Monday, August 31, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
Reports were that all three pods were in the area, but they were very spread out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We met up with K-Pod as they were headed back towards False Bay on San Juan Island. The first group of whales we came across included brother K21 Cappuccino (right) and sister K40 Raggedy (left):
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The proposed recovery plan developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) identifies three main threats as contributing factors to the recently observed population decline: diminishing prey abundance, pollutants in the water, and vessel effects, which includes both direct interference and sound contributed primarily by underwater engine noise.
Commercial whale watchers have for many years followed a set of voluntary guidelines restricting boat behavior around the whales, including but not limited to not approaching the whales closer than 100 yards, slowing vessels down within 400 yards of the whales, not approaching the whales from directly in front of or behind them, and not parking in their path. They also observe a voluntary “no-go” zone covering much of the westside of San Juan Island when the whales are present, staying ¼ mile offshore for most of the shoreline, ½ mile offshore near Lime Kiln Lighthouse, and 1/8 mile offshore at all other coastlines. In June of 2008 it became illegal in the state of Washington to intentionally motor within 100 yards of Southern Resident orcas.
In the first major conservation effort since the endangered listing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has partnered with NMFS and at the end of July released a set of new proposed vessel regulations that would apply to boats near killer whales in US waters. They are recommending that law prohibit vessels from approaching within 200 yards of killer whales, and that boats of all types (with a few specific exceptions) observe a mandatory no-go zone, whether whales are present or not, for ½ mile off most of the Westside of San Juan Island from May 1 to September 30 every year, the peak season the Southern Residents are in the area.
These proposed vessel regulations have spawned what many are calling the San Juan Island version of “Whale Wars”, with lots of media attention focusing on the opinions on both sides of this issue ranging from one extreme to the other. Some people feel that these regulations are a long time coming, that whale watch vessels are a significant contributor to the decline of these whales, and that these proposed rules are not extreme enough. Others feel that NOAA is barking up the wrong tree and focusing on the wrong issue entirely, these regulations will do nothing to significantly help the whales, and instead that all these rules will do is decrease the whale-watching experience and have a negative effect on the local economy. I’ve largely stayed quiet on this issue so far, taking some time to gather my thoughts, do some research, and seek out the opinions of others that I respect – some of you may recognize some of your sentiments echoed below. My thoughts and opinions could easily be more long-winded than they already are, but for those who are interested, here are some key points I feel pretty strongly about:
- It is clear that the three identified threats to Southern Residents can be prioritized by importance in this order: 1) not enough salmon, 2) toxins in the environment, 3) vessel effects. I understand NOAA is focusing on vessel effects first because it is the easiest issue to tackle in the short term, but it still seems backwards to me, and I wish half as much energy was being focused on talking about salmon issues as is being expended talking about boats.
- Kayakers, to be blunt, are getting screwed by these regulations. There have been no studies looking specifically at the impact of kayaking on local orcas, and they are just getting lumped in with all other vessels when in reality they are the quietest and slowest-moving of the crafts we see out there with the whales. Closing the westside of San Juan Island to kayaking in the summer months would have huge local economic impacts – not only to local kayak companies, but to other local venues such as hotels and restaurants, as well as to the San Juan County Park system which gets a significant amount of money from both commercial and private kayakers that launch from the park on the westside.
- The whole reason we are even talking about the endangered listing of the Southern Residents is because they were designated a distinct population segment, different not only from other types of marine mammals but actually culturally unique from all other groups of killer whales. Why is it, then, that most of the studies cited in NOAA’s proposal report the impact of vessels not even on killer whales, but on other species entirely: humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, right whales, etc. If these whales are endangered because of their uniqueness then any decisions regarding their management should be based on studies focused specifically on them. Note, for instance, that their statement about kayakers affecting the whales is backed by a citation of a study on the impact of kayaks on terrestrial Steller sea lion haul outs in Glacier Bay, Alaska.
- There is no strong science supporting the statement that boats are in any way contributing to the decline of the Southern Resident population. Research on the local whales has shown some impact of boats influencing surface behaviors and vocalizations, and I understand that NOAA’s viewpoint is that any disturbance of an endangered species is a negative one. But we really have to consider not only observed vessel impacts, but the biological significance of any recorded impacts. If whales occasionally tailslap more often when a boat is in close proximity or increase the amplitude of their calls when vessel noise is high, is that really affecting the fitness of these animals? Does it translate, for instance, into them needing more salmon, or being less effective at hunting?
