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Apr 28, 2017

Salish Sea Whale Sightings Galore!

Gray whales 53 & 56, photo by Dick Snowberger
Gray whales 53 & 56, photo by Dick Snowberger

The inland Salish Sea has been exceptionally busy since our last update. The North Puget Sound Grays returned as they do late February/early March, 10 in total this year; an abundance of Bigg’s/Transient mammal eating type orcas have been cruising inland waters in small and large groupings; Southern Resident Orcas have mostly been absent; good news and sad news on humpbacks and grays; we continued our educational talks and presentations for various communities, schools, and organizations; and we held our annual Welcome the Whales festival weekend where people from all over have a chance to participate in the parade and festival, educational events, and benefit cruise and this year the added beach clean up in partnership with Empty the Tanks’ annual beach clean up. This all made for a full, meaningful, wonderfully connected weekend which offers a fun way to extend our education and awareness campaigns of the whales of the Salish Sea.

GRAYS

The last two days of February brought reports of grays in Port Susan, but it was not until March 2nd that we had a confirmed sighting of the first of the returning North Puget Sound gray whales; the most iconic and well known, #49, Patch. In the following days and weeks nine more (21, 22, 44, 53, 56, 356, 383, 531, & 723)  joined #49 to feed in the areas they know so well around Possession Sound, Port Susan, and Saratoga Passage. Port Susan, south Camano, Oak Harbor and Hidden Beach/Baby Island seemed to be favored spots this year early on with the Hat/Gedney Island more in the latter part of their season.

Sadly, on the morning of April 23rd, near Hat/Gedney Island, one of the Sounder gray whales was struck by a small recreational boat. Captains, naturalists, and guests aboard several whale watch boats witnessed a cabin cruiser running over the back of one of three gray whales that were feeding together off Hat Island. No blood was observed. NOAA, WDFW, Cascadia Research Collective (CRC), local stranding networks, and our Whale Sighting Network volunteers were notified. The investigations of both the whale who was hit and the boater are ongoing but CRC has determined gray whale 22 (Earhardt) as the likely whale since she has new injuries consistent with the incident. “At this point it is hard to judge the depth or severity of the injury or the associated blunt force impact that occurred associated with this but the limited extent of the visible injury is encouraging for now.” -John Calambokidis, CRC

BIGGS’S/TRANSIENTS 

Large lovely groups of Bigg’s are meeting up and meandering their way in search of marine mammals throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea.  A Spring profusion of Bigg’s/Transient matrilines in the greater inland basin this past month brought orcas from great distances including the exciting discovery of a pod of unknowns who had never before been documented in the Salish Sea. First seen early April off Victoria with the T68Bs, they followed the T68s and probably T68Bs into Puget Sound, were part of a number of matrilines (T68s, T90s w/T2b, T10s, and T124s) in several locations April 21st, and have spent nearly a week roaming the southern most reaches since. Our Whale Sightings Network staff and volunteers were able to track these whales' movements and get good documentation. It is interesting to map out the travels of the many matrilines and individuals, as well as who they are associating with, through the various reports and photos submitted and gathered through the network. People along the shores watching the whales contribute to the collective gathering of data and do an excellent job of watching for harassment by watercraft. This is especially so in the south Sound as there are fewer public places with a lot of boats in tighter inlets where  the orcas have little room to escape. We have increased our Share the Water campaign to help bring more awareness and educate all watercraft users of the federal regulations and Be Whale Wise guidelines while in the company of whales and all marine mammals 

SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS

J pod has been traveling split up into their matrilines across the Salish Sea and out west off the Pacific coast. An April 3rd encounter and photo showed the J19s off the northern Washington Coast. That same day the J16s were in Haro Strait, while the J17s and L87 were in Puget Sound. Some salmon was to be found in Haro Strait as J16, J42 and J50 pounced on a salmon, putting up a lovely chase…we hope in the end they have all been successful in finding enough salmon to sustain them.  The J17s and L87 have been encountered in inland Puget Sound on several days early in April and again with the help of our Sighting Network do we know where most all of the Js were on April 3rd. 

