Category Archives: Marine mammals

Learning the fate of Springer’s stick, a key to an orca rescue

When is a medical intervention appropriate for a sick or ailing killer whale?

It’s a complicated question, as I learned by interviewing a variety of experts in a two-part series just published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

One aspect of the story that I found interesting was how a simple tree branch helped to make a connection between humans and a lonely orca named Springer. If you have read my story, you might be interested in how the stick played an ongoing role after the rescue.

The question of medical intervention with wild killer whales has become more urgent with an ongoing drop in the population of the critically endangered southern resident orcas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, the world watched as 4-year-old Scarlet, a female orca designated J50, became emaciated and eventually died. Medical experts tried unsuccessfully to help her, and they are still debating whether they did too much or too little.

In contrast, we have the story of Springer, or A73, an orphan killer whale who was successfully rescued from Puget Sound, nursed back to health and returned to her family in Northern British Columbia.

Differences between the two cases are stark. No doubt the biggest difference is that Springer was all alone, whereas Scarlet stayed with her close-knit family. Anything done to Scarlet, helpful or not, had effects on all the orcas around her.

As I learned while talking to folks about Springer, the lonely whale found an attachment to humans through a stick, which served as both a back scratcher and a toy. The stick became the key to getting a blood sample from a moving whale, and the blood sample was essential to moving ahead with the rescue, as I explained in the story.

What happened to the stick after Springer was captured and taken to a net pen for rehab?

Dr. Pete Schroeder, a veterinarian who helped get the blood sample, told me the stick stayed with the whale in the net pen. Sometimes people working with her would bring out the stick after she ate her meal of fish. It was a type of reward, Pete said. He calls the stick a “transitional object,” a term from psychology for an item that brings comfort.

“She loved that stick,” Pete said. “She swam up to it, recognized it and did 360s around it.”

The stick also went with Springer to Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island, where she was released to her family calling to her through the water.

A First Nations dance group, called the Le-La-La Dancers, is known for performing traditional Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced kwa kwa key wok) dances, representing the First Nations culture of the North Vancouver Island region. One dance is enhanced with a unique five-foot-long mask of a killer whale. The dancer’s moves — up and down, and side to side — represent the diving, breaching and swimming of a killer whale. Check out the video on this page.

As Pete recalled, “They used that special orca mask in a ceremony as we handed the stick over to the First Nations band. We hoped that they could use it to somehow influence Springer’s homecoming to her pod.”

After Springer was released from the net pen on Hanson Island, she swam out to her pod, but she did not stay with the whales. Slow to integrate with her own kind, she approached fishing boats and other vessels, even as the whale researchers asked boaters not to interact with her.

“We knew we had a problem,” Pete said, “and we were asked by the First Nations people to attend a meeting.”

The researchers were told about the history and culture of the native people and the spiritual relationships with the animals of the region, especially the killer whales.

George Taylor, who leads the Le-La-La Dancers, said a special ceremony was held for Springer using the killer whale mask and the stick. The dance with the mask has been performed many times, George told me. It represents the transformation of a killer whale into a man.

The “sacred stick,” as George calls it, was brought into the ceremonial dance to revisit the connection between Springer and the people who knew her. George has long felt a spiritual connection to killer whales, a connection that started years ago when he was approached by orcas during a fishing trip.

“The killer whales came and swam around me,” he said. “It seemed like they knew who I was.”

Some things are too mysterious to explain with science, Pete said. For whatever reason, the timing of the ceremony involving the stick coincided with Springer’s permanent break with the humans and a return to more natural ways.

“After the ceremony,” Pete recalled, “she stayed with her pod and never approached humans again.”

George says he does not know what happened to the stick after that.

Springer stories: Read “Pod reunion: Waters of home welcome Springer,” July 14th, 2002

Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

A letter from Lawrence Solomon, secretary of the Lummi Nation, outlines the tribal position.

