Tag Archives: San Juan Island

Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.

A single green crab invader has been found, the first in Puget Sound

A European green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, has finally arrived in Puget Sound.

Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these animals — including the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound. Photo: Photo Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant
Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these fish, along with the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound.
Photo: Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant

A single adult green crab was caught in a trap deployed on San Juan Island by a team of volunteers involved in a regionwide effort to locate the invasive crabs before they become an established population.

Until now, green crabs have never been found in Puget Sound, although they have managed to establish breeding populations along the West Coast — including Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in Washington and the western side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Coincidentally, I recently completed a writing project on invasive species for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, including a story about green crabs and the volunteer monitoring program.

Here’s what I wrote: “Puget Sound has so far avoided an invasion of European green crabs — at least none have been found — but the threat could be just around the corner….

“Green crabs are but one of the invasive species threatening Washington state, but they are getting special attention because of fears they could seriously affect the economy and ecosystem of Puget Sound. Besides devouring young native crabs and shellfish, they compete for food with a variety of species, including fish and birds.”

Along the beach, careful observers can often find crab molts. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the points on its carapace. Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant
Along the beach, careful observers may find weathered crab molts of all sizes. The green crab, upper left, can be distinguished by the five points on each side of the carapace. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant

In Canada, one breeding population has been identified in Sooke Inlet near the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. That’s about 40 miles away from Westcott Bay, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was found on Tuesday.

It is likely that the crab traveled to San Juan Island in its early free-swimming larval form by drifting with the currents, said Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. This crab likely settled down in suitable habitat and located enough food to grow into an adult. Based on the crab’s size, it probably arrived last year, Jeff told me.

European green crab Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW
European green crab // Photo: Gregory Jensen, UW

Finding a green crab in Puget Sound is alarming, Jeff said, but it is a good sign that the first crab was found by the volunteer monitors. That suggests that the trapping program is working. If this first crab turns out to be a single individual without a mate, then the threat would die out, at least for now.

The concern is that if one crab can survive in Puget Sound, then others may also be lurking around, increasing the chance of male-female pairing. The next step is to conduct a more extensive trapping effort in the area where the first green crab was found, then branch out to other suitable habitats in the San Juan Islands, Jeff said. The expanded effort is planned for the week of Sept. 11 and will include a search for molts — the shells left behind when crabs outgrow their exoskeletons and enter a new stage of growth.

Green crab
Green crab

Researchers and others who work with invasive species quickly recovered from their initial surprise at finding a green crab in Puget Sound, then got down to business in planning how to survey for crabs and manage their potential impacts.

Allen Pleus, coordinator of the Aquatic Invasive Species Program at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me several weeks ago that if green crabs show up in Puget Sound, one idea would be to conduct an extensive trapping program to eradicate or at least reduce their population. First, however, the extent of the infestation must be identified. I expect that more extensive trapping will be planned next spring and summer to look for offspring from any successful mating in the San Juan Islands.

This video shows a green crab found in Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast.

Typically, green crabs are found in marshy areas, which are habitats extensively used by our native hairy shore crab. But Jeff tells me that some populations of green crabs seem to be expanding their habitat into more exposed rocky areas.

With roughly 400 suitable sites for the crabs in Puget Sound, invasive species experts are calling for everyone who visits a beach to look for green crabs and their molts. One can learn to identify green crabs from the Washington Sea Grant website. The volunteer trapping program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency with a grant to Fish and Wildlife.

A public discussion about green crabs and how people can help protect Puget Sound from an invasion is scheduled for Sept. 13 at Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. See Crab Team Public Presentation.

Killer whale experts will watch over young orca troubled by fishing lure

UPDATE 8-7-15
Good news from the Center for Whale Research:

“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39 who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine yesterday, and was behaving normally.”

—–

Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a 12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not appear to be injured.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher — a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the whale’s mouth.

A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday west of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured. Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP
A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday along the west side of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured.
Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP

Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear, though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from its mouth.

“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said. “They are pretty tough.”

Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come forward to describe the setup on his line.

Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however, Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today, the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)

NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the depression appears.

“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets peanut head,” Ken told me.

Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay (west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the information to NOAA Fisheries.

Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release issued this afternoon:

“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”

It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options for helping the animal.

—–

Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago, when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to her native waters.

Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of “Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.

The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit Orca Network’s webpage.

Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
—–

A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Reports of injured killer whale are likely false

I’m happy to inform you that reports of a killer whale being struck off the west side of San Juan Island this morning apparently were false.

Erin Heydenreich, Ken Balcomb and others with the Center for Whale Research spent about two hours on the water this afternoon checking out L-90, a 19-year-old female known as “Ballena.” She was the orca reported to have been struck by a boat going too fast near the whales.

“We got a very good look at her,” Erin noted. “There were no signs of injury or indications that she had been struck.”

She noted that the orca was acting “strange,” including logging at the surface for unusually long times, moving slowly and making brief dives. That may have been one reason that observers believed she had been struck by a boat.

But another explanation for her unusual behavior is that Ballena is pregnant and about to have a calf, she said. That type of behavior has been seen in the past among expectant orca moms.

“She is at that age where she should be having a calf (her first),” she said. “She could be having a difficult pregnancy or something may be wrong with her not related to this vessel thing.”

Erin said officers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife questioned individuals involved with the incident and reported that it was unlikely that any whale was hit.

She said the researchers also checked out J-32, a 15-year-old female that was initially reported in the area. That whale, named “Rhapsody,” also showed no signs of injury.

The Center for Whale Research plans to watch L-90 especially closely the next few days to see if she has a new calf or otherwise changes her behavior.

Craig Bartlett of WDFW confirmed that officers had talked to the occupants of a large pleasure boat that had been moving slowly through the area. They were surprised that anyone believed something was seriously wrong, he said.