HUMPBACKS

The juvenile humpback who was overwintering in the Tacoma area stayed over until at least February 11th.  Another juvenile joined the grays in Saratoga Passage, confirmed since April 1st and probably the whale in question for a few days before that. With regular sightings reported to us we were able to determine this whale stayed around until at least the 13th in Baby Island/Holmes Harbor area of Saratoga. Sadly, another very emaciated juvenile humpback whale our network was tracking made her way to South Puget Sound where she finally beached, deceased in a cove on Anderson Island.

Puget Sound (and all of the Salish Sea)  are seeing a return of many whales that were once extirpated from the area during the whaling years; humpbacks, minke, fin; and due to high prey availability a significant rise in mammal eating Bigg’s killer whales/Transients in the inland waters.  This means sightings are happening year round and our Whale Sighting Network staff and volunteers are busier and needed more than ever. Sightings provided to Orca Network have enabled us and researchers to track and see these changes in occurrence of different species (i.e., CRC, Fred Sharpe, etc. using mainly Orca Network humpback data to show the increase in Salish Sea/Puget Sound humpbacks; as well as NOAA Fisheries and the Center for Whale Research using our Puget Sound Transient reports and winter Southern Resident Orca reports to show the increase in use by Transients, and decreased sightings of Southern Residents in Puget Sound).

This just helps to demonstrate that every sighting helps provide the bigger picture, and the data ends up being used in published scientific papers that show these changes over time. We could not do all of this without the support of YOU, to keep the Whale Sighitng Network going. Thank you for your support! 

Gray whale 56 fluke, by Bonnie Gretz
Gray whale 56 fluke, by Bonnie Gretz
Transient Orcas T65As & T65Bs, by Connie Bickerton
Transient Orcas T65As & T65Bs, by Connie Bickerton
Transient Orcas T68s+, Tacoma, by Melisa Burke
Transient Orcas T68s+, Tacoma, by Melisa Burke
Humpback in Saratoga Passage, by Jill Hein
Humpback in Saratoga Passage, by Jill Hein
Saratoga Passage Humpback fluke, by Jill Hein
Saratoga Passage Humpback fluke, by Jill Hein

Links:

Apr 28, 2017

New Equipment; Elephant Seals Return!

Ellie the Elephant Seal, photo by Nicole Luce
Ellie the Elephant Seal, photo by Nicole Luce

We start our report with a THANK YOU for your support!

And an example of how it helps us do the important work we do. Thanks to Global Giving donors, we finally had funds to purchase a brand new stainless steel table for performing necropsies (like autopsy on humans) on marine mammals to determine cause of death.

We had been using a folding “banquet” table covered with a plastic tarp for our surgeries. You can imagine what a mess that made. This new table is heavy duty stainless steel, with a perimeter lip and drainage tube, and it has wheels and can be folded for easy storage. It’s the “real thing”, and makes our job so much easier, safer and more efficient. This is just one example of how your support helps the not always glamorous "nuts and bolts" part of our work, and enables us to do a better job investigating each unfortunate marine mammal death to determine how/why the animal died. This in turn provides important data to researchers and the NOAA Fisheries National Marine Mammal and Ocean Health Data Base, which gives us a better picture of the health of our oceans.

Many interesting findings, none of which bode well for marine mammals, are discovered during a necropsy. Our most recent necropsy of a harbor porpoise revealed that it died from either cancer or a severe fungal infection. Further laboratory testing of the tissue samples (histopathology) is being conducted to determine the exact diagnosis and we are anxiously awaiting the results, as this was a very unusual case. 

In previous years we had a harbor porpoise who died of a fungal infection, and another of lymphoma, indicating that marine mammals do suffer from the same diseases as humans. The recent death of an endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale was attributed to a fungal infection. Ongoing collection and analysis of the breath of orcas (collected as they exhale) is revealing the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and fungi. Since orcas don't strand often, researchers rely on information collected from similar species such as porpoise, to help them learn more about the possible threats to our small endangered Orca Population.