Based on moral concerns, the tribe supports strong actions to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. That should involve a health assessment for the two orcas that seem to be in declining health, Kurt said. Feeding the two whales and providing medicine to help them recover could be part of the plan, he added. Whether the tribe could support capturing the whales to nurse them back to health is a controversial question that has not yet been resolved among tribal members, he said.

“How does the moral obligation define that scenario?” Kurt wondered. “It would be traumatic to take a whale away from its family. There is not a firm decision yet about that solution.”

Finding a way to feed the entire population of 75 Southern Residents could be critical to their survival, Kurt said, and it might require setting up feeding stations where the whales could come for food.

“The killer whales are sending a message,” Kurt said. “It’s now or never. We will soon know if the Salish Sea is going to remain an ecosystem that can be repaired. It’s not an issue of more science. We have to act on what we know.”

Legal rights for orcas themselves

A coalition of various groups today unveiled a declaration proclaiming the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas to exist. The recognition comes with some urgency, according to the group, because a new calf was recently born — the first birth in three years.

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne in a news release.

“The orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed,” said Dunne, who helped draft the declaration. “We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights — to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state — if we truly want to save the orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Among its provisions, the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas calls for the immediate creation of a stewardship board for the Salish Sea based on a rights-of-nature framework. It should include a guardian representation for the Southern Resident Orcas, according to the petition.

Movie: “The Whale” to play in Port Orchard

The true story of Luna, a young killer whale separated from his Southern Resident community, will be shown tomorrow (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema in downtown Port Orchard. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido invited me to be on hand after the movie to answer questions and talk about orcas.

Luna, or L-98, made his appearance suddenly in 2001 in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where he became lonely and developed a habit of seeking out human companionship. An effort to capture the orca and return him to the Salish Sea failed amidst a conflict between the Canadian government and the local band of First Nations people.

In a move review I wrote for Water Ways in September 2011, I called “The Whale” a beautiful film for its photography and careful portrayal of characters and situations. It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints, but I thought filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit pulled it off accurately.

I happen to know something about this story, because I was in Nootka Sound for two weeks leading up to the attempted capture of Luna and for a short time after the project was abandoned. I was the so-called “pool reporter” representing U.S. media, and I became acquainted with Mike and Suzanne.

Ways of Whales Workshop

On Saturday, the annual Ways of Whales Workshop, including speakers and presentations on a variety of marine mammal topics, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coupeville Middle School, 501 S. Main St, on Whidbey Island.

Speakers and their topics include:

  • Howard Garrett of Orca Network on Lolita/Tokitae;
  • Cindy Elliser of Pacific Mammal Research on harbor porpoise status and identification;
  • Stephanie Norman of Marine-Med and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network on harbor porpoise health and diseases;
  • Sandra O’Neill of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on contamination in herring, salmon and orcas;
  • Amy Carey of Sound Action on nearshore habitat protection and regulatory reform; and
  • Deborah Giles on Southern Resident killer whale research.

Singer/songwriter Dana Lyons will perform his song “The Great Salish Sea.”

The event is sponsored by Orca Network. Cost for the workshop is $35, or $25 for students and seniors. Lunch is available for an additional $10. Advance registration is highly recommended because of limited seating. Visit www.orcanetwork.org, email info@orcanetwork.org or call either 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

A no-host social will follow at Ciao Restaurant in Coupeville for everyone attending the workshop.

Salmon report mixes good and bad news, with a touch of hope

The story of salmon recovery in Washington state is a mixture of good and bad news, according to the latest “State of the Salmon” report issued by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

It’s the usual story of congratulations for 20 years of salmon restoration and protection, along with a sobering reminder about how the growing human population in our region has systematically dismantled natural functions for nearly 150 years.

“We must all do our part to protect our state’s wild salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “As we face a changing climate, growing population and other challenges, now is the time to double down on our efforts to restore salmon to levels that sustain them, our fishing industry and the communities that rely on them. Salmon are crucial to our future and to the survival of beloved orca whales.”

