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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Marine Debris Survey

Those of you that have been following my blog for a while know that I do monthly surveys of a local beach for COASST, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. The main focus of this citizen science project has been dead seabirds, but as part of a National Science Foundation grant they're looking to potentially expand the program to include a marine debris survey. They asked current COASSTers to photograph some debris on their local beaches to help them start the process of figuring out how to categorize debris. 

What's so interesting about surveying marine debris? You might be surprised!

Recently, a lot of debris from the Japanese tsunami has been washing up on Pacific Coasts. In addition to being interesting for beach combers, some of these debris pose greater risks than other trash in that they might introduce non-native species to our local coastal areas. A piece of a dock that washed up in Oregon had almost 2 tons of living marine organisms on it. Some tsunami debris has even been returned to their owners; a basketball that washed up in Alaska was returned to a school in Japan, where the kids were thrilled to receive it back.

Some native barnacles growing on a rusted piece of old anchor

It doesn't take a major marine catastrophe to make marine debris important, though. Even the run-of-the-mill beach trash may contain important information. Plastic lighters are notorious for their impacts on seabirds after being ingested in great numbers by birds like albatross. But did you know albatross are far more likely to ingest a red or orange lighter than a blue or black one? What if we could use this information to help protect albatrosses?

I remember reading about a waterside clean up in the Puget Sound area that quantified the different types of garbage they picked up. I believe plastic bottle caps and lids over 2" are recyclable, while smaller ones aren't. They found large quantities of small bottle caps, and only one larger one. Does this mean recyclable items are less likely to turn up on beaches than non-recyclable ones?

Debris can also tell us about weather and oceanic currents and how they influence debris. Have you ever heard about the 28,000 rubber duckies that fell off a cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992? They're still washing up on beaches 20 years later, continuing to inform scienctists about how our oceans work. Some have even found their way to Europe!

 It will be interesting to see what COASST comes up to do their marine debris survey. Some things they hope to do with such surveys include directing clean-ups to the most littered areas, further understand weather patterns that bring debris to shore, define which fisheries contribute to fishery-related debris, and look at the relationship between shore and ocean debris.

While I found some debris (not that much - San Juan beaches are usually pretty clean), I didn't find any dead seabirds, as per usual. There was still plenty of else to look at, however including live birds. The winter seabird are starting to show up in numbers. There were probably 600+ scoters - mostly surf scoters but a few white-winged, too. I also saw 10 or more common loons, horned grebes, and red-necked grebes. Another surprise just because of their numbers was a flock of over 50 northwestern crow!

The one other picture I had to stop and take was of these clouds over towards the Straits. How many cloud types do you think there are in this photo? It was an impressive sight!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Superpod in Boundary Pass

The Southern Residents have continued to make brief visits to inland waters over the last month, and last night I got word that the whales were heading east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca again. I went to the west side early this morning, but I wasn't early enough to catch the whales - apparently they passed the Lime Kiln area between 4 and 6 AM. Here was the sunrise as seen from Bailer Hill Road:

When I heard Jim Maya of Maya's Westside Charters still had a space on his morning trip, I jumped at the chance to go out. It turned out to be a pretty epic trip with a superpod up in Boundary Pass between the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands. To see a slideshow of all the following whale photos or to order prints, check out this link to an album on my Zenfolio site.You can also see larger versions of all the photos there.

The first whales we saw were right off Monarch Head near Saturna Island, BC. The cliffs in this area make for a stunning backdrop when viewing whales! The first two whales we saw were L72 Racer and her son L105 Fluke. Here's Racer:

At first, the whales all seemed to be pretty spread out and doing some foraging. Before long, a few other whales came up to join Racer and Fluke. It was four whales from J-Pod - here are J2 Granny and J8 Spieden. At estimated ages of 101 and 79, they're thought to be the oldest two whales in the Southern Resident Community:

With them were J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse:

Captain Jim, a great naturalist in addition to a great captain, is also a photographer. That means he knows how to set up the great shots when it comes to lighting, background elements, etc. It was a bit of a hazy view of Mt. Baker today, but we got several chances to photograph the whales with the mountain in the background:

Speaking of lighting, it was just perfect when we were surprised by a breach. Luckily I was ready, because there was only one - but what a breach it was!!! One of my best breach shots ever:

This one really must be seen bigger - click again on the new screen to see the enlargement

Looks like just one whale, right? Not so! The extra black under the belly of the whale on these two shots made me take a closer look. The third shot in the series revealed what I was seeing - a second whale was doing a high spyhop behind the breaching whale! You can just see its head here behind the upper pectoral fin of the breaching whale:

Click here to see a larger version - click again on the new screen to see it larger still
Whew! If that were the end of the trip I would have been content, but there was a lot more to come. Soon after this the whales seemed to group up in the bay north of Monarch Head, and large groups of whales went back and forth several times as they seemingly were trying to decide which way to go. For the first time in quite a while, they finally decided to continue on north up towards East Point and then the Fraser River, rather than heading back south and right back out to the open ocean.