We thank you again for enabling us to more easily contribute our necropsy findings to the ongoing research into the health of these iconic animals of the Pacific Northwest and the environment in which they live.

But we don't want to just focus on the sad part of the work we do - sometimes we have pleasant surprises and respond to something that isn't a marine mammal in distress, and we had two exciting reports come in to our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network earlier this month. On April 21st, we received a report and photo of "Ellie", a female Elephant seal who has been returning annually to the same Whidbey Island beach for a number of years now. Two years ago she surprised us by giving birth to a pup! Then last year, she returned to her usual beach, and her pup (who we named "Ellison - for Ellie's son), returned but showed up on the other side of Whidbey Island. Later on April 21st, we received another report and photo - this one of Ellison, hanging out on the same beach he had appeared on last year. 

Elephant seals are relatively new to our inland waters - we have had a few occurrences of molting elephant seals, but only recently have they been documented giving birth in these waters. It has turned into a fascinating study, to learn that Ellie comes to the same beach every year, and now her son doing a similar thing on a different beach, but both of them returning on the same day. Our job now is to educate people about our new neighbors, the elephant seals, and to teach respect and make sure people stay a safe distance from them while they are hauled out on the beach. The location of these two elephant seals is not disclosed, and only these great photos are shared so people can enjoy them without disturbing them. 

Thanks again for all your support ~ 

Ellison, Elephant Seal Pup, by Jeff Harris, NOAA
Ellison, Elephant Seal Pup, by Jeff Harris, NOAA
Porpoise Necropsy, on new necropsy table
Porpoise Necropsy, on new necropsy table
Our new Necropsy table - thanks to you!
Our new Necropsy table - thanks to you!

Links:

Feb 2, 2017

"Maxine" the Harbor Porpoise project complete!

Volunteer team readying Maxine for Transport
Volunteer team readying Maxine for Transport

Christmas came early to Orca Network's Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island, WA!

On December 5th, our first full marine mammal skeletal display, "Maxine," a Harbor porpoise who had stranded on Maxwelton Beach near Langley, was installed as a permenant educational exhibit at the Whale Center.

This was possible because of many volunteers from the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the Burke Museum and their beetle colony (for cleaning her bones), Dave Parent DVM and Cathy Robinson PA-C (for providing workshop space for the skeletal crew to reassemble Maxine), our CPSMMSN "skeleton crew" and stranding response/necropsy team, and Marine Mammal Vet Dr. Stephanie Norman and DVM/Pathologist Barry Rickman for their amazing work on the necropsy and pathology workup on this porpoise after she stranded on Maxwelton Beach. They have published a scientific poster and are working on publishing a paper about this case, as they discovered she died from B cell Lymphoma, something very rare to be found in Harbor Porpoise in the Salish Sea.

Though any marine mammal death is sad, through the work of the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Langley Whale Center volunteers, this porpoise's death has at least resulted in furthering what we know about the health of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. The story of how she died, and the exhibit with her skeleton will educate thousands of people about Harbor porpoise and marine mammal diseases in the Salish Sea.

If you are in the Whidbey Island, WA area, stop by the Langley Whale Center at 115 Anthes, to meet Maxine and learn about all the marine mammals of the Salish Sea. Along with information about Orcas and Gray whales, you will find many bone specimens, baleen, teeth, and pelts from marine mammals to help educate the public about our ocean's health. These were collected and prepared by our dedicated volunteers at the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and provide hands on learning experiences at the Whale Center as well as through community and school outreach and education by Stranding Network and Orca Network volunteers.

Thanks to your support, the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network can continue to respond and investigate marine mammal strandings in our corner of the Salish Sea, and to educate the public about marine mammals and the healhty habitats they need to survive. 

Loading Maxine for transport to her new home
Loading Maxine for transport to her new home
Carefully installing the exhibit
Carefully installing the exhibit
Meet Maxine the Harbor Porpoise!
Meet Maxine the Harbor Porpoise!
Happy volunteers and Maxine in Whale Center window
Happy volunteers and Maxine in Whale Center window

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