Tag Archives: Whale

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.

Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest, including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.

Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to report this issue in his blog Orcasphere that same day.

Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this report:

“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”

I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:

“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway.

“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods.”

The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.

Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement, as I described last week.
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Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.

Humpback shows up in Hood Canal, then disappears

UPDATE, Feb. 18

The humpback whale in Hood Canal may still be around. I received an e-mail from Barbara Clark, who spotted the whale yesterday (Friday) about 1:50 p.m. Both she and her husband Jim saw it this time, in the very same spot that Jim noticed it on Jan. 30 — specifically, just north of the Great Bend of Hood Canal toward the eastern shore.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that someone else saw the whale in southern Hood Canal about the same time.

These latest sightings only reinforce the mystery of the humpback whale that must still be swimming around Hood Canal but not making itself very obvious.

A humpback whale made a rare appearance in Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay at the end of last week, then mysteriously disappeared from sight.

A humpback whale was sighted Friday in Dabob Bay by researchers Connie and JD Gallant.
Photo by Connie Gallant

As far as I can tell, Connie and JD Gallant, who were doing research on the bay Friday afternoon, were among the very few to see the humpback, or possibly two of them.

It makes you wonder how often large whales, such as humpbacks, come into Hood Canal without anyone seeing them, or at least reporting them.

“I was so thrilled,” Connie told me this morning as she described the encounter.

JD was motoring their 40-foot research vessel, the Sea Turtle, near Broadspit in the northern part of the estuary when he spotted one or more whales surfacing. JD stopped the boat, pulled up the water-testing meter, and yelled, “Whales off the port bow!”

Connie, who was below deck inputting data into a computer, ran up and began shooting photos. JD told Connie he believed there were two whales, but Connie only saw one.

Personally, I can’t remember anyone reporting humpbacks in Hood Canal. I phoned several folks I know who live on the canal, and nobody seems to recall ever seeing humpbacks. It is quite a different situation when one talks about visits to Hood Canal by gray whales or killer whales, which I’ve reported through the years.

My most memorable experience was in 2005, when a group of six transient killer whales spent more than five months swimming up and down the shorelines of Hood Canal, feasting on seals and sea lions whenever they got a chance. Those orcas stayed so long I thought they might make the canal their permanent home.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research told me that he has a general recollection of a humpback showing up in Hood Canal years ago, but he could not locate any written reports of the sightings. If someone was able to snap a picture of the underside of the fluke (tail) of a humpback, John said he might be able to identify the whale from a photographic catalog of humpbacks on the West Coast.

John tells me that a January sighting of a humpback whale is unusual, because most of the population is now on the breeding grounds near the Hawaiian Islands or else off the coast of Mexico. A few humpbacks are always around, he said, but it is worrisome when any animal shows up in a place where it is not expected.

Historically, one population of humpbacks spent the winters in the inland waters of northern Washington and southern British Columbia, but they were largely wiped out by commercial whalers, he said.

The West Coast population of humpbacks has been growing at about 7.5 percent a year since the early 1990s, according to Calambokidis. The general population now stands at about 2,000 animals, compared to about 500 more than 20 years ago.

As for the recent humpback sighting, I would like to get a report from anyone who may have seen this whale (or two) in Hood Canal or from anyone who may have seen one in the past.

Connie said the whale or whales that she observed Friday appeared to be “frolicking” — that is leaping out of the water, twisting and turning. She said they seemed to be about the size or her boat, about 40 feet long. That would make it a fairly young humpback.

The encounter lasted about 15 minutes, then the whales seemed to disappear, she said.

“We hung around for about an hour,” she said, “but they didn’t surface again.”

Connie and JD, who operate Greenfleet Monitoring Expeditions, have been collecting water-quality data — including information on dissolved oxygen — from Quilcene and Dabob bays.

The humpback whale spotted in Dabob Bay disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
Photo by Connie Gallant

Keeping watch for killer whales coming south

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.

‘The Whale’ tells the story of Luna, the lost orca

UPDATE, Oct. 15, 2011

“The Whale” can now be seen at Lynwood Theatre on Bainbridge Island and will be screened next weekend at Clyde Theatre on Whidbey Island, the latter a benefit for Orca Network.

“The Whale,” a long-awaited movie about a young Puget Sound orca named Luna, opened yesterday in Seattle and Tacoma before being released elsewhere in the country. Go to scheduled screenings.