The report reminds us that salmon are important to the culture of our region and to the ecosystem, which includes our cherished killer whales. It is, however, frustrating for everyone to see so little progress in the number of salmon returning to the streams, as reflected in this summary found in the report:

  • Getting worse: Puget Sound chinook, Upper Columbia River spring chinook
  • Not making progress: Upper Columbia River steelhead, Lower Columbia River chum, Lower Columbia River fall chinook, Lower Columbia River spring chinook, Snake River spring and summer chinook
  • Showing signs of progress: Mid-Columbia River steelhead, Lake Ozette sockeye, Lower Columbia River steelhead, Snake River steelhead, Puget Sound steelhead
  • Approaching recovery goals: Hood Canal summer chum, Snake River fall chinook

It would be reassuring if we could know that our efforts in salmon recovery are making some real difference before we “double down on our efforts,” as the governor suggests. That’s why I spent considerable time trying to answer the question of whether we have turned the corner on habitat destruction in Puget Sound. Could we at least be improving the habitat faster than we are degrading it with new development? Check out “Are we making progress on salmon recovery” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

As I point out in the article, this question is not just a matter of counting salmon that return to the streams, because many factors are involved in salmon survival. Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are investigating habitat conditions and the fate of young salmon before they reach saltwater, based on many ongoing studies. I’m hoping their upcoming findings can boost confidence that restoration work is on the right track.

Looking beyond the streams, I have reported on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is asking important questions about what happens to young salmon after they leave the streams and head out to sea. You can read the four-part series called “Marine survival: New clues emerging in salmon deaths” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The new “State of the Salmon” report describes, in a general way, the work that needs to be done, concluding that renewed efforts should be focused on:

  • Larger habitat restoration and protection projects
  • Better control of harmful development
  • Management and cleanup of stormwater
  • Addressing climate change
  • Restoring access to spawning and rearing habitat
  • Engaging communities
  • Reducing salmon predators and destructive invasive species, and
  • Integration of harvest, hatchery, hydropower and habitat actions

These general discussions, which are found in Section 9 of the executive summary to the “State of the Salmon” report, could be helpful if you haven’t heard any of this before. If you would like more details, however, I would direct you to these documents:

One of the most engaging sections of the new “State of the Salmon” report is the one containing “Salmon Recovery Stories.” If you read through all 24 of these stories (not necessarily in one sitting), you can confirm what you already know, and you are bound to learn some new things along the way. I know I did. The writing is tight and informative, while the pictures, videos are graphics complete the story-telling. The section is like a primer in salmon restoration.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to recover salmon,” Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, said in a news release. “We know what needs to be done, and we have the people in place to do the hard work. We just haven’t received the funding necessary to do what’s required of us.”

Amusing Monday: Stirring photos honored by National Geographic

Nearly 10,000 photos were entered into this year’s National Geographic Photo Contest, and I’m sure that it was difficult for the judges to choose. To feature some great water-related images, I picked three of my favorites from the finalists.

“Moonlight,” a photo of the famous Wanapa Tree in New Zealand. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Mo Wu, Taichung, Taiwan

The first photo, titled “Moonlight,” focuses on the Wanapa Tree, which photographer Mo Wu of Taichung, Taiwan, called the most famous tree in New Zealand. Wu waited until the moon was over the tree to capture the reflection and moon shadow in Wanapa Lake. The photo was entered into the Places category.

The second photo, titled “emBEARassed,” shows a brown bear slipping and taking a brief tumble while fishing at Brooks Falls in Alaska.

“EmBEARassed,” a photo of a brown bear taking a tumble at Brooks Falls, Alaska.
Photo: Taylor Thomas Albright, Yuma, Ariz.

“Anxious, aggressive and hoping to get a better angle at the leaping salmon, this bear reached out a bit too far and lost his footing,” explained photographer Taylor Thomas Albright of Yuma, Ariz. “Splashing into the pool below unharmed, he eventually climbed back into his spot to wait for the next chance at a salmon.”