- The most convincing studies of vessel effects have been acoustic, describing changes in the vocalizations the whales make when boat engine noise is high. These proposed regulations to little to address that issue specifically, especially since the most significant contributors of noise – shipping traffic, which is louder even if the boats themselves are further away from the whales – are completely ignored. How about making the ½ mile zone on the west side a SLOW go zone instead of a no-go zone, which would reduce engine noise but still make this area accessible to whale watchers, recreational boaters, and kayakers.
- The enforcement (or rather, the lack thereof) of these regulations will be a nightmare. I don’t see there magically being more enforcement boats on the water with the passing of these regulations. Right now, most of the vessel monitoring occurs by Soundwatch, a program of The Whale Museum that is on the water to act as a watchdog to commercial boats as well as be a boat-based education program that passes out whale watch guidelines to private boaters. There are only occasionally enforcement boats on the water that have the ability to write tickets to boats violating the motoring within 100 yard law, but they rarely hand out actual citations since they don’t feel enough education has been done to keep private boaters from committing these violations. From having volunteered on Soundwatch, I know its true that many private boaters approached by Soundwatch have no idea what the current whale watch guidelines are, even though they have been in place in one form or another for 10-15 years. I think it makes more sense to commit time and money to educating the public (mandatory education with boat registration, perhaps?) about the current regulations we have in place to increase compliance with those, rather than implement new regulations that, in essence, only the commercial whale watchers will know about. What will happen in reality is you will have the commercial whale watch boats following the new rules and staying ½ mile offshore, watching private boats watch whales right along the shoreline of San Juan Island, with no one to tell them not to do so.
- Soundwatch reports that most of their observed vessel behavior violations occur by private boaters, who are, as discussed above, largely unaware or oblivious to even the current boater regulations. I know critics will be quick to point out that plenty of commercial whale watch boats also commit violations, and I don’t disagree. Many people take this to mean that the whale watch boats are ineffectual at policing themselves, but it is on this point that I disagree. Over the last nine summers I’ve watched whales here (and I’ve watched them a lot from both shore and from boats) I have seen a huge improvement in the behavior of commercial boats around the whales I think it’s the general sentiment that commercial boats are better behaved than they were ten years ago. What people need to realize is that there will never NOT be incidents of boats being close to whales. You can regulate people all you want, but until you can regulate the whales (read: never), they are going to continue doing what they please, which means being unpredictable in their traveling and surfacing patterns. I have the honor of working with several whale watch captains who do all they can to comply with the whale watch guidelines, but even they sometimes “get caught” with whales too close to the boat, and when this happens, we just cut our engines and enjoy the moment for what it is – a nice view of the whales doing whatever they want.
- I think it is naïve to say that the regulations will have no impact on the whale-watching experience. Currently, there are already trips we run where we don’t see the whales closer than 200 yards, and people are very content with these views. But on those days when the whales are all along the shoreline of San Juan Island and the boats have to be a ½ mile away, it is going to be a tough sell. The whales do spend a lot of time in this zone, but it has not been demonstrated that it is of any particular importance to them culturally, as the Robson Bight Ecological Preserve is for the Northern Residents. Imagine what it will be like if all of J-Pod is inshore and J1 Ruffles is the only whale further than a ½ mile offshore, which often happens. You will have the entire whale-watching fleet on one whale, rather than spread out over the whole pod.
- Finally, I think it is important to remember the role that whale-watching places in the preservation of the Southern Residents. On a daily basis we, as a commercial whale watch company, establish lifelong connections between people and the whales. I think whale-watch boats play an invaluable role in the education of the public on the real issues threatening the orcas – declining salmon stocks and toxins in the water. I have seen countless people transformed after they see a wild orca, touched for life by spending an hour observing killer whales in their natural habitat. I often spend the whole trip back to port talking to people about the threats the whales face and what they can do to help. Yes, we need to monitor the impact of vessels around the whales, and continue to discuss and develop guidelines and ways to educate all boaters about safe practices around the whales. But rather than target whale watching as a front-and-center reason for the decline of local whales, a statement that has no basis in the scientific literature, I think we need to recognize whale-watching for what it is: a platform to foster a sense of stewardship about not only our local endangered whales, but the entire ecosystem that they, and all of us really, depend on.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Stonecrops are a group of plants I was largely unaware of until this spring's trip with a botanist to Yellow Island, but now I notice members of this succulent family all over local rocky outcroppings. There are several different species just along the rocky cliff on my street. The most common is broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium):
Sunday, August 23, 2009
There were three females and two juveniles in the group, but I'm still not sure which specific whales they are. We don't see transients as often so I'm not very familiar with them (I don't think I've ever seen this group), plus we didn't have an up-to-date ID guide with us at the time. I'm going to hazard a guess and say the T60s were at least part of the group, but I've sent some photos to the Center for Whale Research in hopes of an ID confirmation.
