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.
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Water Ways from Feb. 24.
In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any
of the following characteristics:
Reproductive areas – Areas and times within
which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is
found with neonates or calves,
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,
Migratory corridors – Areas and times within
which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the
corridor is spatially restricted.
Small and resident population – Areas and
times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.
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.”
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 video cuts off at about 52 minutes, but Peter’s talk
continues in a second video. Here’s the YouTube link to Part
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
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.
“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,
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
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.