As they all went north, we stayed in more or less the same spot as wave after wave of whales came by. It was so cool to see so many dorsal fins!

K22 Sekiu and younger brother K37 Rainshadow, demonstrating nicely how family members often surface in synchrony
Two year-old K44 Saturna, named after Saturna Island, which is seen here in the background

The lighting was such that you could see rainbows in some of the blows - an effect I like to call "rainblows":

K26 with a bit of a "rainblow"
We followed them further north up Boundary Pass, where most of J-Pod had grouped up. Baby J49 was in this group, seen here on the far left. At between 5 and 6 weeks old he/she is still very pink:

Lots of whales, everywhere you looked!

The two large males seen here are J27 Blackberry (left) and L87 Onyx, who is still traveling with J-Pod
From left to right: J34 Doublestuf, his mom J22 Oreo, and Oreo's niece J32 Rhapsody
As the whales approached East Point, there were lots of shore-based whale watchers in for a treat. Just like Lime Kiln on San Juan Island, the whales often pass very close to shore here. Check it out!

At this point it was time for us to let the whales continue north towards the Fraser River and make our way back to Snug Harbor. Along the way back we made a stop at East Point where we saw four Steller sea lions in the water:

It was a pretty darn epic morning on the water!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Abundance of Life in San Juan Channel

Recently I got a newsletter update from the SeaDoc Society that had an interesting article about a sand wave in the middle of San Juan Channel. Underwater sand waves can be created by strong tidal currents, which San Juan Channel has plenty of. Here's a graphic from a paper written by Friday Harbor Lab student Jennifer Blaine showing the location and bathymetry of the sand wave:

Living in the sand wave, they found, are an estimated 44 million immature sand lance, a forage fish that is an essential link between plankton and higher order predators like sea birds, pinnipeds, and cetaceans. That explains why you often see a lot of seabirds in the middle of San Juan Channel! This rhinoceros auklet has a beak full of sand lance - it's a photo I took in San Juan Channel is July:

These thoughts were in my mind as I headed out yesterday to volunteer for a San Juan Channel bird survey. These transect surveys are part of a citizen science effort to get more data on the birds of San Juan Channel and create a year-round dataset to supplement the fall data that has been collected by the Friday Harbor Labs for the last bunch of years. I went on the inaugural volunteer survey in April, and this was my first one since then.

On yesterday's survey I saw 11 different bird species, but hundreds and hundreds of actual birds. The most abundant were the common murres, of which I saw more than 500. Also abundant were rhinoceros auklets and lots of gulls, including glaucous-winged, mew, California, and Heermann's. We also turned up about ten marbled murrelets (an impressive number), a few red-necked phalaropes, and a single Pacific loon still in stunning breeding plumage. Double-crested and pelagic cormorants rounded out my list. Compared to April, we had a lot more marine mammals in our survey zone - both harbor seals and harbor porpoise.

On our way out to do the survey, however, we had another task: an invertebrate release! One of the other volunteers had been doing a marine invertebrate educational unit in local classrooms and was returning some of the collected specimens back into the channel. We were all fascinated to see all the invertebrates up close before we released them! Here's the underside of a sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), a sea star that usually has between 15 and 25 legs:

I should have taken more pictures, because there were lots of other cool sea stars to look at too. Two that impressed me were the leather star (Dermasterias imbricata), with its intricate red color pattern on olive green skin, and the slime star (Pteraster tesselatus), a fat little sea star that produces a snot-like clear mucous. (Guess who got to release that one? Me!)

I did, however, take some pictures of this umbrella crab (Cryptolithodes sitchensis). This was a female, and was comparatively drab in coloration compared to some others of her species, which can come in brilliant reds and oranges. She was still a marvel to look at though - her carapace is so wide it covers her legs entirely. They really blend into the rocks and can be very hard to see:

Fish, birds, invertebrates - even when the whales aren't around much, there's still a lot to look at and learn about here in the Salish Sea!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Transients Near Trial

After a crispness in the air earlier this week that definitely felt like fall, we were back to summer-like weather today. With a half day at work, I decided to go out on the Western Prince this afternoon. The resident whales, who made a quick appearance in inland waters yesterday, were already on their way back out the Strait this morning (not a good sign for local fish numbers). We left the dock without a whale report, but as is always the case, you never know what you're going to see until you see it!