It’s a beautiful film, both for its stunning photography and for its careful portrayal of the characters and situations taking place in Nootka Sound, near the northern end of Vancouver Island. Somehow, the 2-year-old killer whale became separated from his family and began living a solitary life, seeking attention from humans.

It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints. Believe me, I know because I struggled with these issues while covering the same story for the Kitsap Sun — from the time Luna first arrived in Nootka Sound until the day he died there. I served as the only pool reporter for U.S. print media during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Luna and return him to his family. But I’ve talked about this before. See Water Ways entries from July 5 of this year and Aug. 6 of last year, which includes links to my stories.

I was pleasantly surprised when I watched “The Whale” yesterday to learn that filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm did not attempt to create heroes and villains in this story. They played it straight, balancing the various opinions regarding how Luna should be managed, if that was even possible.

An unusual angle to the story was the spiritual beliefs of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht band of First Nations people, who held the view that Luna was the embodied spirit of their late chief who had died the week before Luna arrived in Nootka Sound.

Marine mammal biologist Toni Frohoff says in the film that things usually end badly for marine mammals who become habituated to humans. But, with no family around, Luna was the one who initiated contact. Most people who met Luna were convinced that he needed attention. Some chose to follow official orders and ignore him; others petted and played with him.

Were these interactions for the gratification of the people who wanted to touch a whale? Did they help this lonely orca? Or was there some mutual benefit from interspecies relations? That is the question left dangling.

Kari Koski of SoundWatch, based in the San Juan Islands, traveled to Nootka Sound to discourage people from interacting with Luna. As a “steward,” she has had far more success with people around killer whales in Puget Sound, where the orca families are large; they stay together; and they don’t usually seek human contact.

“All we were doing,” Kari says in the film, “was interacting with him in order to prevent more interactions.”

In Mike’s words, as narrated by Ryan Reynolds:

“As the stewards saw Luna in more of these situations, they came into conflict with themselves. They were trying to rebuild the wall that Luna had broken, but they loved him when he came through it.”

More than a year after the rescue attempt failed, Mike began to interact with Luna. This he admits, though his actions were contrary to official orders from the Canadian government. He had followed the rules while trying unsuccessfully to change those policies. Mike says he adopted a goal of leading Luna away from dangerous situations, including a log dump where the young whale could be hit and killed by a falling log.

But Luna’s death came anyway, four years after his arrival, when he was sucked into the propellor of a powerful tugboat.

Seattle filmmaker Michael Harris, known for his wildlife films in Puget Sound, says he will not watch “The Whale” and discourages other people from doing so. His reasons are varied, but he worries that the film will give people the idea that it is OK to interact with killer whales, something that increases the risk of their being injured or killed.

“From what we’ve seen, the narrative says all the right things about loving whales and protecting them, but the images say otherwise,” Michael told me in an e-mail. “We believe it essentially says that it’s cool for humans to play with wild whales.”

I have not heard this complaint from others, but I would welcome comments from people who have such concerns.

Michael points out that the story was different for Springer, a young female orca from the Northern Resident community of Canada who was found hanging out in the ferry lane between Vashon Island and West Seattle. It was at the same time that Luna was up north in Canada.

Interaction with Springer was discouraged, and U.S. officials moved quickly to capture her and take her back to her family near the north end of Vancouver Island. This year, marks the 10th anniversary of Springer’s reunion with her family, and Springer appears to be doing great, according to observers.

Springer’s successful reunion is not mentioned in the movie “The Whale,” but the management of her plight must be remembered as a success story. Luna’s story, on the other hand, has no happy ending, but it does help us understand the ways of killer whales, particularly those left alone for a long time. I hope “The Whale” will help us humans find better ways to handle things next time.

For more info, go to “The Whale” website.

Amusing Monday: Colbert’s wisdom about whales

Following recent news that Japanese whalers have called off their Antarctic hunt for the remainder of this season, Stephen Colbert wags his finger at the “environmentalist blubber huggers” who caused the “research” to be cut short.

“Without this research,” Colbert says, “how will Japanese scientists know what teriyaki blow hole tastes like?”

If this situation continues, Colbert worries that whales will take over the world and give us a new “Pledge of Allegiance,” which he previews in the following video.

The following clip includes other “wags.” To get to the bit about whales, advance to 4:34 on the timeline.