Friday, August 21, 2009
We got to see the whales pass right by East Point on Saturna Island, one of the Canadian Gulf Islands. Check out the view these shore-based whale-watchers got! (Those cliffs they're standing on are pretty spectacular too.)
Check out the water streaming off both is melon (forehead) and dorsal fin in this shot, taken just a split second after the one above:
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The very last group of whales that came through was the closest to shore. It included J27 Blackberry, J31 Tsuchi, and J39 Mako, but there was another female that was even closer in. She never dove very deep, so from my perch up on the cliff at Land Bank I could see her underwater as she swam along. Right in front of me she turned around and surfaced once going in both directions, giving me a nice ID shot of both sides of her. Turns out it was J32, Rhapsody!
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I love seeing the K11s because there are four living generations of whales in it:
K11 Georgia - 76 year-old great-grandmother
K13 Skagit - 37 year-old daughter of K11
K20 Spock, K25 Scoter, K27 Deadhead, K34 Cali - Four offspring of K13
K38 Comet - Son of K20 Spock, and great-grandson to K11 Georgia
When we arrived they were in resting formation, barely moving anywhere from one dive to the next, but coming to the surface all together. I love it when you see so many dorsal fins together in a tight group. From left to right are K20 (barely visible), K11, K34, K25, K27:
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Often while watching whales, as we were today aboard the Western Explorer, I don't pay as much attention to the birds, and just dismiss anything white flying overhead as a glaucous-winged gull. Today, however, one such bird caught my attention when it dropped out of the sky and into the water and emerged with a fish in its blood red bill - that's no gull! It was in fact a Caspian tern, the third one I've seen in the San Juan Islands this season:
Friday, August 14, 2009
First of all, though, check out this beauty of a common murre that was not camera shy (or boat shy) at all. There were lots of murres out and about today!
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Just a few hundred yards from our slip we spotted a juvenile harbor seal who was foraging on some bait fish. Whenever the seal dove, all the bait fish would start jumping into the air! As we cruised north harbor porpoise could be seen in small groups of two or three animals everywhere. We stopped to watch a bald eagle swoop down towards the water (it failed to catch a fish), and also looked at red-necked phalaropes, rhinoceros auklets, common murres, pigeon guillemots, and several species of gulls.
Captain Ivan knew that no one had searched near Sucia and Patos Islands yet, and also knew that the transient orcas in the area yesterday have been seen in that area before, so that's the direction we headed next, following his hunch that if the whales were still in the area, that's where they might be. As we passed Patos Lighthouse we saw some rooster tails up ahead of us - a telltale sign of Dall's porpoise! We haven't seen as many Dall's this year so we were excited to go check them out, when all of a sudden three MUCH bigger dorsal fins surfaced behind the porpoise - killer whales!! There was a stunned second of silence before the whoops of excitement began. Then Ivan got to get on the marine radio to tell the other whale watch boats "We've made contact, we've made contact!" meaning that we've found whales - an honorable moment in a whale watch captain's day as he gets to be the hero of the hour.
It's always so exciting to be the boat that first spots the whales. The orcas travel up to 100 miles a day and one never knows where they will show up first thing in the morning, but the residents have some pretty typical traveling patterns. Transients are much harder to find, so luck and Ivan's intuition were definitely on our side today!
There were four whales in the group we found today - females T18 and T19, 14 year-old male T19B, and youngster T19C. T19B has a "sprouting" dorsal fin that, for now at least, has a very characteristic lean, making him easy to identify from a distance:
Here's another look at that amazing dorsal fin on T19B:
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
It was a very mellow afternoon, and we got to quietly watch the spread out whales travel - some surfacing far away, others mid-range, and still others closer. There was one moment of high excitement when the whales suddenly shifted from traveling south to a more westerly direction, and we got a nice pass by K12 Sequim and her six year-old sun K37 Rainshadow. Here is a sequence of four photos showing them surfacing as they passed off the left side of the boat. That's mom in front with the wispy saddle patch and Rainshadow next with the smaller dorsal fin and rake marks across his saddle patch: