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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Winter Birding on Lopez Island

With so many microclimates and microhabitats in the San Juan Islands, there are very different places to explore and even different birds to see depending on which island you are on. Because of the convenience of the ferry schedule, when we decide to explore another island, we usually go to Orcas, but yesterday we decided to go for the extra early and extra long ferry rides in order to explore Lopez Island. Good decision!

Locally known as "Slowpez", Lopez is definitely the quietest of the larger ferry-served island with about half the population of Orcas and a third of the population of San Juan. It's also been nicknamed "the friendly isle", in part because every car waves to every other car as they pass each other anywhere on the island. I've only been to Lopez a handful of times myself, which means there are still parks I have yet to explore over there. After our visit yesterday, I think I actually prefer the Lopez over Orcas, because there are more coastal access points with dramatic landscapes and fewer in the way of hilly wooded hikes.

One of the main reasons for our trip was to go birding and try and add some species to our year and photo year lists. Our first stop in the morning was to Fisherman Bay, where both the species and photographic opportunities added up quickly!

Belted kingfisher in the early morning light at Fisherman Bay
Great blue heron at Fisherman Bay
Heading out the spit at Fisherman Bay
Abstract rock and tree reflection at Fisherman Bay

Our next stop was Shark Reef, which is on the opposite side of San Juan Channel of our regular stomping grounds at Cattle Point. Unlike Cattle Point, which is all open prairie, you hike through the woods to get to the rocky Shark Reef.

Boardwalk at Shark Reef
Shark Reef, on the east side of Cattle Pass
Next we searched for one of the main target species for our trip: the wild turkey! While they used to be found on other island including San Juan, currently the only flock of wild turkeys on the island makes their home on Lopez. We were just about to give up when we came upon a group of more than 20 of them! I'm not sure why they are so much more fun to watch than many other birds, but they are - I suppose it's because they're very expressive, comical, and have lots of social interactions.

Wild turkeys on Lopez

It's surprising to see such a large bird fly - not only over this fence, but even up into the trees above!
Our next stop was Iceberg Point, a place I amazingly had never visited before. There are miles of hiking trails there and we only got to go out to the point in one direction, so we will definitely have to go back. While the birding was decent, the scenery is absolutely stunning.

Iceberg Point

It also offered a different perspective on Cattle Point:


The geology is complex and amazing throughout the San Juans as well, and Iceberg Point was no exception.


Hummel Lake was pretty quiet, but seems to be one of the first locations swallows show up in the islands each year. With reports of some already in nearby Skagit County, the early arrivals might not be far off! We settled for this picturesque common merganser though:


Our last stop before heading back to the ferry was out to Spencer Spit, but we got waylaid on the way there at first by a northern shrike (which would only perch on fence posts, so sadly will not quality for the photo year list which has the theme of photos "without the hand of man"), and then by these sheep. Have you ever seen sheep run before? I don't think I have!



Unlike the ferry ride there, the ferry ride back was in the daylight, so we continued birding from the boat (as we again stopped at every island on our way home). 

An up-close view of double-crested and pelagic cormorants at the Shaw Island ferry terminal
No luck on the shrike, but I did get a rock pigeon picture "without the hand of man"! I like this theme because it makes me attempt different and more challenging photos, such as in-flight shots. The different challenge means the first rock pigeons I saw this year perched on a man-made structure didn't "count", but I like this result much better!


In the end we tallied 52 species on the day, the highest single-day total yet this year! Not at all a bad showing, and after a several year gap in visits, we will definitely we going back to Lopez sooner rather than later.

Portrait of a glaucous-winged gull at the Orcas Island ferry landing

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Bird Year List: End of 2018, Beginning of 2019

This was my ninth year keeping track of a bird species year list. My goals for 2018 were to reach 220 birds for my year list, and photograph 95% of them, for a target of 209 species photographed. I exceeded the number goals, tallying 261 (my highest ever) on the year list and photographing 243 of them, a 93.1% capture rate. Thanks to our road trip to Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico, I also tallied 21 life birds this year, second only to my 23 life birds on the Alaska trip in 2010.

Because it's fun to play with numbers, here's the break down over the years for bird species added by month:


Dave (from England) and my dad Rainer and I have also had a friendly competition over the years. For 2018 my dad tallied 266, winning for the second year in a row and the sixth time in eight years, and Dave came in at 195.