A National Geographic producer, David Y. Lee, commented, “Fantastic moment you documented here, Taylor. I usually see images of the bears at Brooks Falls just standing and waiting, maybe a salmon or two jumping up in the air. So I love seeing something different. Yes, this is a #bearblooper. I love the way the other bear is looking at the falling one, like ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘Are you OK?’ Great job being ready to make this frame when it happened. Well done.”

“Surfers in Bali,” taken at sunrise in Indonesia.
Photo: Carsten Schertzer, Oxnard, Calif.

The third photo, titled “Surfers in Bali,” was taken at sunrise in Indonesia, according to photographer Carsten Schertzer of Oxnard, Calif. It was entered in the Place category.

“I first saw the gate earlier in the morning, knowing this would be a perfect place for an image,” he said. “I only needed a subject to walk within the frame, so I sat and waited, locked in my composition and waited until the surfers walked into my frame.”

Kimberly Coates, a photographer for NatGeo’s “Your Shot” program, noted, “You captured this shot at the perfect moment! I love the symmetry of the structure in front and how it frames the surfers. The sky is also such a lovely shade of purple! Thanks for sharing, Carsten!”

“Unreal” shows thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars lined up in the desert. Click for a slide show of winning photos in the National Geographic contest.
Photo: Jassen Todorov, San Francisco

The fourth photo is the Grand Prize winner of the photo contest, with photographer Jassen Todorov of San Francisco claiming a $5,000 prize. The picture shows thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars lined up in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, the result of a recall after Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions controls.

Click on the photo to call up a slide show of all 12 winning photos, or go directly to the “Wallpapers: Winners” page. You can review all the finalists by category or look a those that made the judges’ cuts over a five-week period. The pictures can be downloaded and used as wallpaper for your computer, tablet or cellphone.

Entries for next year’s contest may be submitted in October. Updated rules are expected to be posted later, but general information can be found on the Rules webpage.

Japan allows commercial whaling, withdraws from international pact

Frustrated by international condemnation over its whaling activities, the Japanese government has decided to allow commercial whaling outright within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Japanese officials announced this week that the country would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, which oversees international agreements for managing whales — including a worldwide ban against killing nearly all whales.

As a result, the Japanese whaling fleet will no longer travel to the Antarctic to kill whales, which the government justified for years under an exemption for “scientific” whaling. That whaling program, which killed 333 minke whales last year, failed to meet the requirements of scientific studies, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice and findings by a scientific panel for the International Whaling Commission. See Water Ways, March 31, 2014.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move was a necessary consequence of the IWC’s failure to recognize its dual mandate of protecting whales and allowing an “orderly development of the whaling industry.” For 30 years, the Japanese government has been collecting information to show that whales can be sustainably harvested, Suga said in a statement, but it has become clear that the IWC is now focused only on conservation.

Most environmental groups condemned Japan’s pullout from the IWC.

“By leaving the IWC but continuing to kill whales in the North Pacific, Japan now becomes a pirate whaling nation, killing these ocean leviathans completely outside the bounds of international law,” said Kitty Block, president of Humane Society International and acting president of the Humane Society of the U.S.

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling,” she said in a news release. “It has consistently failed, but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government was “extremely disappointed” with Japan’s action.

“Their decision to withdraw is regrettable, and Australia urges Japan to return to the Convention and Commission as a matter of priority,” they said in a joint statement. “Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling. We will continue to work within the Commission to uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling.”

Concerns with Japan’s withdrawal include the possibility that Japan will no longer report the number of whales killed and the potential of other countries following suit and starting whale hunting without consultation with the IWC.

“We are very worried that it might set a precedent and that other countries might follow Japan’s lead and leave the commission … especially South Korea where there is an interest in consuming whale meat in South Korea,” Astrid Fuchs of Whale and Dolphin Conservation told BBC News and reported in The Guardian.

