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Friday, May 31, 2013

People Kids Watching Whale Kids

The timing was perfect this afternoon - I just got out from work when I friend tipped me off that J-Pod was heading south from Turn Point towards San Juan Island. I swung by home to grab my camera and a snack and headed out to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island. Recognizing the cars of some fellow whale friends in the parking lot, I thought I might be too late, but shortly after getting there the first blows were just coming into view to the north. Yes!

The whales were very spread out both north/south and east/west. It took about an hour for all of them to pass by, with some about 200 yards offshore and others several miles out in the middle of the straight. This whale was probably the closest, porpoising past not far from where I sat on my favorite rock:

As the whales approached, a school group gathered on the rocks above me. Sometimes the running commentary from fellow shore-based whale watchers is tuned out and other times its annoying. Today, listening to these fourth graders, it was just downright amusing.

First of all, it was neat to hear them put their newly acquired knowledge about the Southern Residents into action. They were clearly more well-informed than most adult whale watchers:

"There's a male!"
"There's a female!"
"There's another female!"
"No, that one's so small, it could be a baby male."
"Oh yeah, it's probably a baby male!"

"These are SO resident orcas. If these were transients that seal would be going bye bye."

"Come on, breach!"
"I would pay fifty bucks to see a breach."
"I would pay a million bucks to see a breach."
"You don't have to pay anything to see a breach."

Last weekend while at the Moby Doll symposium, I was reminded how for quite some time the "theory" of being able to identify individual killer whales by their markings was controversial. It took a while before people believed each whale was unique. These kids seemed to know that intuitively, naming the whales as they passed by, and then impressively tracking each individual whale as they continued swimming along. Admittedly, it helped that many of the moms and youngsters were closest to shore, providing whales of all different sizes for them to look at.

"I named that whale Sneedles."
"This one is Ninja and the next one is Stripe."
"There's Sneedles again!"
"No that's Ninja. Sneedles is thin and Ninja is huge."
"Oh yeah, but there's the little one, that's Stripe"

"These whales already have names you know."
"Yeah, but these could be their middle names."
"Or their last names."
"Or their nicknames."
"Yeah, these are our nicknames for the whales!"

Four year-old J45 Se-Yi'-Chn with mom J14 Samish. Or is that Stripe and Ninja?
It was inspiring to listen and realize how much the kids were into not only seeing the whales, but the whole experience.

"If they do this program next year, I'm SO going to come again!"
"Me too!"
"Me too!"
"Me too!"

"I would rather just out here all day and look at the water than be inside."

That about sums it up, doesn't it?

J37 Hy'shqa with calf J49.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Moby Doll: The Whale That Changed the World

The year is 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson is president of the United States and Lester B. Pearson is Prime Minister of Canada. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" by The Beatles is topping the music charts and gas cost about 30 cents a gallon. The Vancouver Aquarium, in the heart of the city with a population of about 800,000, has been open for eight years under the directorship of Dr. Murray Newman. Newman has a vision of creating the finest aquarium in the world and is planning a new exhibit featuring the marine life of the waters of British Columbia. The star of the exhibit is going to be a life-sized model of a killer whale, one of those horrible, vicious animals that frequented local waters. He knew killer whales were too dangerous to be kept alive, but since no one really knew in detail what one looked like he wanted to show them.

The Smithsonian Institution had recently sent a representative to one of the BC whaling stations to study a blue whale carcass to make a model for their Washington, DC Museum. Anyone who studied whales studied dead ones, so Newman made plans to acquire a killer whale carcass. He would have to get his own - killer whales are too small to be of interest to any of the commercial whalers. A machine gun had been mounted overlooking the Seymour Narrows near Campbell River three years earlier. It was stocked with 2000 rounds, the plans being to shoot as many killer whales as possible. They were surely interfering with human fisheries, and were on the list to be culled along with Steller sea lions and basking sharks for just that reason. Due to fire danger and the risk of ricocheting bullets hitting an innocent bystander the gun had never been fired, however, so there were no dead orcas to be obtained that way.