There were a lot of birding highlights in 2018 but here are a few of my favorites.

Madera Canyon in Arizona was one of the most incredible birding spots I have ever seen. Not only was it full of life birds for me, but the action at the feeders at Santa Rita lodge was captivating and ever-changing; one full day of sitting there doing nothing else was not nearly enough of watching! One of the most unexpected moments was, thanks to a tip from a couple fellow birders, locating a pair of elusive Montezuma quail:


Later on that same trip, we rented a boat in San Diego Bay to track down the "mega-rarity" - a Nazca booby. While it was a bit of splurge expense-wise, we knew it was a memory we would never forget, and it was definitely one of the major highlights of our two week trip:


While it's exciting to see exotic birds far away from home, some of the best sightings can also happen literally right in your yard. Another highlight this year was this barred owl who spent at least half an hour eying our domestic quail in their aviary in broad daylight.



For 2019, we are trying out a new twist on our photo year list, trying to take photos without the "hand of man" in them. So, no birds at feeders, sitting on wires, etc. Last year my photo year list had about 15% of the pictures with the hand of man, so I wasn't anticipating it would be too much of a challenge. Turns out there's a lot more things to think about than expected! For instance, I decided this lovely shot from Day 1 of 2019 shouldn't count, since this song sparrow is perched on pressure treated lumber.


On January 1st I tallied 44 species on my year list and got decent photos of 17 of them. This was my favorite shot of the day:

Greater yellowlegs at Jackson Beach on January 1
Given the more difficult photo challenge this year and the fact that I won't be traveling as far afield, I'm lowering my goals a bit for 2019. My goal is to reach 200 species on the year list and photograph 90% of them, or 180. Here's to another great year of birding!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Day of the Dead ~ 9th Annual Tribute

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about honoring those who have passed on - every year, I take a moment on this day to remember the Southern Residents we have lost in the previous year. You can see the whole series of blog posts here. Over the years these posts have gotten harder to write, as the population continues to decline. But now more than ever, as we continue to fight for the survival and recovery of the Southern Residents, it's important not to forget the stories of the whales we have lost along the way.

L92 Crewser

After the first May on record without any Southern Residents in inland waters in 2018, June 11th was an even happier day when word came in there were lots and lots of whales in Haro Strait. The joy at the return of J-Pod and part of L-Pod was dampered however when it became apparent that L92 Crewser was not with them. The group of L-Pod made up of the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s thus went from being referred to among naturalists as "The 19 Ls" to "The 18 Ls".

One of my last photos of L92 Crewser in 2017

As the Southern Residents have become even more well studied in recent years we've learned, in the words of NOAA researcher John Durban, that there's "a social basis to vulnerability" among resident killer whales. It is not surprising then that Crewser was at risk, being a young adult male (age 23) without a mother or other strong social connections with successful adult females. Males are known to be more likely to die after the death of their mothers, though Crewser survived a pretty remarkable 16 years after the death of his own mother L60 Rascal, having attached to his likely grandmother L26 Baba until her death in 2013. Crewser's only surviving relative is L90 Ballena, a 25 year-old female who has never been seen with a viable calf. If Ballena fails to reproduce during her lifetime, this will spell the end of the L26 matriline.

L92 Crewser alongside his probable grandmother L26 Baba in 2012

Crewser was easily picked out of a crowd, being both the only sprouter/adult male among his sub-group of L-Pod and also having a distinct kink at the top of his fin. 

L92 Crewser as a sprouter male in 2010
When the opportunity presented itself, he would often associate with males from other pods and sub-groups.

From left to right: L92 Nigel, L95 Crewser, L91 Muncher, and K25 Scoter in 2015
With Crewser's death, the population of the Southern Residents numbered 75 whales for the summer of 2018.

J50 Scarlet

I will never forget being out on the water on December 30, 2014 with J-Pod in Haro Strait, and hearing over the radio that Dave from the Center for Whale Research was on scene with the leaders in Swanson Channel with a new calf. It had been more than 2 years since there had been a successful calf born, and after the recent death of J32 Rhapsody with her near full-term daughter deceased inside her, it was the symbol of hope we all needed to start a new year. And what a year it was. The new calf - J50 Scarlet - was the whale the kicked off the baby boom of 2015.

