Tag Archives: Whale

Erich Hoyt returns to Puget Sound; whale sign goes up near Hansville

Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales, returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle.

A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park. Photo: The Whale Trail
A new signs welcomes whale watchers to Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville.
Photo: The Whale Trail

I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this region. (See 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 recent 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 Tickets.

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.

Will the Navy extend whale protections
to other regions?

UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and training operations. The document does not consider an option for avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is the news release (PDF 548 kb).

A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and throughout the country.

The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and reproduce.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups, saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.

“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself, represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with the conservation community. It took litigation to create this window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with science.”

Humpback whales, an endangered species. NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman
Humpback whales, an endangered species.
NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman

Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives. As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts — such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.

Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.

“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their military readiness objective.”

For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of this week’s settlement.

“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months to reach this agreement.”

In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically important testing and training.”

In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat vague.

“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back. “The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future proposed actions.”

Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species. NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whale, endangered.
NOAA photo

The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:

“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar systems).

“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”

Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar, explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales and other animals should include restrictions within biologically important areas, they say.

This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and Hawaii. For details, check out the signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps, or read the summary in news releases by NRDC and Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are getting special protection under the agreement.

Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s news release on the subject.

Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific Northwest.

Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.

“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing needs.”

Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and its failure to address the problem:

“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources…. Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially understates the potential effects, the activities would cause nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the 5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take permit.”

I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to see another lawsuit over routine testing and training operations.

New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).


The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.


The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Spotting newborn orca increases success of ocean research cruise

With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise, Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

A newborn orca with its mother L-94, named Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background. NOAA photo by Candice Emmons
A newborn orca swims with its mother L-94, Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background.
NOAA photo by Candice Emmons

The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all survived.

“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The current research cruise also has been among the most exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always been easy to find for observation and tracking.

So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales coming together in the open ocean.

“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well as variability between years.”

As I mentioned in Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in winter and what they are eating are essential elements for extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical habitat designation for the Southern Residents.

With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.

“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See NOAA’s Facebook page for his latest written notes.

The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached in a small Zodiac work boat.

“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf looks great.”

The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very energetic, Brad said.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April or May.

“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan Baurick, a reporter with the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months — especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.

As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their observers have been moving about for the past day or so.

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the “cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.

“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a leg up on the Cold War.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

As I described yesterday in Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.

Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers, who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint into perspective.

“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these guys are villains. This is a totally different story from ‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”

While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm they were doing.

“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them up that they have gotten a black eye.”

Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh said.

“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.


New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.

“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors inside the Navy.”

One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential harm to marine life.

Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training. They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times when whales are likely to be there.

More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be encountered in real life.

“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he said.

“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it would be a win for everybody,” he added.

Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of energy and its overall carbon footprint.

One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do. “I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine life throughout the world, he said.

“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution that will still be there for a very long time.”

At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us, he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with marine mammals.

Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the 1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which involves putting writers together with characters who have a great story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.

Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version is in the works.

During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money raised through The Ocean Foundation.

By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project and get the book into print.

Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C., with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals, in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the world.


Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound, has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the whales.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book, given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.

I consider this book to be several stories woven into one. First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.

Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology, developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz describes it.

The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed success.

Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to environmental law versus the need for national security. As a result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.

Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters, especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s single-minded approach to national security.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place, practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and he made the connection to the dead whales.

From there, other researchers and policy officials became involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being swept under the rug.

“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of whales.”

We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.

Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks revealed something about their past and present positions in life.

Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete the book.

“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken, somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story could not be assailed.

Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.

Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials, whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other retired officers.

“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping him understand anti-submarine warfare.

Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in promotional materials for the book:

“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.

“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.”

In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one especially important to those of us living in an area where the Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine life.

Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and what he learned along the way.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

Unmanned aircraft provides unique views of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson, a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.

Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the whales than when operating from a research boat.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a UAS (unmanned aircraft system).

Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote areas.

In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and still pictures, including those on this page. See also NOAA’s website.

One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale, including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy, underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to assess.

Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females who seemed to be pregnant.

They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however, is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?

Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its life.

Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.

A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress hormones, potential pathogens and other things.

“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build individual health profiles and begin to understand when something is going wrong,” Hanson said.

Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end. Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces from the water.

If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near the whales.

In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.

One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.

The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22 marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.

Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.

Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage. Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium
Orcas vary in physical condition. The female at top appears skinny and in poor health. The female in the middle appears healthy. The one at the bottom is pregnant, her body bulging at the ribcage.
Photo courtesy of NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Amusing Monday: Gaffigan wonders about whales

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has updated and improved his humorous take on whales.

Gaffigan: “I’ve been trying to swim a lot. You always hear that swimming is the best exercise. Do you see how fat whales are? Whales are like swimming all the time. It’s not working, whales!”

I never have to worry about quoting Gaffigan or using his videos in this blog, because he keeps his stories clean, and I’ve never heard him use swear words.

Check out a few of his other stories:

Bottled water

Holiday traditions


If you like Gaffigan, you can download his 75-minute “Mr. Universe” video for $5 by going to the Jim Gaffigan website.

Killer whales: Learning from the experts

If you missed Orca Network’s “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Jan. 26, you can still learn a lot from the videos recorded at the workshop on Whidbey Island.

Toxic chemicals in the environment constitute one of the great threats to killer whales, which are among the most polluted animals in the world. Toxicologist Peter Ross of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans always does a great job in explaining the problem in simple terms and putting the issue into its full context.

Peter’s talk, shown in the video on this page, includes current topics, such as oil transport into the Salish Sea and other potential toxic threats. He provides a good history and background on the topic up until 30 minutes into his talk, when he begins to focus strongly on the issue of toxic chemicals and ways to address the problem.

The video cuts off at about 52 minutes, but Peter’s talk continues in a second video. Here’s the YouTube link to Part 2.

The other presentations at the “Ways of Whales Workshop” contain a ton of interesting information. Orca Network has been generous to post links to each of the talks on a single page on the Orca Network website.

Killer Whale Tales helps kids connect to nature

I’ve been wanting to write about Jeff Hogan’s Killer Whale Tales for years now, but we’ve never managed to mesh schedules during one of his classroom visits to Kitsap County.

Olalla Elementary students examine a cast of a killer whale skull following a presentation by Jeff Hogan of Killer Whale Tales.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

“Go for it,” I told Kitsap Sun reporter Chris Henry when she learned that Jeff would be at Olalla Elementary School in South Kitsap. That’s where Chris serves as our “regional reporter” and recently added education to the list of issues she covers.

Chris did a nice job explaining Jeff Hogan’s educational program, his background and his hope to use students as “citizen scientists.” Check out the story she wrote for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Jeff has been encouraging students to monitor hydrophones in our local waters and report observations of orca calls through the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network and Orcasound, which has its own wonderful educational program. Young and old alike can have fun trying to identify specific calls that killer whales make. To play the game, access the practice page on the Orcasound website.

To his credit, Jeff is generous with his classroom materials, including eight work sheets teachers and parents can download from his website. Using these worksheets, kids can outline a family tree as it relates to an orca pod, puzzle over a “word search” related to killer whales, create a “blubber glove” to see how whales stay warm, track the movements of killer whales in Puget Sound and more.

The sounds of one of Hogan’s classroom visits was captured by Irene Noguchi when she worked at KUOW public radio in 2009. Check out the video posted on YouTube.