Instead, Newman acquired an old exploding harpoon gun from the Coal Harbor whaling station and hired a man from the First Nations to teach his ragtag crew how to fire it, using an apple tree for target practice. He discussed his plans with the University of British Columbia, who approved the idea, but no other license was needed to proceed. After all, who cared if you wanted to shoot a blackfish? He heard from someone that whales often passed close to East Point on Saturna Island, less than 40 miles from the Aquarium, so he set up his expedition crew there in late May. Sculptor Sam Burich, hired to build the model, was there, and passed his time painting orcas on their gear and carving modern-day hieroglyphics into the soft sandstone rocks. Also present was commercial fisherman Josef Bauer who had worked with the aquarium on other projects. The crew set up camp, and waited for whales.

Orcas passing East Point on Saturna Island in September 2012

It took six weeks until the day finally arrived. Other members of the crew had gotten bored and left, including a few commercial fisherman and a film maker who planned to record the whole event, but Burich and Bauer were still there. Burich was the one who manned the harpoon, and as a group of whales rounded the point not far from shore, he selected his target. As he would later famously say to the media, "I picked one out that seemed a little smaller than the others. It looked me right in the eye and I looked right back. I just let her have it."

The harpoon found its mark, piercing the whale so solidly that the point came out the other side of the animal. The animal reacted instantly, thrashing violently in an attempt to free itself. The men watched, waiting for the animal to die, as it entangled itself in the rope attached to the harpoon. The other whales watched, too, remaining near to the injured animal. When the whale began to tire out, two other animals approached it and held it to up to the surface, making it easier for it to breathe. Realizing the animal wasn't going to die, the men thought Newman might be interested in examining the killer whale alive. They tried to call him, but he wasn't available, so they called Dr. Patrick McGeer, a professor at UBC who was involved in the project due to his interest acquiring and studying a killer whale brain. While they waited for McGeer to arrive, local islanders showed up, guns in hand, ready to help finish off the whale before it hurt somebody. Bauer, who from his many years on the water didn't hold the same opinion of the dangerous blackfish that most people did, planted himself between the whale and the men on shore. No one was going to kill this whale until the Vancouver scientists arrived - in the meantime, it didn't pose a risk to anyone, he was sure.

McGeer hired a seaplane and flew to East Point, where the lighthouse keeper related to him the story of what he deemed was a dangerous struggle between the thrashing whale and the men on shore. When McGeer arrived on scene, things had calmed down considerably. All the other whales were gone, and the young injured animal rested on the surface. By this time, Newman had been reached and was also on his way. It was agreed no one would shoot the whale until hearing what Newman wanted to do.

When Newman arrived, an idea formulated in his head. He had always believed that live animals were much more valuable than dead ones, and the chance to study a live killer whale was too great a one to pass up. He called David Wallace who ran a shipyard in North Vancouver, asking if they could flood his dry dock to house the whale. Familiar with Newman's reputation in the area, Wallace agreed, and plans were laid to move the whale from East Point to Vancouver. The men were amazed that the whale followed along beside them "like a dog on a leash", and the relocation of the whale went off without a hitch.

Concerned the harpoon wound might become infected, McGeer rigged up a syringe to inject penicillin on the end of a long pipe. Newman called a dean at UBC to seek further medical advice. "Have you removed to the harpoon?" the dean asked. Oh, yeah, they realized. That might help.

A few days later, after the harpoon had been removed, the whale seemed to be recovering nicely. Wallace was interested in putting his dry dock back into use, however, so Newman arranged to have a sea pen built attached to a tugboat. "You're not going to bring that horrid animal into the harbor, are you?" she asked him. That was exactly what he had in mind. It took a week to construct the pen, and they waited until the whale swam into it on its own, closing the gate behind it. It was time to transport the whale again, and again it went smoothly.