J50 Scarlet at less than two months old, the first time I met her in February 2015.
It was a record spate of births not seen among the Southern Residents since the 1970s, and included another calf in Scarlet's matriline when J52 Sonic was born at the end of March. The J16 matriline quickly became the "nursery group", as the two little ones were seemingly always rambunctious and goading the rest of their family into playing as well. It was so special seeing two such little calves together all the time, and I dreamed of getting a shot of the two of them surfacing right together - a wish that was granted in June 2017 when they passed right off the rocks at Lime Kiln together:


From the beginning, Scarlet was a little different. The namesake scars she bore on her dorsal fin led to speculation that she had a difficult birth.

J50 Scarlet, her scars clearly visible, as she surfaces next to big brother J26 Mike
She also roamed a lot - away from mom further and younger than we see from other calves. Even at less than a year old it was not uncommon to see her all by herself.

J50 Scarlet trailing way behind the rest of her family when less than a year old in 2016
She also didn't seem to be growing properly - while whales of a similar age like J51 Nova were gaining length and girth, Scarlet remained a petite whale, both slender and short. When I saw J-Pod in March of 2018, however, she still looked good. But when J-Pod returned in June, she had the beginning signs of peanut head, showing undernourishment. Experts thought she probably had weeks to live. But the weeks ticked by, and she hung on.

Scarlet's story took center stage when J35 Tahlequah brought international attention to the plight of the Southern Residents by carrying her deceased calf for 17 days in July and August. Suddenly, there was a renewed interest in trying to "rescue" Scarlet, and what unfolded in the following weeks was a media frenzy as researchers tried to diagnose what was wrong with her by taking breath and fecal samples, treated her by darting her with antibiotics and deworming medication, attempted to feed her by releasing salmon down a chute off a boat, and laid plans to go as far as capturing her if needed. While the debate raged over whether or intervene or leave her alone, she somehow still swam on, despite her condition continuing to deteriorate.

Scarlet, who by all rights should have had weeks to live at this point with pronounced peanut head, lived for months.
She was a swimming bag of bones at the end, and it came as a surprise to no one who had been observing her when she disappeared. The circus still wouldn't come to an immediate end, however, as a helicopter search continued for several days after her disappearance until it was fully acknowledged she was deceased. Regardless of which side of the intervention debate you were on, there was no arguing that, either directly or indirectly, we had failed her.

Scarlet became the latest of the baby boom calves to die, leaving just five survivors from that incredible year. It was just three years ago, but it is already hard to recall what it's like to have a healthy, active newborn in the population. It's now been over 3 years since the last successful birth. Population down to 74.

J35's Calf

I often end these posts with acknowledgment of the new whales that have joined the ranks of the Southern Residents, but for the third year in a row, there are no more to add. It's also impossible to write about the whales we lost this summer without mentioning the deceased neonate J35 Tahlequah carried around for an incredible 17 days. As a grieving mother, Tahlequah made an incredible statement that resonated around the globe.

J35 Tahlequah during her 17 day vigil

A closer look at this photo shows you the tail fluke of the neonate Tahlequah was carrying, barely visible as a black triangle against her black head. After pushing her calf with her rostrum for several days, she switched to carrying it by the pectoral fin, with the body draped around her mouth.


So much more could be said about her vigil and the emotion and activism it inspired, but to put it simply, it has reignited my dedication to not only the living whales but to the next generation of Southern Residents. We have learned about the incredible rate of failed pregnancies among Southern Residents in recent years, while meanwhile the thriving transient killer whale population has had something like 90% survivorship of calves. My goal is that Tahlequah and all the other future moms will not have to go through this again. And so, we fight on.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Orca Task Force Meeting #5: What the draft recommendations look like now

Truck parked outside the Landmark Convention Center in Tacoma on October 17, Day 1 of the two-day task force meeting
With another task force meeting – this one a 2-day marathon – in the books, I thought it would be worth posting an update about how the package of draft recommendations is looking. I recognize that this process is frustrating and moving slower than many would hope for, but it really is a positive move for the Southern Residents overall to have all these interest groups at the table discussing the difficult topics and moving at a pretty rapid pace.