“The oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost,” she added. “We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations. There is an endangered population of Minke whales off Japan, which is already under threat.”

Most groups acknowledged that ending whaling in the Antarctic would be a good thing, and Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd took a celebratory posture about the prospect.

“I’m not quite sure why so many whale conservationists are upset by today’s announcement by Japan that they will be leaving the IWC,” Paul said in a Facebook post Wednesday. “After 16 years of intervening against Japan in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, I see this as a very positive development. It means that the whale war in the Southern Ocean is over and we and the whales have won. What we have fought for has been achieved — an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean.

“Japan leaving the IWC will allow the IWC to vote and pass the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary,” he added. “This means that the entire Southern Hemisphere will be free of whalers for the first time in history.”

Whaling remains illegal, Paul said, and Sea Shepherd will continue to oppose whaling with a variety of tactics. Now, it will be easier to build opposition, because Japan can no longer pretend that it is advancing scientific knowledge with its whaling operations. The only whaling nations left on Earth, he said, are Japan, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, and “they have been driven back to their own shores; the whalers of the world are in retreat.”

Sea Shepherd has not engaged the whaling fleet in “whale wars” — direct ship-to-ship confrontations — for the past two years, but the group claims to have driven up costs for the whalers, who have relied on government security boats and high-tech equipment to elude the anti-whaling activists. Those extra costs may have contributed to Japan’s decision to withdraw from the IWC. Also on the line was a discussion about whether the Japanese government should build a massive new ship for processing whale meat, a ship that won’t be needed in Japanese waters.

I’ve been reading about this situation in all kinds of publications, including English-language newspapers based in Japan. I would like to know if Japan intends to allow whalers to take the full self-imposed allotment of 333 minke whales during the current whaling season. The whaling fleet reportedly left for the Antarctic in early November and may be hunting for whales now. I have not yet learned whether the whaling fleet will come back early or take 333 whales before Japan pulls out of the IWC on July 1.

“With the Japanese whaling fleet hunting whales in our Southern Ocean, the Australian Government must demand they bring their fleet home immediately and take legal action if they don’t,” said Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In a written statement, he called it a “bittersweet victory” to get whaling out of the Southern Ocean but with “unchecked” commercial whaling to take place in Japan’s waters.

The IWC called a halt to commercial whaling in 1982. Japan complied with the moratorium at first but then developed scientific criteria to promote whaling under a special exemption. Scientists associated with the IWC, as well as the International Court of Justice, found that the criteria failed to meet true scientific standards and should not be allowed.

In September, Japan tried to persuade the IWC to relax its voting rules to allow changes to international rules on a simple majority vote, rather than three-fourths. That would have allowed Japan to rally a lot of non-whaling countries to support a resumption of commercial whaling, but the proposal was rejected along with a direct plan to allow commercial whaling.

In October, Japan agreed to stop the hunting of endangered sei whales in the North Pacific until its research program could be revised to comply with CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A standing committee of CITES found that Japanese “research” whaling on sei whales actually contributed to an illegal sale of endangered species, according to a news release and report on the findings (PDF 1.2 mb). Sei whales are killed outside of Japan’s home waters, so the market is considered international.

The Japanese government contended that the sales were not a violation of CITES’ conventions, because all the proceeds were put back into research. Still, those officials said a new plan will be submitted for approval.

The issue is scheduled for review at the committee’s next meeting in May to determine if Japan has carried through on its commitment to stop commercial trade in sei whale meat. Japan had been planning to allow a harvest quota of 134 sei whales per year.

As for whaling off the coast of Japan, an offshore operation will be based at Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, while coastal operations will be based at Abashiri and Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido and four other seaports.

Although whale meat was an important staple for Japan following World War II, few Japanese people eat whale meat today. In some ways, however, whaling is still a matter of tradition for many Japanese people. Some have speculated that Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is a face-saving way for the government to reduce its expenses for whale hunting while asserting its traditional right to take whales in its own waters.

