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.”
Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales,
returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and
I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this
Water Ways, May 3, 2014.) We talked about the ongoing capture
of killer whales in Russia, where government officials refuse to
learn a lesson from the Northwest about breaking up killer whale
families and disrupting their social order.
“Much of the rest of the world has moved on to think about a
world beyond keeping whales and dolphins captive,” Erich wrote in a
blog entry. “Not Russia. Not now. It’s all guns blazing to make
all the same mistakes made years before in other countries.
“Of course, it’s not just Russian aquarium owners and captors,”
he continued. “China, too, is about to open its first performing
killer whale show, and Japan aquariums continue to go their own
way. There are people opposed to captivity in Russia, China and
Japan, but they are not in the majority.”
Erich’s talk in Olympia on Oct. 10 is titled, “Adventures with
orcas in the North Pacific.” He will speak again on the topic the
next day in Tacoma. On Oct. 13, he goes to West Seattle to speak on
“Ants, orcas and creatures of the deep.” For details and tickets,
go to Brown Paper
The three talks are produced by The Whale Trail, an
environmental group, in partnership with local sponsoring
organizations. Donna Sandstrom, founder and director of The Whale
Trail, said Erich comes to Puget Sound after the births of five new
orcas in J, K and L pods. This provides five more reasons to
restore the Puget Sound killer whale population, she said.
“The collaborative nature of the Orca Tour demonstrates our shared
commitment to restore salmon, reduce toxins and create quieter
seas,” Sandstrom said.
Among other things, The
Whale Trail is known for promoting shoreside viewing of whales
to reduce interference with their activities. The group maintains a
map of the best places to watch whales from shore.
With the approval of Kitsap County, the organization has erected
a new sign at Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville, a good
spot to watch all kinds of wildlife. The sign offers specific
information about Point No Point as a viewing site and provides
tips for identifying marine mammals.
A newborn orca calf in J pod extends the ongoing baby boom for
the three Southern Resident pods, but it also rekindles a debate
about motherhood — namely who is the mom of J-50 and now J-52.
The new calf is the fourth to be born since just before the new
year. Three of the young ones are in J pod and one is in L pod,
bringing the total population of the three pods to 81 — or 82 if
you count Lolita in Miami Seaquarium.
Orca observers and researchers are rejoicing about the new calf,
which was spotted yesterday by whale watchers near Galiano Island
in British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde, a naturalist with Maya’s Legacy
Whale Watching, had been observing what she thought was a
3-month-old orca designated J-50. The young whale was traveling
with J-16, a female named Slick.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s mom and the baby,’” Jeanne
reported in her blog, Whale of a Purpose.
“But then right in front of us and about 25 yards behind mom and
the baby, another baby surfaces! That’s when I told Capt. Spencer
(Domico), ‘I think there are two babies here!’”
The one alongside J-16 turned out to be a newborn, no more than
a few days old, as indicated by fetal folds still evident on its
skin. Now J-16 appears to have two calves about three months apart.
Of course, that is not possible, given their normal gestation
period of 15 to 18 months.
If you recall, there was considerable discussion about whether
J-16 was the mother of J-50 after the calf was born in late
December. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research surmised
that J-16 was actually the grandmother who was babysitting the new
calf. Ken suggested that the December baby might actually be the
offspring of J-36, the 16-year-old daughter of J-16. See
Water Ways, Jan. 22.
At age 43, J-16 would be the oldest whale known to give birth,
since this age is normally associated with menopause.
After several weeks, it appeared that J-36 was never really
involved with the baby. Dave Ellifrit, Ken’s close associate, wrote
this in his notes following one encounter:
“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the
farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about
J16 being the mother are about gone.”
That sealed the deal for many folks, but Ken was not convinced.
While the evidence pointed to J-16 being the mom, there still was
the matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby — most
likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the
newborn from the birth canal, Ken said. If the 16-year-old needed
help in giving birth, her own mom was the likely one to do it.
Now, the observations of J-16 with two calves leads Ken to
return to his earlier speculation, though he admits that the truth
may not be known without genetic evidence. But if the new baby,
designated J-52, remains with J-16, then J-52 (not J-50) would be
her likely offspring.
Here’s a possible explanation: After J-36 gave birth in
December, it became clear that she could not care for the baby, so
J-16 took over. If J-16 was pregnant at the time, she could have
been lactating and the baby could thrive on her milk. J-36 would
fade into the background. If the new calf spotted yesterday came
from J-16, then she could be nursing both babies, and we’ll have to
see how that works out.
Ken recalls that in 1999, L-51, a female named Nootka, had a
baby that died of starvation as an infant. Nootka died shortly
before her calf, and a necropsy showed that the mom had a prolapsed
uterus and was unable to nurse. Perhaps the calf could have
survived if a nursemaid had been available.