The basis for discussion over the last two days was an updated draft package of recommendations prepared by the steering committee based on the most supported recommendations according to the task force members and public survey results, the most effective recommendations according to the working groups, and feedback from direct conversations with each task force member in the week preceding this meeting. To make things even more confusing, all the action items have been renumbered from the survey, with many items having been merged and some deleted. While we and they were told actions could still be added or deleted from the package during the meeting, in reality the items in this package didn’t seem to change much over the course of the meeting. Instead, the discussions focused more on wording and fine-tuning the action items. While there is still more refinement by the steering committee, another round of public and task force comment, and a final task force meeting (which is scheduled to focus on further discussion of the more controversial action items), I thought it would be worth posting an update of what looks likely to be moving forward at this time. It’s unclear how much more in terms of prioritization will happen; actions will likely still be ranked to some degree, but it’s not clear if the task force will pitch everything to the governor, or will try to narrow it down to a “Top 10” or something like that.

Here is a summary of the actions as they stand now, down from ~50 to ~30. New recommendations numbers (likely the numbers that will be referred to during the upcoming public comment period survey) and wording is taken from the draft report, with old action item numbers from the last survey at the end of each bullet point.

Goal 1: Increase Chinook Abundance
1.     Significantly increase investment in restoration and acquisition of habitat in areas where Chinook stocks most benefit the SRKWs, including mandating additional funding to Chinook and forage fish habitat restoration projects, emphasizing large-scale estuary restoration programs,  and removing barriers in areas of high benefit to Chinook (such as Middle Fork Nooksack and Pilchuck dams). Formerly Habitat Recommendations 1 and 2 and Hydropower Recommendation 2.
2.     Immediately fund acquisition and restoration of nearshore habitat to increase the abundance of forage fish for salmon sustenance. Formerly Forage Fish Recommendation 1.
3.     Enforce laws that protect habitat. Formerly Habitat Recommendations 3 and 4.
4.     Have the legislature immediately amend existing statutes to provide stronger protections for Chinook and forage fish habitat. Formerly Habitat Recommendations 3 and 5.
5.     Have state agencies develop and encourage voluntary actions to protect habitat, including providing financial assistance to cooperative conservation programs. Formerly Habitat Recommendation 7.
6.     Increase hatchery production to benefit SRKW in methods consistent with wild fish conservation, available habitat, and existing recovery plans. Formerly Hatchery Recommendation 1C.
7.     Prepare a strategy to re-establish salmon above existing dams, including the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. Formerly Hydropower Recommendation 1.
8.     Increase allowable dissolved gas allowances in the Columbia Basin from 115 to 125% to match the Oregon standard, advocating for increased spill over Columbia and Snake River dams. Formerly Hydropower Recommendation 4.
9.     Support full implementation of the 2019-2028 Pacific Salmon Treaty. Formerly Harvest Recommendation 3.
10.  Reduce Chinook bycatch in all west coast commercial fisheries. Formerly Harvest Recommendation 2.
11.  Convene an independent science panel to assess if pinniped predation is a limiting factor for Chinook in Puget Sound and along the Outer Coast of Washington, then convene stakeholders to evaluate potential management actions. Formerly Predation Recommendation 1B.
12.  Support authorization to more effectively manage pinniped predation of salmon on the Columbia River. Formerly Predation Recommendation 2A.
13.  Reduce population of non-native predator fish species that prey upon or compete with Chinook. Formerly Hydropower Recommendation 3.
14.  Monitor forage fish populations to inform decision on harvest and management actions to support increased Chinook abundance. Formerly Forage Fish Recommendation 4.
15.  Fund the Puget Sound zooplankton sampling program, which will help forecast forage fish and Chinook abundances and inform management decisions. Formerly Forage Fish Recommendation 3.
A.    Convene a stakeholder panel. Formerly Hydropower Recommendation 5B.
Unnumbered due to having limited support at the beginning of the task force meeting, but based on discussion, outside conversations, and the continued public pressure, I suspect this action may make the final report. I know it’s not as bold as some of us would hope, but it’s a hell of a lot more than we were looking at during the beginning of this process, when Snake River dams weren’t even being mentioned at the meeting. Even if something bolder were on the table, it would for sure be tied up in court until mitigation solutions are found for all stakeholders, so this process is essential. I finally got the opportunity to present the 600,000+ signature petition during the public comment period on the first evening, and it made an impact on the task force members. The number of supporters was brought up several times during Day 2, including by a task force member who was seemingly against breaching the dams but stated that, given the public outcry for action, the task force must move forward with a stakeholder panel to address the issue further.

