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Oct 19, 2017

Orca Specimen for Whale Center; Porpoise Health

Samish Elder blesses the orca calf remains
Samish Elder blesses the orca calf remains

 Historic Orca Calf Remains are New Display for the Langley Whale Center

There was a very special addition to our Langley Whale Center last month- the partial skull of an orca calf. What makes this skull so special to all orca lovers on the island is its history.

   On August 8, 1970 entire families of orca were herded into Penn Cove by men intending to capture young calves for the marine park industry. During the brutal capture procedure several calves died. Their bodies were slit open, filled with rocks and sunk, hoping they would never be found. But months after the capture a partial skull of one of the calves washed up on the beach close to the capture site and was collected and stored by a Coupeville resident. This skull was donated to Orca Network, via a volunteer related to the person who found it, and it now is part of our NOAA Fisheries registered marine mammal specimen collection. After reconstruction by experts at the Burke Museum in Seattle, the skull was blessed during a healing ceremony on Penn Cove by Samish Tribal Elders for whom the orca is an integral part of their heritage. The orca calf skull, or remains, is now on display in a glass case in the Langley Whale Center with information about the Penn Cove orca captures, and will be surrounded by a dried seaweed wreath per instructions from the Samish Elders, to keep it connected to the ocean world.

   This new display is very timely, as our Langley Whale Center just moved to a larger building in early October, so we have 500 additional square feet of display space! Along with the orca calf skull, there will be two other fine new additions to the Whale Center now that we have moved to a larger venue: a 6 foot long gray whale skull and a 10 foot long fin whale skull are on their way.

   Thanks to your generous donations, the Langley Whale Center is quickly becoming a first class little museum and education center for marine mammals and is attracting thousands of visitors each year, educating them about the work being done by the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Orca Network's other programs.

 

Harbor Porpoise Problems Continue

   Four recent necropsies of harbor porpoises have revealed infections, from possibly previously unknown organisms. One porpoise, in addition to exhibiting signs of gill net entanglement, was diagnosed with a protozoal infection, mostly consistent with toxoplasmosis. Additional testing is needed to further characterize the protozoan. Toxoplasmosis can infect humans and is found in uncooked meat, contaminated water and in cat feces (recall the warnings about being careful when cleaning out cat litter pans).

   A second porpoise died of an unidentified lung infection, plus had an infestation of nematodes (worms found in raw fish), and also many parasitic liver flukes.

   Two other porpoises exhibited a fungal infection believed to be caused by a member of the mucormycetes group – molds that live in the soil in decaying matter. They can cause infection through breathing in of their spores or entry through a break in the skin of both humans and marine mammals.

   Tissue samples have been sent to several laboratories for further, more specific, identification of the mold with no success. Our veterinarian, Dr. Stephanie Norman is in the process of obtaining a CITES* permit for submission of samples to a marine mammal Microbiologist expert in the UK for further identification. It is suspected that this mold may be a new species.

 Many thanks for your generous donations that help us to obtain  more information on what is causing these ever increasing illnesses in our beloved harbor porpoises in Puget Sound. The information learned from Harbor porpoise necropsies is also of importance to the health of endangered Southern Resident orcas in our region, one of NOAA's "Species in the Spotlight" (the most critically endangered species in the country). In fact, one of the recent orca deaths was contributed to the same fungal infection found in several porpoises we have necropsied. So continuing to investigate the health of porpoises will ultimately reveal key insights into the health of our endangered orcas as well.

* Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species 

Fin whale skull - new specimen for Whale Center
Fin whale skull - new specimen for Whale Center
Gray whale skull - new specimen for Whale Center
Gray whale skull - new specimen for Whale Center
Orca Calf skull remains on display at Whale Center
Orca Calf skull remains on display at Whale Center
Porpoise Necropsy with the CPSMMSN Team
Porpoise Necropsy with the CPSMMSN Team

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Jul 27, 2017

Entanglement, Disease, and Human Interference

Seal pup on the beach, photo by Sandy Dubpernell
Seal pup on the beach, photo by Sandy Dubpernell

Oh, So Cute!

We are in the middle of harbor seal pupping season in Central Puget Sound, and all around the Salish Sea. In comparing the number of calls received in previous years, it appears that we are consistent with an average of about 90 reports by this time through July. The phone calls and e mail reports are flooding in and we still have another several weeks until pups are weaned and strong enough to be on their own.

During these summer months it is a continuing effort to educate new residents and the thousands of tourists who have never seen a seal pup on the beach and are concerned about its welfare. We hand out flyers, write newspaper articlesshare posts on social media and give talks on how to share the shore with seal pups and other marine mammals.                                                                                                                                                                         Rule #1: leave it alone!

