Sunday, August 24, 2008

Southern Resident Orcas are an Endangered Species: It Bears Repeating

Howard Garrett once wrote an inspiring article detailing the lifestyle & history of the southern resident community of orca whales. It's worth the read if you're looking for an intimate overview of the whales and want to appreciate the riddled history of these magnificent creatures and the various plights facing their continued survival in the wild. Experiencing these creatures is wondrous but we need to understand that the same whales who bring us such joy are also struggling to survive, day in and day out.

In May 2003, NOAA Fisheries Service designated the Southern Resident killer whales as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). By November of 2005, the agency had listed the southern resident killer whales as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. The agency cited (in varying degrees) availability of prey, pollution and effects from vessels and sound as major threats to the whales’ health- all of which could be contributing to the population's decline.  And all the while, the majestic families of black-and-white orcas, known as the Southern Resident Community, have continued to disappear from their home waters. Just this month, reports suggest that great-great-great-grandma Lummi – the oldest member of the local orca population – has been missing since December and is presumed dead.  And according to an interview with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in the Kitsap Sun, there is news of yet another potentially missing whale, Aurora- a six year old L Pod male. Aurora is the brother of the legendary Luna, the supremely social orca whale who was eventually killed by a boat's propeller in Canada,  2006.

On June 12th of this year, a new State law was passed to provide further protection for these animals, an enforceable law aimed at enhancing the Whale Watching Guidelines already in place.  The new law establishes mandatory rules for boaters and paddlers, including a requirement that vessels stay at least 100 yards away from southern resident orca whales. Boaters who violate the new state law can also face significant fines, thus providing NOAA & the Department of Fish and Wildlife with enforcement tools to better protect the endangered Southern resident whales.

Education seems to be the key word at this juncture. Behaviors of the numerous vessels vary significantly, but when watching them from shore- sometimes you just have to wonder what people are thinking. Two of four baseline behavior examples from yesterday- three years after the orcas were placed on the endangered species list...

We watched these two head from the south, cross in front of the whales to get "a perfect" position- hope they got the great shot they were after (even if at the whales' expense):

And this group pulled directly in front of the whales after having come between the pod and the shoreline...amazing the whales were not injured or the boat, for that matter.

All in all, the private boaters were out in hoards yesterday. But thankfully, so was NOAA- and this is how the story ends...
We all have the OBLIGATION to familiarize ourselves with the regulations before encountering the whales in the wild. I, like everyone else, enjoy the encounters we have with the whales- but also want the whales to thrive and continue their travels through the islands. With salmon recovery plans underway and pollution initiatives becoming realized- it's now up to us to look at our own behavior and how we can impact their survival.  Kudos to NOAA for their prompt and aggressive enforcement efforts yesterday- it's time well spent in the quest to save the species.


1. BE CAUTIOUS and COURTEOUS: approach areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure.

2. SLOW DOWN: reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 metres/yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes.

3. KEEP CLEAR of the whales’ path. If whales are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way.

4. DO NOT APPROACH whales from the front or from behind. Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.

5. DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel closer than 100 metres/yards to any whale.

6. If your vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres/yards approach guideline (#5), place engine in neutral and allow whales to pass.

7. STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore.

8. LIMIT your viewing time to a recommended maximum of 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers.

9. DO NOT swim with, touch or feed marine wildlife.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Southern Resident Orcas Return to the San Juan Islands!

After a weekend of warm, cloudy weather and no whales other than a large group of transients (meat/ marine mammal eating whales) on Sunday, yesterday morning we were treated to reports that there were southern resident orcas on the west side of San Juan Island.  Milling well offshore of False Bay, the whales took their time approaching the Island- but by 11:30 0r 12:00, the first whales could be seen- close to shore and headed North towards the lighthouse.

And what a show we were about to experience- one of the best land based whale watching days so far this year.  We ran to Lime Kiln Lighthouse, known for it's west side viewing opportunities. Luckily, the summer crowds are beginning to dwindle and the parking lot had lots of room! Heading down to the rocks, we could hear the first blows (orca whale exhalations) through the trees. That was just a taste of what was to come!