Goal 2: Decrease Disturbance of Orcas from Vessels
16.  Establish a statewide “Go-Slow” zone bubble for all small vessels within half a nautical mile of orcas. Formerly Vessel Recommendation 1.
17.  Establish a limited-entry whale-watching permit system for commercial whale-watching and commercial kayak groups. Details of implementation still unclear. Formerly Vessel Recommendation 4.
18.  Increase and improve boater education on Be Whale Wise regulations and guidelines. Potentially include a mandatory marine endorsement fee for saltwater boater registration in the state. Formerly Vessel Recommendation 5B.
19.  Increase enforcement capacity to fully enforce vessel regulations. Formerly Vessel Recommendation 2.
20.  Discourage use of echo sounders and underwater transducers within 1km of orcas. (Updated from switching echo sounders from 50kHz to 200kHz because apparently changing the settings doesn’t actually stop the pings at 50kHz.) Formerly Vessel Recommendation 3.
21.  Implement shipping noise-reduction initiatives and monitoring programs, coordinating with Canada. Formerly Vessel Recommendations 5 and 6.
22.  Accelerate the transition from Washington State Ferries to quieter vessels and reduce speeds when SRKWs are present. Formerly Vessel Recommendations 9 and 18.
23.  Reduce threat of oil spills in the region, including requiring escort tugs, updating oil spill prevention, etc. Formerly Vessel Recommendation 13.
B.    No-Go Zone of some sort – was not on the initial list of recommendations at this meeting but was brought back to the table; no consensus reached on where, when, what, how, etc. but will be discussed further at November meeting.

Goal 3: Reduce SRKW Exposure to Contaminants
24.  Accelerate implementation of the ban of PCBs in the state. Formerly Contaminant Recommendation 1.
25.  Identify, prioritize, and take action on chemicals that impact orcas and their prey. Formerly Contaminant Recommendations 2 and 3.
26.  Reduce stormwater threats and accelerate clean-up of harmful toxics. Formerly Contaminant Recommendations 4, 7, and 8.
27.  Improve effectiveness, implementation, and enforcement of NPDES permits. Formerly Contaminant Recommendations 5 and 6.
28.  Increase monitoring of toxic substances in marine waters and create and deploy adaptive management strategies. Formerly Contaminant Recommendation 9.

Additional Recommendations
29.  Provide sustainable funding for implementation.
30.  Continue research, science, and monitoring to inform adaptive management.
31.  Monitor progress of implementation and needed enhancements during Year 2.

Also, here’s a summary of the main themes during the public comments, indicating the number of speakers on each topic:
Lower Snake River dam removal – 23
Bold action in general – 12
Moratorium on whale-watching – 4
Against any restrictions on fisheries – 2
Vessel impacts – 2
Pro-dams – 2
Fishing moratorium – 2
Oil export – 2
Puget Sound habitat restoration – 1
Habitat “net increase” – 1
Unfair task force process – 1
Against proposed asphalt plant – 1

On one hand, it feels like a lot of jargon that could very well be bolder, will not all be implemented, and will be watered down in the legislature. On the other hand, we are potentially looking at a package that will increase funding for barrier removal (including dams) and ready-to-go habitat restoration projects; increase spill over dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers; take Snake River dam removal discussions to the next level with a much-needed stakeholder panel that will have to wrap up in less than a year; reduce harvest, reduce bycatch, and increase hatchery production of Chinook which will all result in more fish in the water; activate major toxin cleanup and redevelopment of stormwater hotspots; modernize an oil spill response plan; and quiet the waters around the whales by reducing speeds of shipping traffic, ferries, and small vessels. Stated that way, it almost feels like we may be on the right track after all.