A 2014 survey by the national Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 60 percent of those questioned supported the “scientific” whaling program, yet only 10 percent eat whale meat “fairly frequently.” Another 4 percent said they eat whale meat “sometimes.” Nearly half (48 percent) said they have not eaten whale meat for “a long time,” while 37 percent said they never eat it. The survey was reported by the news portal Phys Org.

In a recent article, Asahi Shimbun reported that companies involved in the fishing industry are not eager to resume whaling.

“We have no plans to resume the whaling business,” a public relations official of Maruha Nichiro Corp. told the newspaper. The company, previously named Taiyo Gyogyo K.K., had been engaged in commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Retailers also expressed apprehension about selling more whale meat.

In 1962, about 233,000 tons of whale meat were consumed in Japan, according to the article. Today, annual consumption ranges between 3,000 tons and 5,000 tons.

BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes tackled the issue two years ago and found that many Japanese were smoothly transitioning to beef. His story and video report show him sampling a chunk of whale meat, which he finds chewy with a gamey flavor. For older folks in Japan, Rupert discovers that whale meat is simply a taste of nostalia.

Amusing Monday: TED Ed video features Southern Resident orcas

Last week, a new animation was posted online describing the matriarchal social structure of our beloved killer whales, in which elder females serve as guides for generations of their living descendants. (See first video.)

The new video, part of the TED Ed collection of animations, focuses on the 74 Southern Resident orcas and how they stay with their mothers for life. The video’s creator, animal behaviorist Darren Croft, credits the Center for Whale Research with studies that have successfully identified every filial relationship among the Puget Sound orcas for more than 40 years.

The TED Ed collection includes hundreds of animations created by TED Conferences LLC, the media organization responsible for nearly 3,000 online TED Talks. TED combines the concepts Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) and operates under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” An annual conference is held in Vancouver, B.C., with smaller events held throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

The Ted Ed series was started six years ago to inspire students to discuss creative ideas, develop innovative concepts and become young leaders. TED Ed has developed a flexible curriculum that can be used by teachers or students themselves. Each video has a “create a lesson” button for teachers or students to adapt the video to their own situation and branch out into other ideas.

Students can organize themselves as a club in an after-school setting, work with a teacher in a classroom, become part of a larger ongoing program. or develop an idea alone or with a partner. The program is designed to teach students from ages 8 to 18 and welcomes participants over age 13. See “Get involved” or review the “frequently asked questions.”

The TED Ed videos cover a multitude of topics, including science, technology, health, history, art, literature, health and even riddles. Some are better than others, but the best ones provide tidbits of information that can actually cause one to change his or her way of thinking. YouTube has a large collection of TED Ed videos.

The new video about orca matrilines offers possible explanations for why female whales have been known to live well beyond their reproductive lifespan. Males and females tend to stay with their mothers for life, although males will interact with other pods for mating. As older females die off, their daughters become the new leaders of the matrilines, which together make up larger pods.

The video, called “The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod,” has more than 142,000 views so far and more than 300 comments.

Other TED Ed videos I found worth watching include the second video on this page, “When will the next ice age happen?” and the third, “Jellyfish predate dinosaurs. How have they survived so long?” Also check out the following or search for subjects from the full list:

McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

If you’ve heard of McNeil Island, you are probably thinking of a former federal or state prison in South Puget Sound — not the rare and exclusive habitat that has won high praise from fish and wildlife biologists.

A derelict boat, estimated at 100 years old, is removed from the McNeil Island shoreline.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

I never realized that McNeil Island was such a gem until I learned about state restoration plans that could lead to near-pristine conditions for the island, located about seven miles southwest of Tacoma.

To be sure, more than 90 percent of the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline remains in a natural state, including large trees bending over the water . The restoration — the result of a longtime planning effort — will focus on discrete areas that have been highly degraded by human activities, some for more than a century.