Once we arrived at our viewing spot on the rocks, we were treated to the first close pass- Ruffles (J1) and some other J's were intermingled with L's- so we knew there were members of two of the three pods here. Traveling close to shore, the whales took their time, making a very slow pass by the shoreline. Granny (J2) was further offshore but in the lead as usual! We saw Faith, Canuck- whales were truly everywhere! But the best was yet to come as we waited out the rest of the whales to see if everyone would head north. This year it has certainly NOT been uncommon for J pod to make a beeline for the Fraser River, leaving any accompanying pods behind! Although there have been some unusual travel patterns with various L's and K's traveling with other pods for long periods this summer.  We crossed our fingers, looked south and waited...and within 1/2 hour the rest of the orcas passed by. And did they pass by!  At least 25 whales made their way into shore- J's and L's intermingled- coming within feet of the rocks at the park. One whale even treated us to a breach within feet of our vantage point. Of course, given the travel patterns this year and very few close passes at the light, I had only brought my 300 mm lens- so the whales barely fit into my pics!!!!  But simply listening to the blows and watching all of their faces rise from the water as the orcas made the pass was enough- sometimes you just have to sit back and take it all in, forgetting the "perfect photo quest."

Southern Resident Orca Calf and Mother Card card
Another spectacular day in the San Juan Islands!Subscribe in a reader

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's Tough Out There as a Little Dog- A Day in the Life on San Juan Island

Yellow Lab Puppy Notecards card
Have you ever wondered what it's like for a puppy living on the west side of San Juan Island? Well, there's views...unlike a city dwelling puppy, the Haro Straits sits right outside your door. It's awfully fun to watch the sunrises and sunsets from the yard- the wilderness surrounding you and challenging your youthful expertise in scenting!

Sunset Over the Haro Straits print
Live. Love. Sail Sailing Stamps stamp
Seal Notecards card
Big Boy!

Little Miss Bailey celebrates her 11 weeks of life tomorrow...and what tales she has to tell. She has watched a superpod cross the Haro Straits, listened to the echoing blows of exhalations in the night, has been approached by curious mother deer and spotted fawn, to mutually determine if either presented any reason for concern.  She has hiked the trails at Lime Kiln and Cattle Point, frolicked with visiting children and kayakers at Deadman's Bay. She has traveled by ferry to Seattle and beyond, she has played with a Great Pyrenees in the surf at Anacortes. All in all, it's a dog's life.

It hasn't always been this easy though- life on an island (of course) has to throw you some interesting angles. It is just recently that the eagles have stopped circling when she plays in the yard. At 20+ pounds now, she's just too big to consider as a feast...unlike our neighbor's little pup three years ago- snatched from his yard one sunny afternoon.
Bald Eagle In Flight card

And our little friendly foxes, while so much fun to chase and scent- pose yet another interesting twist. Not too long ago, I wrote a piece on Flickr about a relationship which had developed with a young fox in our yard.  Animal interaction at it's finest!

A fox Interaction: The Story

Well, this has been an interesting continuation to the story. This summer, we were able to determine this friendly little fox is indeed a female, when she brought her pups to the house one evening.  The pups were clearly intimidated by being so close to a human but the visit afforded me the honor of meeting them from afar.  Once Bailey arrived on the scene, the little fox, who we affectionately (if not somewhat unimaginatively...)call "Miss Foxy," has lingered longer and has come very close to the pup during each visit.  This was unnerving at first- I was always jumping to grab her up in my arms before the fox got too close and eventually trying to keep the determined little puppy from chasing the young mother.  It certainly seems as thought the young mother is simply curious about the new addition and acts as though she understands our mutual foray into new motherhood. Still, constant vigilance is in order.

All in all, life is good- but certainly not the usual childhood! :)
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Monday, August 11, 2008

August 10th Superpod!!!

Sunday started out like any other day in the San Juan Islands this summer, a bit of cloud cover and scenic views across the Haro Straits. Took the puppy for a walk on the trails at Lime Kiln (to calm her down a bit!)- but the day was going to change upon my return home. I received a phone call at 10:00am from Captain Ivan of Western Prince Whale Watching Tours- there were whales heading in towards the Islands- lots of whales. At first, the operators thought they had J Pod and a "few L's," but that would change as the day went on. They were out at Race Rocks off of Canada's west coast- so the watch began.

And it was well worth the wait! By mid-afternoon, I was seeing so many fins crossing the Straits that I just knew there was more than "a few L's." Looking through my scope, I thought I saw Cappuccino (who is a beautiful boy in K pod) but wasn't positive given the angle. First to hit the shores were members of J Pod- Ruffles and Granny immediately headed North offshore, but Slick and her family along with the Cookies made an exceptionally close pass in resting mode off of Hannah Heights. I ran to the Lighthouse- knowing this was going to be good. Ran to the rock and I was just in time for the show- whales everywhere!!!! Lots of L's made close passes at the Lime Kiln shores- here are a few photos from the day! Lots of lunging, breaches, rolling and tail slapping- looks as though the whales were quite excited to be reunited. This is the first time in weeks, if not more, that all three pods of the Southern Resident community have been together- we'd have to wait until 5:00 to see those K's, who had apparently headed SOUTH before turing north to meet up with J's and L's. 
Orca Whale Postcard postcard
Faces in the Waves Orca Notecards card

Sounds as though many of the whales are at the Fraser River this morning, although just got word that orcas have been spotted off the south side of the Island at Cattle Pass ....more to follow!  Here's where the whales would be off of the south side right now....

