Orca Network

Orca Network - connecting whales and people in the Pacific Northwest Orca Network is dedicated to raising awareness of the whales of the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats. Orca Network finds ways for people to work together to protect the rich, beautiful, diverse habitats and inhabitants of Puget Sound. An extended clan of Orcinu...
May 26, 2015

Elephant Seal pup born on Whidbey Island!

Ellie the Elephant Seal and pup Ellison, Jill Hein
Ellie the Elephant Seal and pup Ellison, Jill Hein

The past few months have brought our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network a few pleasant surprises! We had our first (as far as we know) elephant seal pup born on Whidbey Island in March, and at least one other pup has appeared in May.The only other elephant seal pup we have had reported in the past was a young pup at Ft. Casey State Park in 2008, that only stayed on the beach for a few hours, so we believe this is the first documented elephant seal pup BORN on Whidbey Island - exciting!

March 19th, a female elephant seal who has returned to her molting site on Mutiny Bay for five or six years in a row  (so well known to local residents that she was named “Ellie”), showed up early this year, and with a cute little black pup! 

Only a single pup is produced at a time, weighing up to about 65 lbs. The pup will molt the black coat and replace it with a silver coat similar to its Mom’s starting at around four weeks. Ellie nursed the pup until he got nice and chubby, tripling his weight (see photos below!), then left the pup around the first week of May. The pup remained on the beach for another few weeks and now appears to have left the beach to learn to feed on his own.

This has been a ‘literature perfect’ chronicle watching “Ellie” and her son “Ellison” do exactly what they were expected to do. When Ellie left town, Ellison was a very plump pup, left all alone. After a few weeks he started venturing into the water to test the food supply. He has been on the move, changing his black coat to silver, and is looking very dapper and we believe he has moved on.

Another young elephant seal appeared on a beach further north on West Whidbey Island at Lagoon Pt, on May 20th - days after Ellison left Mutiny Bay - but it appears to be a younger pup than Ellison so we don't believe it is him showing up on a new beach, but another recently born and weaned elephant seal pup.

Ellie, as an adult can weigh up to 1700 lbs. Her pup can eventually weigh as much as 5000 lbs and will develop a large “proboscis” with age. He will also develop a chest shield of keratinized skin as protection against injury when they fight with other males for breeding territory.
 
Once a very rare sight in our region, Elephant seals are being seen more often on Whidey Island beaches, and the reports our Stranding Network responds to help us monitor the abundance of this species. The increased sightings we have been seeing supports recent research which shows the California breeding stock of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) has doubled in abundance from 1987 to 2006 and individuals are frequently observed in the Salish Sea year-round (Carretta et al. 2011). It is exciting to collect data through our CPSMMSN to assist elephant seal  researchers, and very fun to see these darling elephant seal pups on our beaches in the spring!

Also of note, Stephanie Norman, DVM, MS, PhD, the marine mammal vet on our CPSMMSN team, attended the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Regional Meeting in March to represent our work at this NOAA Fisheries sponsored meeting. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Regional Meeting took place to bring together marine mammal stranding responders and health researchers who cover the nearshore waters and shorelines of Washington, Oregon, and California, representing a total of 31 organizations. See attached photo of the posters she brought to the meeting - one about the work the CPSMMSN does, the other on our B Cell Lymphoma porpoise case.

Thanks to YOU, our supporters, for making all of this possible, and enabling us to contine our volunteer response efforts during the upcoming busy stranding season ~

Ellie and pup Ellison, April 2nd, Jill Hein
Ellie and pup Ellison, April 2nd, Jill Hein
Ellison the Elephant seal pup, May 5, the Wegners
Ellison the Elephant seal pup, May 5, the Wegners
Weaned, chubby Ellison! Apr. 8, Sandy Dubpernell
Weaned, chubby Ellison! Apr. 8, Sandy Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S.Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S.Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S Dubpernell
Lagoon Pt. Elephant seal pup, May 20, S Dubpernell

Links:


Attachments:
May 26, 2015

Spring time is Gray whale season!

Gray whale #22, photo by Jill Hein
Gray whale #22, photo by Jill Hein

Though our name is Orca Network, our Whale Sighting Network tracks more than orcas - and each spring is when we welcome the North Puget Sound Gray whales to our Whidbey Island waters!

10 - 12 North Puget Sound Gray whales have been identified by Cascadia Research, and their comings and goings tracked since the early 1990s. Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network has greatly added to their whale sightings data for this small group of Gray whales, and with the advent of new technologies, more and more is being learned about them.

It was originally assumed these were all older male whales, who were not making the full migration south to the mating and birthing lagoons. But through DNA testing, we now know that at least several of this group are female, and looking back through the decades of sightings data, we can see years when they didn't come into Puget Sound, presumably the years they had a calf and lingered longer in the lagoons of Baja, Mexico (where Orca Network takes a group each year on a guided trip to a whale camp in San Ignacio Lagoon - more info. on our website).