Observe and take photos from afar. The beach is mom’s nursery for her baby while she is out at sea finding food so she can nurse the pup when she returns. This is normal behavior, and humans approaching too closely may disturb the pup and/or prevent the mom from returning, as adult seals are shy of people and often moms will usually wait until people leave the beach before returning to her pup.

What can we learn from a Harbor porpoise necropsy?                                                                                               or, More Porpoise Problems...

Last quarter we told you about a harbor porpoise that died of a suspected fungal infection. So far, tests have not been able to identify the causative agent, so more sophisticated, specific and costly tests will have to be employed to get the answers we need.

A more recent necropsy on a harbor porpoise showed evidence of human interaction, specifically a fisheries interaction. There were several lines and grooves in the skin indicating that the animal had at some time been caught in a fishing net. However, contributing to the demise of the animal was also a massive infection in his thoracic cavity suspected to be caused by a fungus or bacterium, so entanglement may have actually been a blessing for this unfortunate porpoise who was in very poor health.

A second adult male harbor porpoise had a large number of growths in the lungs and most of his left kidney was displaced by a huge nodular mass. The causative agent(s) are still to be identified, and further testing is ongoing.

Often we have to submit multiple samples to different labs, for a variety of tests, to try to solve the mystery of what caused a marine mammal's death. New, emerging diseases and pathogens are being identified, and the tests conducted provide data important to all marine mammal species. Thanks to your support, we are fortunate to work with Stephanie Norman, DVM, MS, PhD as our Marine Mammal Vet. Stephanie is not only an amazing veterinarian and source of knowledge, she is an excellent and patient teacher, teaching our staff and volunteers how to conduct a necropsy, collect samples, and attempt to determine cause of death for the stranded marine mammals we respond to. 

We are so appreciative of your support in helping us to identify what is killing these beautiful animals and sickening their ocean home, and often, the condition of these animals and their ocean habitat is a reflection of our own human population and the threats we are facing as well.

Thanks again for your ongoing support, to help us through each seal pup season, each necropsy, stranding response and educational activity, all on behalf of the beautiful beings of the Salish Sea.                                     We could not do it without your help!

Seal pup, photo by Sandy Dubpernell
Seal pup, photo by Sandy Dubpernell
Seal pup nursing on boat floats, waiting for mom
Seal pup nursing on boat floats, waiting for mom
Indentations from net entanglement are obvious
Indentations from net entanglement are obvious
Here are highlighted net marks on this porpoise
Here are highlighted net marks on this porpoise
Sandy Dubpernell, the vital force behind CPSMMSN!
Sandy Dubpernell, the vital force behind CPSMMSN!

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Jul 27, 2017

Changes in Whale Sightings in the Salish Sea

So. Resident Orca J40 off Pt. Roberts, B. Gretz
So. Resident Orca J40 off Pt. Roberts, B. Gretz

SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES

“Our hearts burst happy with the news that J pod was encountered off Sooke the morning of May 7th heading east. Js continued the journey towards Race Rocks, Victoria, and Haro Strait , making the west side of San Juan Island and passing Lime Kiln State Park early/mid afternoon. They continued north. The morning of the 8th members of J pod were encountered in Rosario Strait and again went about their business of searching for salmon on their travels north to Georgia Strait.”

That was the first for the spring inland travels by Southern Residents. Js came and went a few times, the L12s came in mid June and other members of L pod peeked in late June but there was not enough Fraser River Chinook salmon to bring them all the way inland.

The K14s showed up with J pod and L87 at the end of June and stayed inland for a few days up north before heading out overnight June 30th/July 1st. It was another 17 days before any residents were seen again. July 17th members of L pod made it to San Juan Island where they spent some time and left the next day. July 23rd brought the L4s in the morning while J pod & L87 (who travels with J pod) and other subgroups of L  pod came from the west. They all met up off San Juan Island, shuffled back and forth before committing to heading north, and by mid evening they were approaching Canadian waters.  It was a beautiful and special day watching this many residents spending the entire day foraging and socializing off the west side. It is sad and concerning that it is a rare occasion and we still await the arrival of the rest of K pod. Albion test fisheries counts tell us Fraser River Chinook salmon numbers are flatlined, there just isn’t enough food to bring and keep the residents fed while inland.  Historically some combination of Js, Ks, and Ls kept a daily presence off San Juan Island throughout the summer months, it just isn’t the case any more.

BIGG’S/TRANSIENT KILLER WHALES

In the absence of Resident orcas, Bigg’s/Transient killer whales (mammal eating type) have been overly abundant traveling in family groups and large gatherings on a daily basis around the entire Salish Sea basin.  The influx and prolonged stays of Bigg's comes and goes. However,  smaller groups and single matrilines continue to cruise inland waters most days throughout the Salish Sea in search of seals, sea lions, porpoise and other marine mammals. 

