Dec 16, 2019

Fall salmon bring Resident orcas into Puget Sound

J pod off S. Whidbey Island in Sept, M. Armbruster
J pod off S. Whidbey Island in Sept, M. Armbruster

Just days after sending out our last update J pod & L87, and part of K pod, made their first fall foray to the inland waters of Puget Sound chasing after fall salmon returning to their natal rivers to spawn as they do each year.

Over the next few months J pod was in Puget Sound for 14 days in November, 7 days in October, and 9 days in September. The chum and coho salmon that were reluctant to go upstream due to low flows may have provided some sustenance for Js and occasionally K pod as well. Two wonderful videos of Southern Resident orcas by Alisa Lemire Brooks can be found at the links below, so you may enjoy watching these beautiful whales along with all the others lined up on the shoreline to witness their passing

During one of their stays, one human mother took her children on a journey following along with the whales from shore until there was light no more:

…The kids were bathed and in PJ's in their stroller for a truly Magical moment. We could see them under moon light and really hear their blows…

Orca Network provides a place for humans to connect to the whales and learn about their needs and the issues they face. The connections people feel toward the Southern Residents are so strong and deep. Through these connections people gain a strong stewardship ethic and become advocates for this struggling population of orcas which gives hope Js, Ks, and Ls have a fighting chance.

In this time of conflict and concern for the future, it is hard to find accurate, truthful sources of information and impactful courses of action for the environment. Founded in 2001, Orca Network has evolved into a respected world-wide hub of information with programs that generate true progress. Your gift has made an impact on our citizens, whales and all inhabitants of the Salish Sea.

Because of you, our message grows stronger and has greater impact each year. 

You have made it possible for Orca Network to expand our outreach and provide more staffing to keep up with our growing Whale Sighting Network. We can reach out to and involve more people in observing the whales and taking action to protect them, and gather increasing amounts of sightings data for researchers and agencies, all of us working together to provide a brighter future for the next generation of whales, and humans ~

J pod breach - Clinton, Whidbey Isl. R. Snowberger
J pod breach - Clinton, Whidbey Isl. R. Snowberger
J41 & 51, Pt. Robinson, WA in Nov. Jami Cantrell
J41 & 51, Pt. Robinson, WA in Nov. Jami Cantrell
J38 off Clinton, Whidbey Isl in Nov. R. Snowberger
J38 off Clinton, Whidbey Isl in Nov. R. Snowberger
Nov. whale watchers, Vashon Isl A. Lemire Brooks
Nov. whale watchers, Vashon Isl A. Lemire Brooks
J pod breach off Kingston, WA in Oct, by Sara Frey
J pod breach off Kingston, WA in Oct, by Sara Frey

Links:

Sep 17, 2019

Pacific Coast Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event

NOAA Fisheries 2019 Gray Whale deaths chart
NOAA Fisheries 2019 Gray Whale deaths chart

Orca Network's Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, as well as our Whale Sighting Network, have been busy all year assisting NOAA Fisheries, researchers, and other regional Stranding Networks in tracking emaciated gray whales throughout the Salish Sea, and being on call for live or dead stranded gray whales in our stranding region (Island, Skagit and N. Snohomish counties) and beyond. 

Beginning last year, we started to see signs that the gray whale population was not doing well. On our annual trip to San Ignacio Lagoon in March 2018, there were fewer gray whales in the mating/birthing lagoons, and fewer calves being born. In North Puget Sound, where we help monitor a small population of gray whales known as the "Sounders" or North Puget Sound Grays, we had several "new" whales show up in the spring of 2018, to feed on ghost shrimp along with the 10 - 12 regulars who come into North Puget Sound each March - May. That has happened in the past, but usually during years where the food supplies up north in the Bering Sea summer feeding grounds is sparse. What was even more unusual was that several of these new gray whales didn't leave North Puget Sound when the "Sounders" left in late spring - and one of them was still in the area feeding when the Sounders returned in the spring of 2019! This was something Cascadia Research had never seen before in their 30+ years of research, nor had we, in our 20+ years of tracking the gray whales in Puget Sound. 

Spring of 2019 also brought in more "new" whales to North Puget Sound, and many emaciated gray whales  who wandered into the inland waters in search of food, often turning south into Puget Sound waters, some of them dying there. As of this date, we still have at least one gray whale remaining in the area, feeding off the northwest shores of Whidbey Island, months after the others have headed north. On our March 2019 trip to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja we also observed more "skinny" gray whales, and fewer mom/calf pairs - and according to NOAA Fisheries, 50-55% of the free-ranging whales observed in the birthing and mating lagoons in Mexico this winter were reported as “skinny” compared to the annual average of 10-12% “skinny” whales normally seen. Fortunately the mother whales we did see with calves, looked healthy and well fed.