I asked Ken if the two new calves might actually be twins, and
he noted that some deceased females have been found with two
fetuses inside them, but he has never seen what might be considered
Ken told me of a story from his first year of identifying
individual killer whales and starting his annual census of their
population. It was 1976, and both Ken and Mike Bigg, a Canadian
researcher, counted a total of 70 whales. (This followed the
capture period when many orcas were taken to aquariums.)
“We had seen one female who was sometimes with one calf and
sometimes with another,” Ken told me. “We assumed it was the same
calf. It wasn’t until late in the winter of that first year or the
following spring that we realized three were two calves — so there
were really 71 whales.”
Is it possible that this week’s brief sighting of a newborn with
J-16 was nothing more than her being attentive to the needs of
another female whale or its baby?
“We know they are extremely care-giving,” Ken said, adding that
orcas, like humans, tend to pay a lot of attention to the new ones.
Over the next days and weeks, the pattern of care-giving could
indicate who belongs to whom — or maybe the mystery of the moms
UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near
San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx
and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and
down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then
returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime
Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound
this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can
be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern
shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.
These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any
day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or
December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the
San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days,
so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according
to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.
This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites
to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south
into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s
Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale
sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the
whales from shore.
From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas,
because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if
you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you
don’t find the whales right away.
Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based
observers can help researchers track whale movements and
occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or
food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our
knowledge about what they are eating.
Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free
number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or posted
on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.
The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer
whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a
known route of their travels.
I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap
County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas
from others as well.
“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be
locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good
whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta
by email, email@example.com.
If offering a location for the map, please give a clear
description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from
that location or just believe it would work based on the view of
Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of
whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the
orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a
critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased
its reporting through the years and has not heard of many
“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,”
Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the
whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are
required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their
travels. See the “Be
Whale Wise” website.
When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are
asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and
approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the
number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted.
Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or
feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.
Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network
page or Twitter
feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which
includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back
to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.
As Howard stated in a news release:
“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out
from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting
the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report
sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery
efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”
In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke
Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not
appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was
born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is
likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for
As far as I can tell, the other information below is
“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told
me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”
The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was
swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s
“The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”).
And the name “Joan” stuck.
The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally
about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four
or five months.
Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new
individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which
may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.
Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most
mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The
coolest whales are the minke whales.”
A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale,
accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan
Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to
say about it:
“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and
I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other
researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer,
and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot,
especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling
with their mothers, but never a newborn.”
Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael
Harris of Pacific Whale Watch
Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of
Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be
“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve
never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely
interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is
Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley
captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island
Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in
our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near
Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.
Michael added his own perspective:
“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our
resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in
the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also
makes its home out here, the minke.
“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just
been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave
these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special
occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a
lot of clues to researchers.
“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped
we are to protect every creature out there.”
Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:
“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales
with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very
little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the
ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows
are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making
it difficult to spot – and to study.
“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults
reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a
good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most
beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark
on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter
gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their
back and a white band on each flipper.
“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish
Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like
Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the
ongoing series “Taking
the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a
half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more
than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are
grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between
500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or
Erich Hoyt, who has been enjoying adventures with killer whales
and other sea creatures since the early 1970s, will share his
understanding of the underwater world during a series of
presentations from British Columbia to Northern California.
The tour begins today on Saturna Island in British Columbia. For
the full schedule, visit The
Whale Trail website.
Erich has a rare talent. He is both an engaging writer as well
as an experienced scientific researcher. His first book, “Orca: A
Whale Called Killer,” is essential reading for orca supporters. His
understanding of the oceans has led him into the field of
conservation, seeking greater protections for marine habitats
throughout the world.
As Erich prepared for his upcoming tour, sponsored by The Whale Trail, I had the
privilege to visit with him for more than an hour via Skype from
his home in Bridport, England.
We discussed how people’s attitudes in the U.S. and Canada have
changed since 1973. That was when Erich’s curiosity was sparked by
encounters with Northern Resident orca pods in British Columbia,
where he had moved from the U.S. with his family.
Those were the days when little was known about killer whales.
Orcas were still being captured in the Northwest and sent to
aquariums throughout the world. Since then, we have learned how
those first captures had a serious effect on the close-knit orca
communities. Continuing threats today include pollution and a lack
of chinook salmon, the primary prey of orcas.
In 1999, Erich helped start a research program in Russian to
bring the same kind of scientific scrutiny and conservation
concerns to killer whales on the opposite side of the ocean. That
program, involving Russian scientists, revealed the presence of two
types of orcas, those that eat marine mammals and those that eat
fish — similar to what we call “transients” and “residents” in the
Orca communities identified so far in Russia range in size from
50 to 600 animals. As we’ve seen in the Northwest, cultures — such
as vocal dialects and feeding habits — are handed down from mother
An awareness of orcas, as seen in the U.S. and Canada, has not
reached Russia or many places in the world, Hoyt says. Russia still
allows killer whales to be captured, and last year seven orcas were
taken from the Sea of Okhotsk. Earlier captures in Russia were
especially disheartening to the researchers who had come to know
the individual animals taken from their families.