The first project, completed this week, was the removal of shoreline armoring, creosote pilings and debris in six locations. Close to 1,000 tons of concrete was hauled away by barge along with 55 tons of scrap metal and more than 51 tons of pilings. A 557-foot bulkhead was pulled out along with a derelict boat.

“You can already see how much better the habitat appears with all that armoring and debris gone,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Restoration Program.

“I’m super excited about it,” she added, as she wrapped up the site work. “It takes a lot of planning and permitting, and when you work on something awhile, it is great to see it completed.”

Metal anti-submarine nets, added years ago to McNeil Island’s shoreline, were hauled away during the removal project.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

The concrete debris included what looked like an old building, demolished and tossed down the bank, Monica told me. What appeared to be ceramic tiles from a bathroom were scattered among the pieces of concrete. Metal debris included multiple layers of twisted and tangled anti-submarine netting, apparently brought to the site following World War II.

The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. The shoreline is important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including threatened Chinook. Portions of the beach will provide excellent spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, according to Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Much of the island contains moderate to low-bank waterfront, with about 25 percent identified as “feeder bluffs,” which provide sand and gravel to keep the beaches suitable for forage-fish spawning. Wetlands across the island provide habitat for a multitude of species.

Doris said the ongoing restoration effort has been the result of exceptional collaboration between DNR, WDFW and the state Department of Corrections.

McNeil Island served as the site a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1979. It was the first federal prison in Washington Territory. In 1981, after the federal government decided it was too expensive to operate, the facility was leased by the state of Washington.

In 1984, the state Department of Corrections took ownership of the prison site with 1,324 acres used for buildings and infrastructure. The remainder of the island’s 4,413 acres was dedicated as a permanent wildlife sanctuary under control of WDFW. The deed also transferred ownership of Gertrude and Pitt islands to the state for conservation purposes.

The prison was upgraded during the 1990s with new buildings to serve up to 1,300 inmates. But in 2011 the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure. Today, the facility houses about 300 inmates in a Special Commitment Center for sexually violent offenders who have been civilly committed.

McNeil, Gertrude and Pitt Islands remain closed to public access to protect breeding populations of wildlife. A 100-yard safety zone goes out into the water with warning signs for boaters.

In 2011, DNR established the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, which edges up against Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and includes Anderson Island, McNeil Island and surrounding waters. The idea is to protect shoreline ecosystems in the reserve.

A feasibility report (PDF, 6.3 mb), developed by WDFW and DNR, includes a shoreline survey that identified 10 sites where debris removal would improve the nearshore habitat. Although contractors removed more material than originally estimated for the first six sites, bidding was favorable and costs were held to about $450,000, Monica said. Funding is from DNR’s aquatic restoration account.

The next project, to get underway in January, involves removal of a concrete boat launch, concrete debris and log pilings from the so-called Barge Landing Site at the southern tip of McNeil Island. Funding will come from an account that provides money from a pollution settlement with Asarco, a company that operated a Tacoma smelter that released toxic chemicals over a wide area.

Other projects on McNeil Island involve removing road embankments constructed across three estuaries along with work to restore natural functions. Estuaries provide rearing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. State or federal restoration grants are needed to proceed with those projects. For ongoing information, check out DNR’s website about McNeil Island.

Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.

Amusing Monday: Rare moments frozen in winning wildlife photos

Celebrating the power and beauty of nature, the National Wildlife Federation attracted more than 23,000 photographic entries to its annual photo contest.

Baby Animals category, second place, by Loi Nguyen
Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Winners in the prestigious contest came from seven states — Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia. They represented six nations — Canada, England, Hungary, Kenya and Kuwait as well as the U.S.

“Whether lifelong professionals or avid amateurs, all winners display a love of wildlife and an appreciation of how photography can help bring nature to life in a way that inspires others to take action and protect it, both at home and abroad,” states a news release announcing the winners last Thursday.

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Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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