On May 29, 2019, NOAA Fisheries declared an "Unusual Mortality Event" gray whales (warning - this website contains photos of deceased gray whales, but is the only site with complete and constantly updated info. about this issue) - at that time a total of 147 dead whales had been reported, with ~73 dead whales in Mexico, 69 whales in the U.S. (37 in CA; 3 in OR; 24 in WA, 5 in AK), and 5 whales in British Columbia, Canada. For the U.S., the historical 18-year 5-month average (Jan-May) is 14.8 whales for the four states for this same time-period.

As of Sept. 5, 2019, the numbers total 208, with 81 in Mexico; 117 in the US (37 in CA; 6 in OR; 34 in WA; 40 in AK); and 10 in Canada. See NOAA Fisheries chart below for comparison by month to the 18 year  average number of gray whale strandings.

Common findings include emaciation in both dead and live free-ranging whales, but the investigation continues with a research team who is examining reports and lab results from the stranded whales who are  in fresh enough condition to be necropsied and samples tested. Declaring an Unusual Mortality Event (or UME), brings more focus and resources to help the investigation, including significant expertise of a Working Group and an Investigative Team, and assistance from stranding network partners, including volunteer organizations such as CPSMMSN, to respond to gray whale strandings. The UME also triggers the development of a response plan and makes available additional resources to respond to further strandings.

We have not had any gray whale strandings in our region as of yet this year, but one stranded in Everett, WA, just beyond our region, and another who stranded in Seattle was towed to Whidbey Island for necropsy by Cascadia Research and WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. CPSMMSN members observed the necropsy, and a team of our volunteers was allowed to collect baleen for educational purposes, and one of the pectoral fins for display at our Langley Whale Center. Once decomposed, cleaned up and re-articulated, the pec fin will show 1) how LARGE gray whale pec fins are, and 2) how very similar they are to our own human hands. Each spring we observe gray whales feeding on ghost shrimp in our mudflats, so we often see one pec fin extended way above the water as they lie on their side to scoop and suck up the shrimp-filled mud. 

The last gray whale UME took place in 1999/2000, and coincidentally one of the grays who stranded on Whidbey Island is what got our current CPSMMSN started 20 years ago! A group of us responded to volunteer when this whale stranded, and we decided to retrieve the entire skeleton and re-articulate it - and that whale, "Rosie" is still on display at the Coupeville Wharf on Whidbey Island, complete with the baleen installed in the upper jaws, and has educated tens of thousands of visitors to Coupeville about the size, history, and grace of our gray whales. 

As you can see from the last chart below, which compares the current UME to the one that occurred in 1999/2000, we are likely going to see further strandings in the year ahead, and stranding networks such as CPSMMSN are gearing up to be prepared for an increase in the number of gray whale strandings, which is made more difficult given many Stranding Networks (like ours) do not receive any federal or state funds to support the work we do, so support from donors like YOU are very much appreciated! 

Thanks so very much for your interest and support ~ 

Gray whale#185, new to N.Puget Sound 2018, J.Hein
Gray whale#185, new to N.Puget Sound 2018, J.Hein
NOAA chart comparing 2019 UME to 1999/2000 UME's
NOAA chart comparing 2019 UME to 1999/2000 UME's

Links:

Sep 17, 2019

Homecomings, joyful births & heartbreaking deaths

J pod orca kelping, San Juan Island, Cindy Hansen
J pod orca kelping, San Juan Island, Cindy Hansen

SOUTHERN RESIDENTS

Traditionally members of the Southern Resident orcas come inland and forage on Fraser River Chinook April through September and into October. This spring/summer with very low salmon returns, Js, Ks, & Ls stayed away, spending most of their time foraging off the coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island, BC. This year most of May and all of June passed before any of the residents returned to what historically has been their late spring/summer habitat. It wasn’t until July 5th before residents made their way all the way in, finally making the west side of San Juan Island for the first time this summer. Vocals from all three pods could be heard via the hydrophones by us, volunteers and others listening in, but as is sometimes the case, L87 Onyx was the only L pod member present along with Js and Ks. Hearts swelled meeting the newest member J56. The group shuffled up and down the island, then headed north, and the next day headed back out west indicating there wasn’t food to keep them here. Another six weeks would pass before any Southern Residents returned to the inland waters.

In the interim, the Center for Whale Research announced on August 6th the heartbreaking news that one member from each pod, J17 Princess Angeline, K25 Scoter, and L84 Nyssa, was missing and presumed deceased, bringing the total population back down to just 73 members.  CWR’s News release with beautiful images of J17 Princess Angeline, K25 Scoter, & L84 Nyssa can be found HERE.