This year Orca Network has worked with the City of Langley, Cascadia Research and the Dept. of Natural Resources to help determine whether the density of ghost shrimp, which is why these Gray whales come to our area, is enough to sustain both the whales and the commercial ghost shrimp harvesters, who harvest the shrimp for bait. The commercial harvest was temporarily halted by DNR this past year, and we have already seen a change in the whales' feeding patterns - they are returning to beaches that were once their favorites, but had been abandoned in the past five or six years. Thanks to Orca Network board member Fred Lundahl, we also have some great aerial photos of feeding pits, and are able to compare them from year to year, to see how much the whales have been feeding, and where. Cascadia Research also deployed suction cup tags onto several of the whales this year, to obtain dive data, track movements, and record video of the whales swimming and feeding, showing close underwater interaction between the whales, which is something we haven't seen from surface viewing.

Orca Network continues to partner with Cascadia Research to educate the public about this special group of Gray Whales that visits each spring, and are working on a new display for the Langley Whale Center about the whales and the decades of research done by Cascadia. And each April, Orca Network celebrates the return of these majestic Gray whales with our Welcome the Whales Day Parade and Festival, a fun family event which also includes a presentation on gray whales, this year's speaker being James Sumich, author of E. robustus: The Biology and Human History of Gray Whales.

The Gray whales typically show up in Puget Sound waters around the beginning of March, and leave by sometime in mid to late May. It is not known why this small group of Grays comes in to feed on ghost shrimp each spring, or why other Gray whales don't seem to be aware of this food source here, but the arrival of the Grays each season is a delight to everyone on our stranding network, hoping to catch a glimpse of a spout, a fluke, spyhop, or whales feeding close to shore. In turn, each report we get of Gray whales from the people enjoying them from our many miles of shorelines, is important data used by researchers to monitor the health of the Gray whales, their habitat and their food sources.

Your support helps keep the Whale Sighting Network going, and we truly appreciate your help!

Patch, easiest to identify! by Jill Hein
Patch, easiest to identify! by Jill Hein
Gray whale #383, by Susan Berta
Gray whale #383, by Susan Berta
Gray whale #22, with red suction cup tag attached
Gray whale #22, with red suction cup tag attached
Gray whale #22 surfacing, photo by Jill Hein
Gray whale #22 surfacing, photo by Jill Hein
Langley whale watchers observe Gray whale feeding
Langley whale watchers observe Gray whale feeding
Welcome the Whales Day Parade critters
Welcome the Whales Day Parade critters

Links:

Feb 22, 2015

Stranding Network funding slated for deep cuts

Harbor seal response chart 2014
Harbor seal response chart 2014

As we begin preparation for our busy spring and summer stranding season, we have been told that the NOAA Fisheries budget for the entire Marine Mammal Stranding Program nationwide is slated for even more substantial cuts again this year, including money for staffing of the Prescott Marine Mammal Stranding Program. Recent budget cuts have already hurt our program, and these proposed cuts will further impact our ability to respond/investigate many strandings as well as curtail our research project begun several years ago to determine comparative levels of certain toxins in our local marine mammals.

All told, we received a total of 17 harbor porpoise calls in 2014.

We were able to collect nine carcasses for necropsy.  The others were either too scavenged or decomposed to be of value or floated out to sea before they could be collected. Additional testing for the presence of cancer causing viruses in the harbor porpoise found to have lymphoma (reported to GlobalGiving last November) is being considered if funds can be found. The information gathered from Harbor porpoise necropsies not only provides up to date information on the health of our Harbor porpoise population, but also translates into how the ocean habitat is doing and what toxins are increasing, which is valuable information that also relates to our endangered Southern Resident orcas who share the same waters and eat a similar diet.

The attached chart “Harbor Seals - 2014” shows the number of harbor seals reported to our stranding network. July through September is our busiest season for birthing and weaning of pups.  We provide extensive education to the public on how to share our island with harbor seals and to make people aware of the necessity to avoid disturbing newborn pups and their nursing mothers. Nevertheless, harbor seals still suffer an approximately 50% mortality in their first year of life due mainly to human interference and predation by transient (meat-eating) orcas.  

Despite funding cuts to NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding program, the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network continues to respond to stranded porpoise, seal pups, molting elephant seals (see photo), and the occasional Gray whale or sea lion stranding, thanks to supporters like YOU! And we continue to provide public education via our website and Orca Network's Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island, WA, where many of our marine mammal specimens are on display.

We truly appreciate the donations received via GlobalGiving that enable us to support the work of our veterinarians and numerous volunteers investigating why our marine mammals are dying in the Salish Sea.

Our sincere thanks, we truly could not do it without your support!

Molting Elephant seal, Whidbey Island, WA
Molting Elephant seal, Whidbey Island, WA

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