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Jun 18, 2019

Joy and Heartbreak - Whales of the Salish Sea

New J pod calf-Tofino BC, May 30th, by John Forde
New J pod calf-Tofino BC, May 30th, by John Forde

This update brings a mix of joy and heartbreak…you might need a hankie ~

 

SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS

Just a week after sending out our last report, news that L pod had showed up in Monterey Bay, California reverberated through the community! No word since on their whereabouts, but with no inland sightings it is safe to say still out in the Pacific somewhere, same with K pod who hasn’t been seen since January when in Puget Sound.

Hopeful and heartwarming news came in late May which is the last confirmed sighting we have of any of the Southern Residents:

The Center for Whale Research has received photographs taken by the Tofino Whale Centre of a calf accompanying J pod off of Tofino, British Columbia on May 30, 2019.

Researchers at the CWR have confirmed that the calf is a new addition, and based on its coloration and body condition was likely born some time in the last 1 to 3 weeks. The calf was photographed in association with several J pod females, including J31, J46, and J40. More field observations are needed to confirm the identity of the calf’s mother.

Prior to 2019, the Southern Resident killer whale population had no documented successful births since 2016. This calf marks the second birth of 2019, following L124 in January.

Orca Network looks forward to meeting and helping document the life and travels of this new little one when J pod returns to inland waters of the Salish Sea. Prior to their travels out to the Pacific, Js spent winter/early spring in the upper Georgia Strait with time in the lower Gulf and San Juan Islands, and two April days in Puget Sound, one of which they spent feeding on Blackmouth Chinook one sunny Sunday in glassy calm seas in the great wide open between Edmonds, South Whidbey, and the Kitsap Peninsula

 

BIGG’S TRANSIENT ORCAS

In this last period, dozens of matrilines of Bigg’s Transients (mammal eating type) have been traveling the inland waters feeding on the smaller cetaceans of the Salish Sea. As I write this report one of the more resident families, T137s, a mom and her three offspring, are on their fourth day in Puget Sound.

Another more resident family, the T65As spent several weeks accumulatively over April and May in Puget Sound. They were here around this same time last year for stays with a new calf, the now one-year-old T65A6. The excitement meter rose one April afternoon when one of the males traveling with this family turned out to be T63 aka Chainsaw (named so due to his distinct dorsal fin), presumed to be the older brother of T65A. While seen in the San Juans within the past two years, it had been many years between sightings in Puget Sound proper.

 

GRAY WHALES

Of the “Sounders” (North Puget Sound grays) 10 of those known prior to 2018 showed up this year along with two of the 2018 newbies who hung around. We don’t yet have an accurate picture of how many of the 2019 newbies were feeding regularly around North Puget Sound, but at least five to six. Numerically there are 10 new whales in 2019, but not all found the bounty this far inland. Along with the healthy whales, a large number of whales are showing up in poor condition and as a result many have died. These numbers all up and down the migration route are well above the norm.

We have been helping track the arrivals and deaths of the grays this year during what has now been declared by NOAA Fisheries as an Unusual Mortality Event (see links below), some one time sightings, and others who were in poor condition when they arrived and died in our inland waters.

The Sounders and at least several of the new grays by all accounts were looking healthy and well fed during their stay here this spring. As of writing this update (mid June) it appears at least all of the old-timers have exited Puget Sound except #21 Shackleton who on most days can be found in Port Susan feeding and traveling about. Along with Shackleton we are still receiving reports of others around Puget Sound proper and in the eastern reaches of Juan de Fuca Strait off west side of Whidbey Island.

We’ve no idea what effect so many new grays in search of food will have on the ghost shrimp resources that feed our returning population of grays. The reason for the influx of grays is in response to a shortage of food at the northern end of the gray whale migration. In response to the increase in deaths NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event. 

NOAA Fisheries declares elevated West Coast gray whale strandings an Unusual Mortality Event

“NOAA Fisheries is declaring an unusual spike in strandings of gray whales along the West Coast an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) providing additional resources to respond to the strandings and triggering a focused scientific investigation into the cause….”