In addition to calling Governor Inslee’s office (360-902-4111) and continuing to advocate for his support of near-term removal of the four Lower Snake River dams and full-funding of all salmon habitat recovery programs in the state, the next time your voice is needed is October 24-29 when another public survey and comment period will be open on these updated and further refined recommendations. Stay tuned, as we will also be helping to provide another survey guide, simplified if need be.
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Monday, September 3, 2018

An update on J35, J50, and the rest of J-Pod

This has been a crazy summer with all that is happening to and about the Southern Residents, and here we are, already in September. It's been an emotional roller coaster to follow the stories of J35 Tahlequah and her deceased calf that and emaciated young female J50 Scarlet. I thought I would post a bit of an update about both of them as well as some of my encounters with J-Pod over the last few weeks.

August 11 - J35 confirmed to no longer be carrying her deceased daughter

After an incredible 17-day vigil, J35 Tahlequah let go of her calf, which she had carried with her for hundreds of miles through both the US and Canada, including out to the open Pacific. The body was reportedly beginning to decay, and I'm glad she found the right time and place to let it go, and that despite all the media attention she drew to the Southern Residents from around the world, that it happened sometime away from human eyes. I saw her on August 11th, the day it was confirmed she no longer had the calf, during a rare summer rain shower at Land Bank, where she was heading north in a tight, mixed social group of whales. She undoubtedly was eating less during her vigil (perhaps not even at all, we will never know) - but it was great to see her still in good body condition, being active, and socializing.

This same group of whales, as they headed north, gave this paddle boarder the memory of a lifetime! Through the wonders of the internet he was actually able to track me down and I was able to give him the photo!


The trailing group of whales on this day was the J16s, whose youngest member J50 Scarlet is a 3.5 year old female who at that point had looked emaciated for two months. It's been very hard to watch her condition deteriorate, but it's a testament to her strength that she has made it months when most only gave her weeks or days. At times it has been heart-breaking to watch her trail a mile or more behind the rest of her pod, all by herself, but on this day, in addition to feeling some relief for Tahlequah, it was comforting to see Scarlet in with her family, too.

The J16s, with J50 Scarlet on the left next to mom J16 Slick

August 12 - Attempted feeding of J50

As Scarlet's condition worsened and Tahlequah's story drew global attention to the plight of the Southern Residents, an unprecedented decision was made by NOAA and DFO to intervene and try to medicate a wild whale. They collected breath samples from her (though the results were never made clear), and also a fecal sample from someone in her family group. On July 21st, I was at Land Bank where J16 Slick, J42 Echo, and J50 Scarlet had been spread out and foraging for over half an hour when the Conservation Canine boat, with NOAA researchers on board, approached to assess J50 and take a breath sample. 

The research boat Moja approaches J50 on July 21st

This whole situation has raised a lot of questions, for me and many in the whale community. Of course we want J50 to live, but in my mind, the path of intervention is a slippery slope. For one, it's a band-aid solution that doesn't address the root of the problem - we can try to treat every whale as they become sick or malnourished, but we are going to continue to have sick and malnourished whales and no healthy calves if we don't get the entire population more salmon. Second, are you hindering more than you are helping? It was very disturbing to watch the dramatic behavior change in the J16s when the boat approached. They stopped foraging and J16 and J42 immediately flanked J50 and they started traveling quickly south, with the boat in pursuit. I heard from a friend who watched off the south end of the island that after the whales got as far as Eagle Point, it took them another 2 hours to get the breath sample, a process which she was disturbed by as well. I had also talked to another researcher who said these whales had clearly not wanted to be approached all summer. Is the stress on the sick whale and her family worth it? We heard a lot of "we need more samples" and "we need more observations" but in the meantime there was a lot of arguably undo stress put on the whales. Thirdly, I acknowledge the argument from many that we are at the point where we need to do whatever it takes to save these whales. We've intervened by depleting their food source and polluting their habitat, so why not intervene to try and help them live? Personally, I'm not sure further intervention is the solution. Scarlet likely had a difficult birth and has always been small for her age; she may have never been a fully healthy, viable whale. Are we going to intervene if she does recover and has birthing difficulties down the line because she's so small? Are we going to intervene and capture her to treat her, or bring her into a net pen, separating her from her family, if more remote treatment doesn't work? It's not a path that I personally feel good about. But, it isn't up to me, so my role has been to observe what's happening and share the news as much as possible.

