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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

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 food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“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.”
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A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“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 unprecedented.

“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 growing.”

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.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

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 herring.”

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 declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures


Erich Hoyt will talk about orcas and more

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

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.

Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt

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 Northwest.

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 to offspring.

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 Northwest.

“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,” he said.

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 Northern Japan.

“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. Visit The Whale Trail website for the full schedule.

Also, check out Erich Hoyt’s webpage for information about his ongoing activities.


Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

Friday, March 21st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

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 Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.

>
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.

A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.

A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.


Orcas hunt for chum salmon in Central Puget Sound

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

The Southern Resident killer whales have begun their annual travels into Central and South Puget Sound in search of chum salmon.

Southern Resident killer whales passed by Bainbridge Island on Monday.
Photo by Tad Sooter

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 salmon.

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.”
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Orca photos: Capt. Jim offers his favorites of 2011

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters on San Juan Island sent me his favorite photos of 2011.

“Though perhaps not technically my best,” he wrote. “they are my personal favorites. I hope you enjoy them and have a great 2012.”

Jim sent the photos on Jan. 1, so the delay in getting them online is all mine. The captions below each picture are Jim’s comments about the events and circumstances of the moment. Click on each photo for a better view.

Nov. 19. Ts with Sucia Island and Mt. Baker. We first found them at Speiden Island thanks to Kim and Karl Bruder, who run Lonesome Cove. Evening light. / Capt. Jim Maya

Aug. 26. Spectacular speed swimming! We call it porpoising for some reason. Strait of Georgia headed toward the Frazer River. Wish the lighting had been better, but you get the idea. / Capt. Jim Maya

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS
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Keeping watch for killer whales coming south

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

An axiom among orca observers goes something like this: When you believe you have figured out what killer whales will do, they’ll do something else.

I’ve become accustomed to writing an annual story that lets people know when chinook salmon runs are dwindling in the northern waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia and when chum salmon runs are beginning to build up in South Puget Sound.

It happens in the fall, and it generally means that our Southern Resident orcas will begin checking out the buffet table in areas from Whidbey Island to Tacoma and occasionally as far south as Olympia. During this time, ferryboat riders aboard the Kingston, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton and Vashon Island ferries begin seeing the whales more frequently.

It appears that the table is now set and waiting for the whales, but that doesn’t mean they’ll show up for dinner on time, as I describe in a story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

Lots of people reported seeing the orcas last week, when they were spotted from all the usual ferries, including some rare sightings on the Mukilteo run. The video on this page was taken at Point Robinson on Vashon Island and shows how exciting it can be to watch whales from the shore.

Although the Southern Residents showed up in South Sound only twice in October, historical records reveal that as long as chum are around, the whales — most notably J Pod — can be expected to return through December. One analysis of whale movements was conducted as part of a tidal energy project for the Snohomish County Public Utility District. See Marine Mammal Pre-Installation Study (PDF 12.9 mb). (Note the large file.)

While the Southern Residents are known to eat chum in the fall, there is no doubt that their preferred prey is chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. How to make sure the orcas are getting enough chinook to eat is part of a major study effort now under way, including a series of workshops about the effects of salmon fishing on the killer whales.

A report of the first workshop, held Sept. 21-23, contains an incredible amount of scientific information related food availability and the value of different salmon to our local orcas. Check out this page: Evaluating the Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales.


Maps for salmon-viewing and whale-watching

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

I’ve been away from “Water Ways” quite a lot lately while covering a trial in Tacoma involving safety and environmental concerns at Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club. Kitsap County is suing the club over operations at its gun range near Bremerton. (Watch for my “live blogging” or read the stories on the Kitsap Sun website.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to call your attention to a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Brynn Grimley, who took a “salmon tour” via kayak last weekend. Her close-up story and some great photos by Meeghan Reid can be seen in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Whale Trail poster / Click on image to download poster (PDF 1.5 mb)

As chum salmon begin to arrive in small streams throughout the Kitsap Peninsula, you may wish to carefully observe their migration and spawning. Several years ago, a couple of us at the Sun created a map with videos depicting the best viewing spots. Check out Kitsap Sun Salmon Map. I hope to update the videos with new information when I get time.

Another map that may be of interest is the “Whale Trails” map that purports to show the best places in Puget Sound to view marine mammals. Unfortunately, there are no places shown on the Kitsap Peninsula. I might recommend Point No Point County Park in North Kitsap, locations on the Kingston waterfront, and Bachmann Park in the city of Bremerton, as well as several places on Bainbridge Island.

The Whale Trail organization sent me a poster for the Washington State Ferries that will help riders know what kinds of marine mammals they may be seeing. This is a great idea, and I hope people will take the opportunity to learn about the kinds of animals common in the waters of Puget Sound. Click on the image (PDF 2.5 mb), above right, to download the poster.

The Puget Sound killer whales are a little late this year in making excursions into South Puget Sound. They typically come south hunting for chum salmon after the runs of chinook decline up north. I’ll have more to say about this when we begin to see them more frequently, assuming they are just late this year.


Follow-up to suspected boat collision with orca

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Given the excitement of the moment, including comments over the radio, some people still believe that L-90, a 19-year-old female orca named Ballena, was struck by a boat off the west side of San Juan Island on Friday.

An experienced driver for the Prince of Whales whale-watching company was mentioned as a likely witness.

I talked to a spokeswoman for the company who told me that nobody she knows has any pictures. The only interviews granted by staff were with enforcement officers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sgt. Russ Mullins, one of the WDFW officers who patrols that area, said he has investigated the incident. As best as he can tell, no collision occurred.

“Nobody witnessed an actual strike,” he told me. “It was a close call perhaps, but we do not have vessel-related injuries on this animal.”

Here are some of the details that Sgt. Mullins reported:

The boat reportedly involved in the incident was a slow-moving liveaboard passing through the area. The speed was about 7 knots. Mullins does not know why some news reports mentioned a high-speed boat, except for the possible assumption that only a fast-moving boat was likely to strike a killer whale.

A witness on the Prince of Whales boat told officers that the orca in question and possibly others surfaced some 20 feet off the bow the boat, which then stopped for a short time before leaving the area.

The whale was acting sluggish, barely moving and logging on the surface for quite some time. That behavior led people in the area to believe a collision had occurred. Comments to that effect went out over the radio.

“I heard the transmission,” Mullins said. “The close proximity, combined with the unusual behavior of the whale, led some people to think it had been struck. We assume the worst. As primary law enforcement for the area we have a responsibility to respond…”

Another patrol boat quickly tracked down the suspect vessel.

“We talked to the skipper, who was very concerned,” Mullins said. “He did not appear to be the kind of person who would strike a whale and knowingly leave.”

Mullins said he stayed with the group of whales for 10 hours, including part of Saturday. During that time, they passed the town of Friday Harbor, where they became as active as he’s ever seen them.

Experts familiar with the orcas assured him that the whale had been acting strangely even before Friday’s incident and that nothing had changed See my Water Ways entry from Friday and Erin Heydenreich’s further explanation later that day.

Technically, the driver of the boat was in violation of the protective zone around the whales, 100 yards under state law and 200 yards under federal law. That applies even when the whales catch up to a boat going the same direction, but officers have discretion to consider the conditions.

Mullins said his department plans to issue a written warning to the driver of the boat and refer all the information to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This guy’s biggest mistake is not being aware of his surroundings,” the sergeant said, “but when the whales were within his view, he took appropriate action.”


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.
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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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