Tag Archives: SeaDoc Society

Orca hormones linking pregnancies to prey will go into medical files

Hormones found in the feces of killer whales are providing unique insights about the health of Southern Resident orcas — including pregnancy status and stress levels. Fortunately, such information can be gathered with little disturbance to the animals.

Tucker, a Labrador retriever mix, has a keen ability to track down killer whale feces, which contains trace levels of hormones and toxic chemicals. // Photo: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok

The latest information about hormones will soon be incorporated into a new health-status database with individual medical reports being compiled for each whale in the Southern Resident population.

A recently published study confirms hormonally what researchers have observed for years, that when the whales’ primary food supply — chinook salmon — is plentiful, the number of newborn calves goes up. Conversely, when the food supply is low, population growth seems to stall out or go down.

Now, thanks to the new hormonal report, we are learning that nearly two-thirds of the pregnancies among Southern Resident killer whales end in miscarriages. And, of those miscarriages, about one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — something highly unusual for mammals.

We are also learning that nutritional stress — caused by low food supplies — can be linked to the success or failure of the pregnancies, thanks to ongoing studies by a research team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. Information about nutritional stress comes from fecal samples collected with the help of Tucker, a poop-sniffing dog who follows the whales in a boat.

I reported on Sam’s findings nearly a year ago for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound after he presented the results during the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C. His findings were published 10 days ago in the online journal PLOS One.

The hormonal information has been collected along with DNA samples from a growing number of Southern Residents, providing key information about the health of individuals as well as the overall status of the population.

Sam’s data will be included in a database being compiled to provide as much medical information as possible about each of the killer whales. I first reported details about the database in Water Ways on March 29, 2016. As mentioned in the blog, the medical files could be valuable in helping the whales throughout their range or even intervening when an animal goes into a health emergency.

General observations could be put into the database along with:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society, who is helping coordinate the database, told me that the project is finally getting off the ground this summer with formulation of the database structure. Commitments are coming together from those who can contribute information, including observations as soon as they are collected by researchers — including those with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted to allow various researchers who submit information to have access to the data but limit access only to specified groups, Joe said. A governing body will oversee creation and use of the database. So far, information is being submitted on a “good-faith handshake.”

At least two research reports are being planned to prove the value of the database and build support for funding. One could be a paper that puts together information about skin diseases observed in the Southern Residents, mainly compiled by the Center for Whale Research.

Another report could look at the relationship between contaminants and pregnancy, including information collected by Sam Wasser.

“We are where we wanted to be a year ago, actively updating data,” Joe admitted to me, adding that things are now coming together more rapidly.

More information:

The latest report on orca pregnancy and nutritional stress is described in UW Today.

News stories were published by the Seattle Times as well as The Associated Press.

Previous work by Sam Wasser’s associate Katherine Ayres focuses on stresses caused by lack of food and boating activities. See PLOS One, June 6, 2012, or review the summary in UW Today.

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in the Northwest, has looked at the evidence and believes he knows what killed L-112, a 3-year-old female orca found along the Washington Coast in February.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February, and her death is the subject of an intense investigation.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

“Clearly the animal was blown up,” he told Scott Rasmussen, a reporter for the Journal of the San Juan Islands.

When I asked Ken to explain, he provided a lot more detail and informed me that he was calling for a law-enforcement investigation into the whale’s death by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Why he is seeking more than a biological analysis of the death will become clear in a moment.

What Ken is suggesting is that L-112 was killed by a bomb, possibly dropped from an aircraft during a training event in the Navy’s Northwest Training Range off the West Coast. His evidence is circumstantial, but he wants some answers.

What we know for sure is that this young female orca washed up dead at Long Beach on Feb. 11 in relatively fresh condition, allowing a complete necropsy, including CT scans of the head and dissections of the internal organs and head.

Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with The SeaDoc Society who participated in the necropsy, said the whale showed signs of “blunt force trauma” with injury to the right and left sides of the head and right side of the body. Blunt force trauma might be what a human would experience if dropped from a helicopter onto soft ground, he explained.
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Name ‘Salish Sea’ offers new possibilities for description

“Salish Sea” is now the official name for our inland waterway that stretches across more than 1,400 square miles of Western Washington and British Columbia. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

<em>Salish Sea watershed</em><small> EPA graphic</small>
Salish Sea watershed
EPA graphic

The question now is whether the name will catch on and be used more frequently.

One application that comes to mind is the description of the three pods of killer whales known as Southern Residents. I’ve often referred to these animals as the orcas that frequent Puget Sound. That’s because “Southern Residents” have little meaning to the average reader, who wishes to know why they are “southern” and what I mean by “residents.”

It so happens that the Salish Sea just about defines the range of these whales for a large percentage of the year.

Now I may refer to them as the killer whales that frequent or mainly reside in the Salish Sea — including much of the summer in the San Juan Islands, with winter and fall stints into Puget Sound.

I’m not sure how else I will use this term, but I no longer feel constrained by the idea that the Salish Sea is not a real name and has never been defined by any authority.

Here are some facts about the Salish Sea provided by the SeaDoc Society. (I’ve converted meters to feet and kilometers to miles.)

  • Coastline length, including islands: 4,642 miles
  • Total number of islands: 419
  • Total land area of islands: 1,413 square miles
  • Sea surface area: 9,942 square miles
  • Maximum depth: 886 feet
  • Number of different marine animals species estimated: 20 species of mammals, 128 species of birds, 219 species of fish, and over 3000 species of invertebrates
  • Number of species listed as threatened, endangered or are candidates for listing: 64
  • Total watershed area, not counting the upper Fraser River area (See Stefan Freelan): 42,000 square miles

Puget Sound research conference is under way in Seattle

Congratulations go out to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, who has been named the first recipient of Salish Sea Science Prize, awarded by the SeaDoc Society.

See Joe Gaydos’ comments about Balcomb and the ideas behind the award in a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun, or read the speech that Gaydos gave during Sunday’s presentation.

The award was given last night during an opening reception to kickoff a three-day research conference in Seattle, called the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference.

The conference, which continues tomorrow and Wednesday, will include dozens of talks. See the schedule (PDF 196 kb) or go the the Web site.

A couple of free events Tuesday night sound like they will be fun. The first is an artists reception, featuring scenes by amateur and professional photographers. See the notice for information.

The other event is a film festival featuring 10 environmental short films from the United States and Canada. Check out the list of films and other details.