Meanwhile, the public eye was on this newly acquired killer whale. 20,000 people came down to see the whale and newspapers around the world picked up the story. Scientists from all over the continent came to see the whale first hand. A pair of men came up from a marine lab in California and offered to buy the whale from Newman. He wasn't interested in selling, so he named what he thought was an outrageously high price: $25,000. He was surprised when the men readily agreed to pay it, but he declined. This whale was not for sale. A radio contest was undertaken to name the whale, and a member of the media asked McGeer if it was a male or a female. He didn't know, so he asked whale expert Gordy Pike what he thought. Due to the short dorsal fin on the 15-foot animal, Pike said it was a female, so that's the answer McGeer related to the media. The winning name was chosen: Moby Doll.

The next problem was trying to figure out what the whale would eat. Newman had heard killer whales took down gray whales to eat their tongues, so he arranged to get a gray whale tongue from a whaling station up north. When they dropped it in the whale's enclosure, Newman would later relate, "Moby was horrified". With no luck that way, they tried all kinds of other meat, including seal, whale blubber, and octopus. Still, Moby wouldn't eat. Nothing worked for nearly two months until someone offered the whale a lingcod. This, finally, was consumed. Moby consented to eat other fish, offered to her on the end of a long pole. Salmon, Newman realized, was her favorite, but it was awfully expensive, so a variety of fish were provided.

During these weeks of up-close observation of a wild killer whale, the old ideas of killer whales being fearsome creatures that devour anything including man given the opportunity were quickly shattered. This animal was docile, or even curious. Burich, the one who harpooned her, was taken with sitting beside her enclosure and playing his mouth organ, which the whale seemed to enjoy. His wife would later relate that moments like these changed his life. Moby was smart, too - she made a wide variety of squeaky vocalizations, and McGeer's impression was that other whales heard and even responded to her. Most surprising of all was that Moby was gentle. After feeding the whale off a pole, they realized that if you fed her by hand, she might not even take off your hand. McGeer bravely tried it, and the whale easily took the other end of the salmon dangling at the end of his outstretched arm.

There were more surprised in store for the scientists, too. One day someone called McGeer down to the enclosure. When McGeer asked what was wanted of him, the man replied, "I want to show you Moby Doll's dick". Turns out she was really a he, finally apparent at one point when the whale had its penis erect. Surprisingly, they had a young male on their hands, instead of a young female. McGeer would later justify Moby Doll as an appropriate name, "Even though Moby was a male, Moby was a doll."

While they thought Moby's health would improve after he began eating, the opposite turned out to be the case. The animal became sick and listless, finally dying on October 9th. An autopsy determined Moby Doll died of an Aspergillus infection, but McGeer believes that was just the result of the whale being held in the unhelathy waters of the Vancouver harbor. The low salinity of the water due to the nearby outflow of the Fraser River probably contributed to the comprising of Moby's immune system.

The whole ordeal lasted less than three months, but the impact of Moby Doll would be a lasting one. The widespread publicity of Moby Doll, the first-ever positive press for the killer whale, would have a variety of impacts on the lives of the wild whales. With the realization that blackfish weren't actually so dangerous and could be held in captivity, more than 30 aquariums would set out to add killer whales to their collections, and a lucrative global industry was launched, with every facility obtaining a whale having immediate financial success. This meant that some populations of whales, in particular the Southern Resident Killer Whales, would be severely impact by a decade of live captures, though of course at this time no one knew the different between a resident and a transient whale, or even if the number of killer whales in British Columbia numbered in the hundreds or in the thousands. 