Cattle Point Lighthouse Print print

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Friday, August 8, 2008

San Juan Islands Has it All!!!

Located in the pacific northwest, the San Juan Islands have something for everyone- kayaking, biking, sunshine, great Inns full of charm, incredible shopping and WILDLIFE!!!! Today, the whales were the center of attention, with J Pod showing up at 6:34am on the West Side of the San Juan Island, heading North and close to shore.  They made it to the light and abruptly turned south....
By Noon, they still hadn't made a decision as to what direction they felt like traveling- actively engaged in a hearty round of what people often call "the West Side Shuffle." Lots of socializing, lots of play and a little resting along the way.  As of this writing, at 3:10pm PST- the pod remains south of False Bay, lots of fun to be had by all on the west side today!!!
Killer Whale Breach Postcard postcard
It is important to stress that the wildlife in the pacific northwest is not only cherished but also protected. The National Park Service's Organic Act of 1916 gave us the responsibility to "… conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Many of the local parks and adjoining areas have been designated as refuge areas by the USFWS.

Like so many beautiful coastal places, the San Juans and commensurate tourism are developing at a rapid pace, natural habitats are being altered and the marine environment is showing signs of stress. Within the County, there are now over 40 listed species of concern. Environmental stewardship begs us to constantly remember how fragile the ecosystem within which we live truly is and consistently focus on our footprint's impact upon the existing fragility - being sure NOT to add to it. 

Just the other day, while at Lime Kiln, we sat on the rocks watching the whales go by. To our right, on an outcropping- a large harbor seal had hauled out to sun himself. Harbor seals often haul out at low tide to digest food, rest, give birth, or nurse young. We watched in AMAZEMENT as 15- 30 people began crawling down the rocks to "get a better picture." The seal became more and more stressed as the onlookers got closer.  Finally, we headed over to the Park Ranger who advised this has been an ongoing problem at the Park, signs have been posted and they're trying to figure out how to keep this from continuing.  In the interim, I hope people realize that while cute, harbor seals are wild animals that reach five to six feet (1.7-1.9 m) in length and weigh up to 300 pounds (140 kg). If disturbed too often, they have been known to abandon favorite haul-out sites or their pups....and this is pupping season in the Islands. So please, remember the law- keep yourself 100 yards away from all wildlife on the islands! The path toward sustainability requires that residents and visitors take personal responsibility  for the natural wealth in order to protect the future for all, reducing our impact in the interim.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Orca Calf Found Dead On Henry Island

Sadly enough the news that was posted August 4th was not what many want to hear- the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network has recovered a body of a dead orca calf on the beaches of Henry Island.  While it was originally sighted on July 26th, the fetus was not reported to the Network until August 1.   In the meantime, the body was scavenged and was in an advanced state of decomposition when researchers arrived on scene

According to Amy Traxler, who runs the Network, “A newborn killer whale calf is usually 7 to 8 feet long and 300-400 pounds,” while this carcass was approximately 5 feet long with an estimated weight of 70-80 pounds, so it’s likely this calf was aborted.”  The placenta was lying next to the calf when originally discovered, she said, and it is believed the calf was born prematurely. Cause of death, as well as whether it was a member of a resident or transient pod, is expected to be determined in a necropsy being conducted by Dr. Joe Gaydos, the Stranding Network’s veterinarian and regional director of the SeaDoc Society , a research institution affiliated with the University of California-Davis.

A recent paper Gaydos presented to the International Whaling Commission suggests that an average of seven killer-whale carcasses are found around the world annually, making every killer whale stranding a rare opportunity to learn more about the biology and diseases of this species. Researchers will now try to conduct a necropsy to try and determine the cause of death as well as attempt to determine if this calf is, indeed, an offspring of the endangered southern resident community of orca whales.  At issue will be the amount of decomposition and whether or not there are any viable tissue samples to be found.  I actually assist in necropsies with Joe and Amy- and see firsthand what a loss a decomposing body can be to scientific efforts.

To respond to marine mammal strandings in San Juan County, alive or dead, please call 1-800-562-8832 and leave a message with your name, phone number, location, and other pertinent details of the stranding. You will be helping to better understand and protect the region’s marine mammals.
Possibility Card- Featuring The Local Orcas! card
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