In San Juan Channel we came across a nice bait ball of fish that were actually visible under the water. Glaucous-winged, California, and Heermann's gulls were in the vicinity, as were three harbor seals. Seals tend to be skittish on land, but in the water they can be quite curious, as these three were today.

We headed out through Cattle Pass into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where there were lots of seabirds hanging out in the glassy calm waters, including lots of rhinoceros auklets and common murres. Here's one murre out a little further in the Strait, where the waters weren't quite that flat but still pleasant to be boating on:

The view back towards Mt. Baker from out there was a stunning one: 

We also saw both harbor porpoise and Dall's porpoise out there, and were just starting to look for minke whales when we got a report of transients over near Victoria, BC. Off we went! We cruised out west, passing Trial Island and the Trial Island Lighthouse along the way:

 We caught up with the T10s right off the coastline. This family group is made up of three whales. The mom, T10 Langara, was estimated to be born before 1963. Her two living sons are T10B Siwash (age 29) and T10C Bones (age 13). Not all transient orcas have names like residents do, but some of the commonly seen groups have been named by the Vancouver Aquarium for their wild killer whale adoption program. When we got on scene, the whales were really close to shore, wowing viewers who had pulled over to watch. It's almost hard to see the dorsal fins against the rocks:

Although these whales are regularly (for transients) seen in the area, this is the first time I've met this group of whales. It's always cool to see new whales and get to know their distinguishing features. It was an impressive sight to see the two brothers surfacing together. T10B is a good looking adult male with a huge dorsal fin.

Mama T10 has a huge notch in the back of dorsal fin near the base, making her unmistakable here on the left:

It's kind of odd to watch wild killer whales in such an urban setting, with so many houses in the background!

In typical transient fashion, the whales would go together on longer dives all together, and being more difficult to track, it wasn't always clear right where they were going to come up. A couple of times they surprised us by picking up speed and surfacing way up ahead. They also ducked in behind Trial Island, popping up in a bay right along off the rocks:

A couple of times we saw a bit of splashing at the surface and some non-directional swimming, so maybe they were after something. If they were, they didn't make any theatric kills as transients will sometime do. There were some harbor seals nearby in the water, and transients can be pretty efficient predators when they want to be.

We were about 25 miles from Friday Harbor at this point and had a long trek home, so all too soon it was time to leave. As we pulled away we could see the blows of the T10s lit up against Trial Island, and we got another nice view of the lighthouse with the Olympic Mountains behind it:

All in all, it was another beautiful day in the Salish Sea!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

New Orca Webcam

One of my most popular posts ever is one that lists various webcams where it's possible to see orcas. Most of them aren't really designed for wildlife viewing, so aren't really set up for watching live whales. There's a new video webcam that is just awesome to watch whether the whales are around or not - but in my first week of checking in on it, I did in fact see orcas!

OrcaLab is a land-based research station off northern Vancouver Island, set up right in the heart of the summer territory of the Northern Resident killer whales. Founded by whale researcher Dr. Paul Spong, OrcaLab conducts research on wild whales, advocates against killer whales in captivity, and shares the beauty of the Inside Passage with people around the world. The audio part of OrcaLab is known as OrcaLive, where you can tune into live streaming hydrophones much like you can at OrcaSound for listening in to the Southern Resident orca's core range. At OrcaLive there is also a community page where you can connect with other listeners. (Note: I haven't been able to get very clear audio from OrcaLive myself - I'm wondering if it has something to do with being a Mac user? It has a lot of electronic distortion noise with it. I'd love to hear if other Mac users have more success tuning in!

Just recently, however, OrcaLab re-launched its live streaming webcam, which was active from 2000-2005 but not since then. The OrcaLab camera is on during daylight hours and varies between being above water and under water. Whoever is positioning the camera does a fantastic job, showing viewers everything from colorful sunsets and serene vistas to fish exploring kelp and Northern Resident killer whales. On August 29th I tuned in and watched as the A30s (part of A-Pod) swam with a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins. The camera operator would consistently pan and zoom the camera to give web-based viewers a look at the action. Here are a couple screen shots I took during the 20 minutes I watched:

Eileen, another viewer, has posted some of her fantastic screen shots to a Flickr album here, showing a little bit better idea of what it can look like. She got some shots of both orcas and dolphins, and even some shots where it's possible to ID the whales.

Every time I've tuned in when the camera was on, there is something cool to look at, whether the whales are there or not. I encourage you to check it out! Here's the link again.

As a side note, this is my 700th blog post! It's amazing to go back and look through some of the things I've documented on this blog in the last 4+ years....