In addition to the aquarium industry jumping on the killer whale bandwagon, a different sort of spark was lit as well. These whales were inherently intriguing, far more interesting than they were dangerous, and suddenly instead of shooting them people slowly began to be keener to study them instead. Moby Doll in particular would touch the lives of a couple of young men would go on to have extremely influential careers as killer whale researchers. Mike Bigg, who pioneered methods of photo-identifying killer whales and undertook the original surveys of British Columbia killer whale populations, was a student interested in harbor seals until he took part in Moby Doll's necropsy alongside Dr. McGeer. John Ford, nine years old in 1964, was taken by his mom to see Moby Doll at the Vancouver harbor, and he was fascinated by the whale. He, too, would go on to become a killer whale biologist, specializing in acoustics and defining their different vocalizations into discrete call types while learning about the nuances of killer whale dialects between different populations. He started by listening to the recordings that had been made of Moby Doll at the Vancouver Aquarium, and used the very same equipment to make recordings of the other whales the aquarium held when he was a student. He would be surprised when, in the late 1970s, he heard vocalizations from wild killer whales coming over his hydrophones that sounded just like Moby Doll. Through his work, it was apparent that Moby Doll had been a member of what we now call J-Pod. J2 Granny and J8 Speiden, two well-known whales from J-Pod who are still alive today, were probably there when Moby Doll was harpooned, and may have even been among the whales that helped hold him up to the surface after he had been injured.

This weekend there was a symposium held on Saturna Island entitled Moby Doll: Reflections on Change. In attendance were many renowned killer whale scientists, over 200 orca enthusiasts, and Dr. Murray Newman and Dr. Patrick McGeer, present to relate their stories of that fateful day almost fifty years ago.

Banner welcoming visitors to the Moby Doll Orca Symposium on Saturna Island May 25, 2013
Dr. Murray Newman and Dr. Patrick McGeer on stage at the Moby Doll Orca Symposium May 25, 2013

It's amazing how much our attitudes towards killer whales have changed in this relatively short time period. Moby Doll triggered a new understanding that started us down the path of transforming from whale killers to whale watchers, from a paradigm of culling to one of conservation. The question that faces us now is: has even this drastic paradigm shift been enough? As Dr. Peter Ross summarized at the end of the symposium, with all the risks facing not only our whales but threatening the health of the entire ocean ecosystem, from lack of food to chemical pollutants to global climate change, perhaps its time for another shift. We need a broader, longer term, bigger picture perspective, that takes into account not only the whales we've grown to love but everything they - and we - depend on: clean water, quiet spaces, a sustainable environment, and a healthy food chain from top to bottom.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"The Cutest Thing I've Ever Seen" - Baby Foxes

Last Saturday while out looking for whales (before Sunday's amazing J-Pod encounter) I came across three baby fox kits. My shore-based whale chasing ceased immediately because you just can't pass by faces like these. While I was crouching in front of my parked car with camera in hand, another woman stopped to watch them for a while, too. "This is the cutest thing I've ever seen," she said. That about sums it up, as photos definitely speak louder than words with these guys:

(Note: Prints of all these photos can be ordered from my fox image gallery)

In other news, I've been falling way behind Dave and my dad in our year list challenge. On an evening walk the other night I did hear my first Swainson's thrush (159) of the season. Then today I stopped by Westside Lake and was amazed by the number of birds I could see and hear just standing alongside the road: olive-sided flycatcher, turkey vulture, red-winged blackbird, Cassin's and warbling vireos, violet-green swallows, pied-billed grebe, and best of all, a western tanager (160).

After my walk on the nearby quarry trails, I was still enjoying the sun too much to head straight home, so I stopped to look at the wildflowers at Land Bank's Westside Preserve. It's amazing how you can visit a place so many times and still find new vantage points - I think I discovered a new place to go sit and read there on my next visit, and it has an added bonus of being out of the wind. While sitting in that spot taking it all in I took this shot of the broad-leaved stonecrop that it's full bloom right now. I love the colors!

Also while sitting there this western x glaucous-winged gull hybird came and landed about fifteen feet away from me. I'm pretty sure he was checking me out for food. He was out of luck there, but no doubt he'll have more success in what promises to be a busy holiday weekend here on the island.

Next up, it's off to a one-day symposium tomorrow to learn some details about a very interesting part of local history; a story many people aren't even aware of that took place just 50 years ago. I'm sure it will inspire a great blog post in the very near future! Stay tuned...