NOAA has also created a Dedicated UME website

 

HUMPBACK HIT BY WSFs

Happily humpbacks are streaming in in good numbers throughout the Salish Sea. Sadly, at the end of May a young humpback whale was struck by a Washington State Ferry in Elliott Bay, along the downtown Seattle waterfront just minutes after the ferry left the dock. By all accounts the whale was unaware of the presence of the ferry and surfaced just feet in front of the bow. Many entities, including Orca Network, are working to take measures to lessen the impacts of boats on all of the whales with whom we share these waters. You can read more on this heartbreaking story as whale strikes could get more common as humpback numbers grow.

A recent sighting submitted is a great example of the value of our Whale Sighting Network and the Whale Sighting Report: a gray whale who was observed, photographed, and reported to Orca Network feeding in western Juan de Fuca Strait early June turned out to be a match to a gray whale who was in Sooke Harbor, BC mid May. Because this was a repeat sighting and provided information the whale was hanging around the area for a length of time, Cascadia Research gave her/him the ID of CRC2257.

As more people become aware of and concerned for the needs for healthy food and clean habitats, especially in times of births, deaths, UME’s etc, the work of the Whale Sighting Network increases. Orca Network simply could not provide the resources and accomplish all the work we do without support like yours to this ever growing Whale Sighting Network. We are grateful to you and thankful for whatever support you can contribute at this time.

J38 Apr. 7, Useless Bay, Whidbey Isl, Bonnie Gretz
J38 Apr. 7, Useless Bay, Whidbey Isl, Bonnie Gretz
"Chainsaw" Apr.17, Admiralty Inlet, Howard Garrett
"Chainsaw" Apr.17, Admiralty Inlet, Howard Garrett
Friends Shackleton & Earhart, Mar.31, by Jill Hein
Friends Shackleton & Earhart, Mar.31, by Jill Hein
Deceased Gray, Everett, WA May 5, A. Lemire Brooks
Deceased Gray, Everett, WA May 5, A. Lemire Brooks

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Jun 18, 2019

The Adventures of Elsie Mae the elephant seal

Elsie Mae as a pup, March 2018,Alisa Lemire Brooks
Elsie Mae as a pup, March 2018,Alisa Lemire Brooks

First I want to caution you that this was a very unusual situation and in many ways in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act which asks that people stay back 100 feet, and to not harass or interfere with the animal in any way.

However, all of these situations were initiated by the animal herself, so people stayed away as best they could. There were teams of “seal sitters”, including our Stranding Network volunteers, law enforcement, park rangers and many local residents keeping her safe from harm to herself, and to the public – she is an unpredictable wild animal.

Elsie Mae’s curiosity and penchant for human companionship made this very difficult.

Elsie Mae is a young female elephant seal born on Whidbey Island in March of 2018, an unusual situation in itself. After being weaned by Ellie, her mom, shedding her black baby fur and growing into her sleek silver-coated agile body of a juvenile seal, she swam out to sea several weeks later. Cuteness personified.

Fortunately, she had been tagged on her rear flippers with the number 1283 by the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) so she could be tracked, since elephant seal births on Whidbey Island is something we have not experienced much in the past (with the exception of her three year old brother, Ellison, who was born on the same beach as Elsie Mae, and who has returned each year to his favorite haul out on the other side of the island).

Elsie Mae was again spotted in October 2018, about 70 miles away in the San Juan Islands, joining in the parties, picnics and a wedding at a local waterfront park.

She went out to sea again until mid April this year when she arrived at a community park and marina on Fidalgo Island. She seemed particularly fascinated with the road crew repairing the asphalt roadway and parking lot. Being a “party girl" she spent several days there attending weddings, picnics and community events at the marina park. Using yellow tape, barricades and crowder boards to ease her to the water never worked. She would just swim around the barricades and head for the next party.

At this time she was beginning her annual molt. This is a natural procedure where she sheds her year old coat and over a period of a few weeks grows a fresh silvery fur coat. Generally a molting elephant seal becomes lethargic and very inactive, just resting on the beach until this process is over. Elsie Mae, however, seemed to be energized by the process, seeking out more contact with humans and canines.

Eventually, to keep her and the public safe, it was decided to relocate her to a remote, isolated beach on Whidbey Island. WDFW placed her in a crate and trucked her to this site. She descended the ramp, went to the water’s edge and promptly swam away.

The next day she arrived at a state park on Camano Island where she again attended a wedding, and several public community events. She remained there until the end of May under the watchful eyes of the Park Rangers and Stranding Network volunteers. Her molt completed, she went out to sea again and has not been seen since. We all hope that she has found companionship from her own kind and is safe and happy and behaving like a normal wild elephant seal.

These events meant many, many hours of staff and volunteer time trying to keep Elsie Mae and the public safe, and much coordination with state and federal agencies to make the best decisions we could to protect her. Your support helps us respond to the usual, and the unusual, stranding or "situational" events such as this one, and we couldn't do it without your help. 

Elsie,Oct. 2018, San Juan Islands,by San Juan MMSN
Elsie,Oct. 2018, San Juan Islands,by San Juan MMSN
Elsie-Fidalgo Island, April 2019, A. Lemire Brooks
Elsie-Fidalgo Island, April 2019, A. Lemire Brooks
Elsie with barricades & signs, Skyline, C. Ebright
Elsie with barricades & signs, Skyline, C. Ebright
Nothing will stop Elsie from getting to the party!
Nothing will stop Elsie from getting to the party!
Horseshoes, anyone? Elsie at Cama Beach State Park
Horseshoes, anyone? Elsie at Cama Beach State Park

Links:

Mar 25, 2019

Antibiotic Resistance in Marine Mammals - Research Study Update

Dr. Stephanie Norman - porpoise necropsy session
Dr. Stephanie Norman - porpoise necropsy session

Do Pacific Northwest marine mammals carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria from land animals?

Antibiotic resistance, a global concern, is a significant health issue of animals and humans. Resistant bacteria, a growing presence in marine life, are derived from land via humans, animals, and agriculture. Antibiotic resistance is documented in multiple marine species. Data on resistance in marine species in Washington State's inland waters, known as the Salish Sea, is relatively limited.

Preliminary work reported resistance in young harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in rehabilitation and in breath from local southern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca), as well anecdotal reports from stranding necropsies. A larger dataset with multiple species, age classes, and locales is warranted to determine if resistant bacteria exhibit patterns within this urban marine ecosystem, and if they pose a threat to other marine mammals and human health. So we set out to answer the question: What is the prevalence of resistant bacteria present in marine mammals of an urban ecosystem, the Salish Sea, in Washington State?

This crowdfunded and Wildlife Disease Association-supported project seeks to: detect and describe the presence and distribution of antibiotic resistance in two key Salish Sea marine mammal species; determine differences in resistance between harbor seals and harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena); and document geographic patterns. These species were selected because they are abundant and relatively site-specific within the Salish Sea. A cross-sectional sampling study is being conducted to calculate prevalence (%) of resistant bacteria from 69 dead-stranded harbor seals and 69 porpoise, of all age classes and sexes. The study area is divided into northern and southern sampling regions. We hypothesize that resistance prevalence will: be < 5% overall, differ between harbor seals and porpoises and between the two sampling regions. Sterile swabs of the intestines and lesions noted on necropsy are submitted for aerobic culture and sensitivity to a suite of 16 commonly used antibiotics using standard laboratory techniques.

Samples have been collected from ten harbor seals and 5 harbor (Table 1). Preliminary results (% of each species sampled to-date) indicate multi-drug resistant bacteria were detected in four seals (40%) and two porpoises (40%), respectively, with all age classes and sexes involved (see table attached at the end of this report). Swabs for culture and sensitivity were submitted by Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network (n=1), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (n=1), Cascadia Research Collective (n=4), The Whale Museum/San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (n=3), Sno-King Marine Mammal Response (n=2), Seal Sitters (n=1) and Port Townsend Marine Science Center/East Jefferson County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (n=1).

Genotyping and sequencing of E. coli cultures are ongoing. Study results will better define antibiotic resistance prevalence patterns and risk factors in Salish Sea marine mammals. In addition to Orca Network and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, project partners include Marine-Med Washington State Department of Wildlife Cascadia Research CollectiveThe Whale Museum/San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding NetworkWhatcom County Marine Mammal Stranding NetworkWorld VetsPort Townsend Marine Science Center, and Sno-King Marine Mammal Response. Initial support for this project was through Experiment.com , with additional support by the Wildlife Disease Association

YOUR SUPPORT through GlobalGiving provides additional funding for Dr. Norman's work to carry out this project, as well as her work with the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network to respond to and investigate marine mammal strandings, perform necropsies and conduct research on the health of marine mammals of the Salish Sea. 

 

Thank YOU for your support!
Thank YOU for your support!

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