The decision was made to administer an antibiotic, but it's a difficult process - just half a dose was administered via a dart on August 9th. A second thrust of the plan was to try to feed her, by partnering with the Lummi tribe and delivering live Chinook salmon off the back of a boat through a chute. On August 12th, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the feeding attempt. For starters, the whale watch community was extremely respectful during both J35 and J50's ordeals. They voluntarily stayed away from them to give them extra space. It was a bit crazy, then, on the afternoon of the 12th, to see no fewer than six research and enforcement boats surrounding J50. 


A tough sight to see: a slow-moving J50, far away from any other whales, followed closely by the NOAA research vessel. The blue fishing pool net was presumably to collect any samples (prey or fecal?)

When four of the research/enforcement vessels came together to converse, I realized a feeding attempt was probably imminent.
From left to right, the Lummi Nation police boat, King County's research vessel SoundGuardian, NOAA, and WDFW Police converge to discuss the plan

The actual feeding attempt occurred off Hannah Heights, and I was viewing from shore some distance away. We heard after the fact that they released 8 fish, and while they had a drone in the air, they had no way to determine if it was successful or not. This was considered a pilot attempt, including being part of a plan to potentially administer medicine via a fish, but we haven't heard much more about it since this day.


Lummi fishing boat, on the right, released fish via the blue chute off the back of the boat while in front of the J16s

After the feeding attempt, the whales flipped again and headed back north. J50 had been on her own for a while, but was now surrounded by other J-Pod whales as they milled off Land Bank.

The Lummi police boat observes J-Pod after the feeding attempt

We really have no understanding about how sometimes the whales care for sick whales until the bitter end, holding them aloft, and other times they seem to almost abandon them, with the ailing whale trailing miles behind the rest of them before dying. J50's story has been even more bizarre in that she's been both trailing and right in with her family from day to day. It was at least a happier way to end this encounter, with her surrounded by family again.


After August 12th, J-Pod left the next day and made only one more quick visit to inland waters before returning again on the night of August 31st. They headed north early the next day, so it wasn't until September 2 that I got the chance to catch up with them.

September 2 - All of J-Pod while out with Maya's Legacy

Jason and I got the chance to go out with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on the morning of the 2nd, and while there were no whale reports early in the morning, I felt good about our chances of encountering J-Pod heading down from the Fraser River. Sure enough, after getting a quick look at some nearby transient killer whales on the west side of Haro, word came in of whales southbound near Turn Point, and we headed over there to be the first boat on scene with J-Pod.
J27 Blackberry and J38 Cookie (bigger every time I see him) off Lover's Leap of Stuart Island
The first whales we met up with were the J11s, J22s, and J37s.

J31 Tsuchi
As they picked up speed heading south down Haro, a large group behind them came into view, made up of whales from the J14s, J16s, J17s, and J19s.

Cruising down Haro Strait!
J36 Alki porpoising
After a while they slowed down a bit, but stayed in a tight group, which is so beautiful to see. We've had some cool transient killer whale encounters lately, and it's awesome that they've been around so much, but there is no substitute for hanging out with J-Pod.





As we neared Kellett Bluff, some of the whales stalled out to forage, so we enjoyed our last looks there before heading back to port.

J38 Cookie lunging after a salmon
J27 Blackberry peeks above the surface while hunting

Later in the day, the L12 sub-group was found heading in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and by the evening, they "hit" the west side of San Juan Island and met up with J-Pod. As a stunning sunset took shape to the west, the whales also veered west and offshore, but I was still hopeful they wouldn't leave and more encounters would await us the following morning.
A memorable sunset off the west side of San Juan Island on September 2, as the whales disappeared into the darkening waters offshore
 
September 3 - J50 is gone....or is she?