Mid August J pod ventured in again making Haro Strait sometime the evening of August 14th. Over the next week some came and went, then on the 21st the J16s, along with Ks, and part of L pod came in from the west while the rest of J pod was coming down from north. Some of our staff, volunteers and many others waited at Lime Kiln and other places along the west side of San Juan Island in hopes of what was looking like a potential superpod, but the meet up took place further south after dark and wasn’t a true superpod since all members were not present.

Fall is approaching - the time Southern Residents begin their forays even further inland to feast on Puget Sound chum salmon and the time we gear up, hit the bluffs and beaches in hopes to see our orca friends while we gather data on their foraging & socializing behaviors and travel patterns. For over two decades, our Whale Sighting Network has been a vital tool in helping track the fall/winter inland movements of our beloved endangered Southern Residents and the shifts the pods have made in hunting the now scarce salmon once so abundant.

BIGG’S TRANSIENTS

In contrast, an abundance of prey (marine mammals) means Bigg’s Transient are doing very well. Hundreds of individuals have traveled these inland waterways in family units and larger groups throughout the spring and summer. These mammal eating type orcas can be found and have been documented throughout the Salish Sea everyday.

Some special individuals of note:

          A pale calf was born to T46B1. This rare whale has been given the designation of T46B1B Tl’uk (see photo below),

          T60 showed up with a new calf designated T60G, the first G in the Salish Sea that we know of (see photo below)

          T137A: Late August word that this 17-year-old son of T137, had been behaving abnormally and was struggling to keep up with his family (but who kept a nearby presence, circling back to be with him). Everyone in the whale community was put on alert to keep an eye our for this family, T137A especially. We put our WSN volunteers on alert when he and his family showed up inland Puget Sound. With the help of PWWA, Orca Network staff & Whale Sighting Network volunteers, naturalists and researchers were able to collect images over a two week period which eventually uncovered a gaping wound to his peduncle (see photo below). Much to everyone’s relief, T137A is showing signs of healing both at the wound site and in increased beahvioral activities (tail lobs, keeping up with family, etc). We all hope he his recovery is to an optimum.

GRAY WHALES

Several 2019 new gray whales stayed around Northern Puget Sound into summer and one is still around! 2019 newbie 2253 has been keeping a presence off West Whidbey as recently as late August. 2252 and 2256 also kept a presence well into the summer months.

Sadly in early July another gray whale succumbed and died in our inland waters. After spending several weeks mostly keeping to the upper areas of Case Inlet in southern Puget Sound, an adult male moved south where he died in Budd Inlet, Olympia. Over a three-week period Cascadia Research, NOAA Fisheries and the West Coast Stranding Network team were able to monitor this gray in large part due to our forwarding near daily updates from neighbors and volunteers, sightings which streamed in through our Whale Sighting Network. We were saddened this being lost his life, but relieved his suffering came to an end. Appreciation to the residents, guests, and WSN volunteers who kept an eye out for him and who privately provided updates on his whereabouts which we could pass long to the stranding team. You can read Cascadia Research’s report HERE (warning - this report is about a dead stranded whale and contains graphic photos).

We continue to keep up to date on the Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME) at NOAA’s Dedicated UME Website (warning - this website contains photos of deceased gray whales, but is the only site with complete and constantly updated info. about this issue). Also, see our report on the Gray Whale UME in our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network Global Giving Report HERE.

HUMPBACK

Herds of humpbacks gather out west in Juan de Fuca and others in smaller groups throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea, including a much beloved whale named Two Spot who shows fidelity to Puget Sound. “Two Spot” first showed up in 2015 and has returned each year since. Lately he has been found hanging out in the northern part of the Sound around Edmonds/Kingston, often in the company of at least one other, this week there has been an unknown juvenile and several others coming and going.

With all the population declines, growths, deaths, births, habitat changes, entanglements, strandings, etc., we simply could not do this work and be as effective getting word out, training volunteers and educating the public, without your contributions which help keep this Whale Sighting Network moving forward.

For the whales we extend our deepest gratitude for whatever you can contribute at this time ~

J31 & calf J56, San Juan Island, Dave Ellifrit CWR
J31 & calf J56, San Juan Island, Dave Ellifrit CWR
Pale Bigg's calf T46B1B/Tl'uk, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
Pale Bigg's calf T46B1B/Tl'uk, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
New little Bigg's calf, T60G, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
New little Bigg's calf, T60G, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
Bigg's T137A injury, Brad Hanson, NOAA Fisheries
Bigg's T137A injury, Brad Hanson, NOAA Fisheries
T137A, close to Marrowstone Island, Desiree Suave
T137A, close to Marrowstone Island, Desiree Suave

Links:

 
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