellite tracking shows K pod has reached California

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

UPDATE, Jan. 11, 2013

K-25 and presumably all of K pod traveled south all day yesterday, reaching an area just north of Point Reyes National Seashore this morning. Will they linger near San Francisco or continue on to Monterey Bay, the southernmost location ever reported for the Southern Residents? See map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDDATE, Jan. 10, 2013

As of this morning, K pod had moved south about 150 miles in 24 hours to an area just north of Fort Bragg, Calif. See the map on Orca Network’s Facebook page.
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UPDATE, Jan. 9, 2013

It appears that K pod has chosen to hang out for awhile outside of Humboldt Bay near Eureka, Calif., not far from where the pod was located yesterday via satellite transmissions. Recent movements can be seen on the map posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research met up with Jeff Jacobson of Humboldt State University yesterday. Ken spotted from shore while Jeff took his boat out to photograph the whales, according to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. During the foraging, Jeff was reported to have picked up some fish scales to identify what the whales were eating, and he may have gotten some fecal samples as well, according to Brad.

The weather is a little rough to get out on the water today, but conditions may improve over the next day or so, Brad told me.
—–

In the 10 days that a satellite transmitter has been attached to K-25, this 21-year-old male killer whale has traveled from South Kitsap to Northern California.

The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. NOAA map

The latest plot shows K-25 off the California city of Eureka. / NOAA map

K-25 — and presumably all of K pod — was reported off Eureka, Calif., this morning. Where the whales will go from there is a matter of intense interest among orca researchers.

This is the first time that the endangered Southern Residents have ever been tracked for more than three days in the open ocean, and researchers have told me they are somewhat surprised at their pace of travel.

I wrote about the tagging project in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, where I briefly touched on the controversy over whether it is wise to attach these barbed tags to the endangered orcas. For now, there’s not much more to be said.

For background on the tagging program, check out my previous stories and blog posts:

Story, Dec. 4, 2010: Satellite Tagging Could Track Killer Whales in Winter … but at Some Risk?

Blog entries

Orca tagging raises questions about research (Dec. 8, 2010):

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags (Dec. 28, 2010)

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales (Feb. 22, 2012)

Update on orca research cruise and tracking effort (Feb. 26, 2012)

Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.

Kitsap Sun graphic shows where K-25 traveled as of Saturday.


Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.


Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Early in December, I wrote about a plan to attach satellite transmitters to selected Puget Sound killer whales by shooting darts into their dorsal fins. At the time, lots of people offered questions and concerns, but few had taken a strong position. See my story in the Kitsap Sun of Dec. 5.

Since then, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and others involved in research, education and advocacy have come out against the tagging program as currently proposed. On the other hand, several other researchers are encouraging the federal government to push the tagging program forward.

After 140 days, marks are apparent where barbs of satellite tag entered the dorsal fin of the transient killer whale known as T-30.
Click to enlarge

As Ken explained it to me, his bottom line is that the information gathered by tracking the whales by satellite may not be worth the injury caused by shooting barbed darts into the whales’ fins. He argues that more follow-up investigation is needed into the short- and long-term effects of the darts, which eventually work their way out.

Ken was actually the first to apply for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the tagging program with barbed darts. While not wishing to criticize his fellow researchers, Balcomb said he had been overly assured that the risk of injury was exceedingly small.

“I was shown pictures of almost-healed wounds,” Ken told me. “I was given assurance that there was not an issue. I didn’t even think about these titanium leaves coming out and leaving a hole that size (in the fin).”

The current design of the dart used to attach satellite transmitters to killer whales.

The turning point was when Ken saw a photo of a transient killer whale, T-30, who had carried one of the satellite tags. (See the picture, above right.) He said the long-term scarring was “ugly and unacceptable to me personally,” and he believed that many whale supporters also would object.

Ken turned down the approved tagging permit — in part because it was granted as an amendment to his existing permit for photographing and identifying orcas as part of his ongoing census. If unacceptable injury were to occur to the subject whales, he said, his entire permit could be suspended. That, in turn, would prevent him from continuing the identification work he has done for more than 30 years.

Ken elaborated in a Dec. 18 letter written to the National Marine Fisheries Service:
(more…)


Orca tagging raises questions about research

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
(more…)


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