The joy of such a beautiful encounter on the morning of September 2nd was punctuated with the sad news that the Center for Whale Research had failed to track down the ailing J50, either on this morning in Haro Strait or the day before up in the Strait of Georgia. With the way she had been trailing and the whales being spread much of the time, it wasn't impossible she was missed, but after two days of intensive searching it was looking grim enough that on the morning of September 3rd both the Center for Whale Research and NOAA announced that she was missing and likely deceased. Then, unpredictable as ever, mere hours later word came in off the water that she had been found with J-Pod off the south end of San Juan Island. I sat for a few moments in total shock trying to process all the emotions that occurred in a short period of time, and struggling to find words to describe it all. This is finally what came to me, and what I posted on Facebook:

This summer has been unlike any other. These whales are storytellers of the sort I have never been in the presence of before, and it is a continuing emotional roller coaster to follow along. I have trouble finding words at the moment about this little whale, J50 Scarlet, seen here in healthier times in March of this year. She has been on death's doorstep since J-Pod returned in June. After not being seen despite intensive searching for the last two days, it was announced this morning she was likely gone. Mere hours later, she's found again, right back alongside her family. If we have learned one lesson from her and J35 Tahlequah this summer, it is that these whales are fighters. And so must we all be.

J50 Scarlet, still looking healthy, next to mom J16 Slick in March 2018

By early afternoon, J-Pod, along with the L12s and even more L-Pod whales that came into inland waters overnight, were aiming back towards San Juan Island from the offshore banks. Jason and I got to Land Bank right as the whales did, anxious to see J50 from shore for ourselves. Despite everything else going on, it was still nice to see some of the whales we haven't seen much of this summer, like the L12s.

Some of the L12s (the L22s, shown here) were in with the lead group
The rest of the L12s, including L41 Mega and L119 Joy (seen here), were with the trailers
We did indeed get a look at J50, who was moving along pretty quickly right in tight next to mom J16 Slick and in with a group of whales including some of the J16s, the J35s, and J22s.

J50 Scarlet surfacing behind mom, with  Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research in the background, moments away here from intercepting a private boat that was heading right for these whales
It's so bizarre that she was not close enough to J-Pod to be seen by anyone for over two days, then was here swimming pretty quickly back at mom's side. Where was she? Was she trailing miles behind everyone else for days? Did she stay south alone while the rest of her pod, including her mom, went north without her? We will never know.

I didn't get the closest look at her, but as I saw photos from friends, the happy news she was still with us was again counterbalanced by the fact that she was looking even skinnier than before. It's amazing to me that she had as much strength as she did, looking as depleted as she does. When J52 Sonic and J54 Dipper looked like this, they were hours away from dying. (How sad is it that we have other recent emaciated calves, also from the "baby boom" year, to compare to?)

In the late afternoon it was announced that the collaborative research team of NOAA and others had successfully administered another dose of an antibiotic to J50. This sounds like good news, but word was it was quite distressing for those watching. J50, flanked by her family members, all of them swimming erratically; I would not be at all surprised if they recognized the boat, or the gun (used to shoot the dart with antibiotics), and wanted to evade it. I've seen the whales do the same thing myself when I've been a guest on a research boat with whales that do not want to be approached.

So here we find ourselves in this moral gray area. What is the right thing to do to help these whales, and what crosses a line? The line is clearly different for each of us, and I guess we each have to figure out where that is for ourselves.

I would not be at all surprised if J50 is not with us tomorrow. Then again, I said the same thing yesterday, and this tenacious little whale showed up out of no where, seemingly back from the dead. It's hard to know how to process these emotions and these stories told by these whales. All I know is that their messages - whether meant for us or not, sent so clearly by both J35 and J50 - cannot fall on deaf ears, and cannot be in vain. We are all struggling right now with what we are witnessing, and how much to criticize or stand up for what we think is wrong and how much to step aside because we all have different ideas of what "help" means. All I can do is report what I see and how I feel about it, with full acknowledgment that others feel differently. For me, attempting to sample and medicate a dying whale is not going to save this population, as sad as J50's story is. I do not want to see us try to use synthetic drugs to save these whales as we watch them deteriorate and die one by one. While it is not so simple to say that J35's calf died because she was malnourished or J50 is dying because she is starving, the truth is simple: more salmon will help all of the problems they are facing. With more fish, they will carry more healthy calves to term and be able to raise them. With more fish, they will metabolize fewer of the toxins they carry in their blubber. With more fish, they will have stronger immune systems, and be less susceptible to disease. We cannot continue to attempt sensational band-aid solutions that make us sound like heroes but do nothing of substance for the whales. Today, we are three weeks away from the governor's task force issuing their draft recommendations, and perhaps then we will see if there are people who have the courage enough to make the tough, difficult decisions that will result in the type of bold action these whales really need to survive.