During his presentation, Erich will show a brief video of some
of the Russian capture efforts.
In countries such as Russia, China and Japan, new marine
aquariums are being built all the time, with orcas and beluga
whales as the star attractions. That’s in stark contrast to the
situation in the U.S., where a growing awareness of wild orcas
along with the film “Blackfish” has helped change people’s
attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.
Erich told me that he would like to see more people around the
world come to know individual orcas by name, as we do here in the
“Look at how far things have come, from when we didn’t know
anything about them to when we start to see them as our friends,”
About a week ago, I reported that NOAA Fisheries had undertaken
a yearlong review to determine if the “critical habitat” for
Southern Resident killer whales should be extended down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. See
Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription). A special consideration
for protecting the whales from undue noise was part of the petition
from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Hoyt agreed that sound should be given special consideration by
the federal government.
“Rob Williams (a Canadian researcher) talks about acoustic
refuges,” Erich noted. “It is a challenging issue, because whales
and dolphins can hear so well… We will need much larger marine
protected areas if we really want to protect them…”
A general increase in noise levels in the ocean can lead to
habituation by marine mammals, he noted. As they grow accustomed to
louder sounds, the animals may adjust — but how will that affect
their ability to communicate and find prey? What are the prospects
for their long-term survival under more noisy conditions?
And then there is the special issue of mid-frequency sonar,
which can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss for some
species. Navies that use sonar must be extra careful to avoid
impacts, he said.
Erich and I also talked about L-112, the young female orca that
washed up dead near Long Beach about the time the Royal Canadian
Navy was conducting exercises far to the north. Investigators were
unable to determine what caused the “blunt-force” injury to the
animal. But they ruled out explosives being used by the Navy,
because the currents were in the wrong direction and the distance
was too great.
“This brings to mind the crash of the Malaysian jetliner,” Erich
said. “You know something unusual happened, but it defies almost
any explanation you bring up. Scientists tend to come up with
explanations that are the simplest … but they should be careful not
to rule anything out.”
Killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb has suggested that L-112’s
mother may have carried her dead daughter to the area where she was
found. Hoyt said he has personally observed a female white-sided
dolphin carrying her dead offspring for more than two hours in
“It was really touching. We didn’t know at first if the baby was
dead. We were not very close. But eventually the mother just let go
of the baby.”
Erich expects mixed audiences at his upcoming appearances — from
people who know more about certain issues than he does to people
who are dragged to the event by a friend.
One message will be that people can watch whales from shore
without causing them any disturbance. That’s the mission of The
Whale Trail, the organization sponsoring Erich’s trip to locations
where killer whales may be seen from shore.
I told Erich about my first adventures with killer whales during
the fall of 1997, when 19 orcas visited Dyes Inlet. See “The Dyes
Inlet Whales 10 Years Later.” One of my messages at that time
was to encourage people to watch from vantage points in Tracyton,
Chico and Silverdale.
“Land-based whale watching is really close to my heart,” Erich
told me. “It’s the kind of thing that’s important for the community
… and a fantastic way to get to know wildlife.”
Hoyt’s appearances in Washington state include this Wednesday in
Port Townsend, Thursday in Port Angeles and May 18 in Seattle.
Whale Trail website for the full schedule.
A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet,
north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission.
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales,
endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
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
The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland.
Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton
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
I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by
Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the
whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale
Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan
Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.
Here’s Jim’s message for the year:
“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year
and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the
emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other
times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still
haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its
mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and
a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”
I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim
sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo
The Southern Resident killer whales have begun their annual
travels into Central and South Puget Sound in search of chum
The shift occurs when chinook salmon have completed their
migration and chum are just beginning to come home to their natal
streams, as I describe in a story in
yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. It is widely assumed that the length of
their stay depends on their success in finding the later
This year was predicted to be a low year for fall chum. But Jay
Zischke, marine fisheries manager for the Suquamish Tribe, told me
that early commercial and test fisheries suggest that the run is
either earlier than usual or larger than the preseason forecast.
Even so, it may still be a relatively low year for fall chum.
This is the 15th anniversary of another low chum year, 1997,
when 19 members of L pod came all the way into Dyes Inlet to find
adequate numbers of chum schooled up in front of Chico and Barker
creeks. The whales stayed in the inlet for a month and left just
before Thanksgiving. There is still debate about whether they
wanted to stay that long.
On the 10th anniversary of the event, I wrote about the story of
two young researchers, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, who
spent most of that month studying the whales and trying to protect
them from a massive number of boaters who wanted a front-boat view
of the action. Stories, maps and other information about that event
can be found on a website called “The Dyes Inlet Whales
— Ten Years Later.” Continue reading →