In our last report we included the group that came in at the end of April. Many of them stayed over a few weeks cruising the South Sound.

Monday May 8th at least 4 pods were traveling together and/or in close proximity to one another in North Puget Sound when they gathered for a predation event off the shores of Richmond Beach in the city of Shoreline just north of Seattle. It was here many beach goers and those who follow whales stood awestruck as this superpod converged on a sea lion a few hundred yards offshore and then within feet of shore to recapture their tired and injured prey.

We have had consistent inland encounters this spring and early summer around Whidbey Island and all of inland Puget Sound as these larger groups come in together, split off from one another, regroup and split in different configurations. Two matrilines that have been traveling regularly together (T34s and T37Bs) include two new calves, T34B and T37B2)

HUMPBACKS

Humpbacks have been keeping a regular presence with growing numbers as summer progresses. One individual, known humpback BCX1251 “Orion” was documented regularly for about five to six weeks beginning at the end of April, feeding from Edmonds to Tacoma. Another humpback with no official ID (who has a distinct dot on her/his left side dorsal)  spent two months in South Puget Sound, primarily keeping to Case Inlet. Others joined this whale at times in the South Sound, while others have come and gone throughout all areas of Puget Sound. Just this week an unidentified humpback who was photographed in Rosario Strait on July 10th, was photographed south of the Clinton ferry dock on South Whidbey July 22nd. It was our sighting network that allowed us to make a match. 

GRAYS

A few of the grays from the returning  population of Gray whales known now as the North Puget Sound Grays (or “Sounders”) stayed around North Puget Sound until the latter part of May.  Grays #22, #44, & #383 were confirmed on May 6th and #22 was again confirmed from air during feeding pit surveys conducted on May 21st!

Our sighings network received many reports of Gray whales in Birch Bay early to mid May where there had not been sightings or reports for many years.

We have also received reports (with photos confirming grays by Cascadia Research) of at least two other stray grays off North Seattle July 6th, at the same time two others were off the west side of Whidbey near Anacortes. (Alie Perez, Cascadia Research, ID’d one of them as female CRC698, " a well known PCFG (Pacific Coast Feeding Group ) animal who has been seen every year since 2002 but never in the Sound…”). That is at least four gray whales in the month of July! 

Some things remain somewhat predictable while others are changing dramatically. We are now regularly seeing mammal eating orcas and humpbacks inland Puget Sound nearly year round, and now occasional healthy stray grays  which sometimes leads to confusion and misidentification as people adjust to the changes. For example, one whale mid July was reported as as a gray, a humpback, and an orca in part because people may not yet be aware other species are recolonizing and now calling Puget Sound home once again.  Our network also provides a place to report and keep track of unusual species such as the pod of Common dolphins we’ve included in previous updates of whom five to six remain, and occasionally a larger group is seen. Their presence allows us the opportunity once again to educate people of the different species, who is native and who has found themselves in waters outside their usual range.

We work diligently to educate and keep everyone current on the commonly seen species, rare species, and recolonizing species they are encountering so we can keep as accurate a record as possible. Without support such as yours, we simply could not keep up with the ever-growing volume of sightings and reports, which increases the amount of time to educate our Whale Sighting Network followers and contributors on the various whales, their current status, the challenges they face, how to safely and respectfully share the water (Be Whale Wise boating regulations) etc. These reports are also shared with researchers and agencies around the Salish Sea and beyond, so they contribute important data to those working to understand changes in habitat for the many different species we are fortunate to see in our urban and rural waterways.

We hope you have enjoyed this update and the photos and videos of the beautiful whales of the Salish Sea. If you would like to be on our Whale Sighting Network Email list to learn more about these whales, go to www.OrcaNetwork.org and click on "mailing lists" in the upper right hand corner to sign up.

With heart-felt appreciation of your care and support of the whales and the work of Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Network, thank you!

Transient Orcas, Bush Pt, Whidbey Isl, H. Garrett
Transient Orcas, Bush Pt, Whidbey Isl, H. Garrett
Transient Orcas T65As, Lummi Island, Bonnie Gretz
Transient Orcas T65As, Lummi Island, Bonnie Gretz
Lunge-feeding Humpback, Mutiny Bay, M. Armbruster
Lunge-feeding Humpback, Mutiny Bay, M. Armbruster
Humpback in Dalco Passage, Tacoma, Jill Clogston
Humpback in Dalco Passage, Tacoma, Jill Clogston
July "PCFG" Gray whales, Rosario Strait, B. Gretz
July "PCFG" Gray whales, Rosario Strait, B. Gretz

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