Tag Archives: Humpback Whale

For humpback whale, so many fish, so little luck

This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, which keeps moving away. Photos by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
A lone humpback whale swims into a huge school of herring, but the fish keep moving away.
Photo by Rich Brenner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck, probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached, the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the water.

“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and clear water probably did not favor it.”

In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued, the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see, he said.

“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”

The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon before their release.

The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in Prince William Sound.

Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.

The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s, large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said. Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully recovered.

“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he said.

As stated in an announcement by ADFG:

“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days (south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head), and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”

Another good source of information on herring is the Prince William Sound Science Center.

The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the fish, as it surges to the surface.
The humpback whale may have caught up with some of the herring, as it surges to the surface.

Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet
Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.

Here’s Jim’s message for the year:

“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”

I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.
A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Humpback is back, swimming in Dabob Bay

A humpback whale, first seen in Hood Canal three weeks ago, was spotted again today.
Photo by Connie Gallant, Greenfleet Monitoring Expeditions

History repeated itself today on Dabob Bay, where Connie and JD Gallant were conducting research when a humpback whale surfaced nearby — just as events unfolded three weeks ago when the couple first reported the animal. See Water Ways, Jan. 31, for the initial report and some background on humpbacks.

Connie called me early this afternoon from her boat on Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay, then she sent a photo and e-mail with this description:

“We spotted it close to 12:20 p.m., and it put on a nice little show for about 10 minutes, then disappeared — same pattern as on 1/27. It was playing in same area, between Taylor Shellfish Labs and Broadspit.

“I was again on the computer inputting data as we headed north on Dabob Bay when JD yelled the same, ‘Whale off the port bow!’ This time, I did not hesitate flying out of the cockpit, grabbing camera on the way.”

Connie has a hunch that the whale likes her boat, the Sea Turtle:

“If you take a peek at the contour of the bottom of the Sea Turtle (see Greenfleet website), you will see that it has 2 keels and a skag on the stern. We think that this shape must be of interest to the whale, and it is saying ‘hello’ to the Turtle!

“And, just as the last time, it was totally awesome to watch it frolic. I absolutely cannot believe our fortune.”

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

Whale crashes into sailboat, leaves a bit of blubber

In a most unlikely accident, a 30-foot humpback whale breached out of the water during a sailboat race in the Pacific Ocean Thursday, snapping off the mast of L’Orca, one of boats in the race.

A breaching humpback whale crashed into this sailboat, L'Orca, breaking off the mast and leaving other damage.
Associated Press photo

Then the whale was gone, leaving behind only bits of scraped-off skin and blubber, a broken mast and some messed up rigging. The boat could not continue in the Oregon International Offshore Race.

The accident occurred about 30 minutes into the race, which began at 9 a.m. at Buoy 2 near Astoria, Ore., with a destination of Victoria, B.C.

Ryan Barnes, son of boat owner Jerry Barnes of Sandy, Ore., provided this account to U.S. Coast Guard officials in a video posted by the Daily Astorian:

“Our boat speed was about 9 knots over the water. All of a sudden, a few inches or a foot maybe off the starboard side, a whale came breaching out of the water … hit the mast about halfway to three-quarters of the way up and proceeded to fall forward off the starboard side of the boat.

“The mast came down as well as the forestay and all the rigging, and our toe rail and all our lifelines on the starboard side of the boat were demolished as well. No crew was injured. The crew was all in the cockpit at the time.”

After the whale was gone, the crew came out on deck and cleared the lines and other hazards. Other boats in the race came to assist before the Coast Guard arrived to provide assistance to Astoria. The Coast Guard video also shows the damage to the boat and bits of blubber left behind.

The incident sounds similar to a whale-boat encounter last summer off South Africa, when a southern right whale crashed into a sailboat. In a video by CBS News, technicians were able to slightly enhance the original video taken from another boat. Here’s an interview on The Today Show with the boat’s occupants.

Humpback whale rescue may not be over

Boaters and shoreside observers along the Washington and British Columbia coasts are being asked to watch for a humpback whale dragging lines with buoys attached.

When the Cascadia team first encountered the humpback whale, it had multiple lines wrapped around it. The line around its head was one of those later cut off. (Click to enlarge)
Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research in Olympia called me last night to report that his crew had failed to find the whale yesterday after helping to free the animal of several tangled lines attached to multiple crab pots the day before.

Work on Thursday off La Push involved cutting lines to free the head, back and tail of the humpback. Short video segments, which can be downloaded from Cascadia’s website, reveal how difficult this work was for the crew, consisting of Calambokidis, Jeff Foster and Annie Douglas.

As the crew struggled to free the lines Thursday, the wind and seas became rough and hard to deal with, so team returned to shore to get additional tools they would need to free the whale, John said in a report on Cascadia’s website. “They had also sustained self-inflicted damage to their boat during the effort (a puncture of one of the pontoons) that was repaired on the 13th (Thursday),” he wrote.

Even though the whale was not found yesterday, John said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the animal is OK, though it probably still has some lines attached.

He said the whale may have become more mobile as a result of the crew’s success in freeing some of the lines. A fisherman Thursday night apparently saw the animal about a mile from where it had become entangled.

Friday’s search by boat failed to spot the whale or pickup a signal from a VHF transmitter that had been attached to one of the buoys. The transmitter has a range of about 10 miles but does not transmit under water, so either the whale moved a good distance from where it was or else the buoy had somehow become submerged.

The Coast Guard has been transmitting a message up and down the coast asking mariners to watch for the whale.

The Cascadia Team as well as Makah tribal boats are on standby this weekend to rescue the whale if it is sighted. Anybody who spots the animal is asked to report the location but not approach the animal or cut any lines, since the VHF transmitter is probably still attached.

The national Marine Mammal Hotline to call with reports is 1-800-853-1964.