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 19th: A Whale Smörgåsbord

The ultimate cuteness post has to be delayed another day, because another amazing encounter with J-Pod on Sunday, May 19th is taking precedence. Not only was J-Pod around the west side of San Juan Island in the afternoon, but there were transients up north, more transients in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a minke whale in San Juan Channel, and if the chatter on the radio was any indication, a whole lot of humpback whales out in Juan de Fuca as well. Whales, whales everywhere! This is why people like me live here.

On Saturday I just caught the tail end (no pun intended) of J-Pod coming south in Haro Strait, and on Sunday my timing was a little better as I arrived at Land Bank's Westside Preserve just as J36 Alki did - she was the very first whale, followed shortly thereafter by mom J16 slick and big brother J26 Mike. The whales were pretty far out, but were spread nicely giving me a chance to get some good IDs as they passed by. After the J16s were J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse, then J2 Granny and J8 Spieden, the four J-Pod whales I didn't have a chance to see during Wednesday's amazing encounter when J-Pod had just returned.

This photo is a little blurry because it's cropped from such a far away shot, but it's not often you see a whale surfacing right in front of another one that's spyhopping!

We have our fair share of poor boaters in the Salish Sea, but these people behaved just right. With no indication of whales in the area (there were amazingly no whale watch boats with the lead whales), they were cruising along in Haro Strait. As soon as they saw whales they shut off their engine and were treated to some pretty close passes:

The whales continued south, and I told Keith, "Let's stay a while, because I think they're going to come back and they're going to be closer." We sat in the sun and read for a while, and just when we were thinking we would head to town to get some lunch, we saw some whale watch boats reappear to the south. Sure enough, a scan with binoculars revealed a couple dorsal fins again pointed north. We repositioned ourselves to a different part of Land Bank and settled in to wait. Little did we know what was in store for us! It all started when J27 Blackberry, a big adult male, breached four times in a row. Not often do you see the big guys launch themselves out of the water like this!

Breach by J27 Blackberry
(Note: All pictures from this whale encounter can be viewed in a photo gallery here, where prints can also be purchased. I heard there was a J34 Doublestuf fan watching this amazing encounter. Unfortunately, he wasn't one of the closest whales as Js made their way north and thus didn't make it into my pictures this afternoon, but I have a special tribute gallery to Doublestuf here. You may also like some photos of him in my May 17th post about J-Pod's return.)

Not far behind Blackberry was J19 Shachi, who did a couple of tail slaps as she passed inside the kelp bed. The next photo with some shore-based whale watchers gives you an idea of just how close to shore she was.

Tail slap by J19 Shachi

J19 Shachi wows Jenny and Bill as they watch from shore
It's hard to pick a favorite moment when all the whales come by together, many of them close to shore, but this next one will stick out in my mind for a long time. Ten year-old male J38 Cookie was swimming with four year-old male J44 Moby and three year-old male J47 Notch. The three of them came so close to shore that you could see them swimming underwater just off the nearest kelp bed. They move so effortlessly. There's nothing I love more than being able to see the whales underwater!

J38 Cookie heading towards shore

J38 Cookie

J47 Notch

J44 Moby peaks above the surface

J47 Notch (right) spits water out of his mouth as he surfaces sideways next to J44 Moby

J47 Notch underwater

J44 Moby begins to surface

J44 Moby

J38 Cookie begins to surface

J38 Cookie

J38 Cookie surfaces with bull kelp draped over his dorsal fin
It's always thrilling when the whales pass this close to shore - after all, these are wild killer whales! But it's especially fun when not only are they just yards from shore but they're playful, too. Keith said that, after five years of living here, it was probably the best whale encounter he's ever had.

Not sure what this whale did, but it created quite a splash!

Young calf J49 tail slaps next to aunt J40 Suttles

One of many tail slaps!

J49 surfaces next to J40 Suttles

L87 Onyx, who has been traveling with J-Pod since 2010

Tail wave
The whales were moving slowly enough that it was possible to walk along the shoreline of the Land Bank property with them as they swam. Onyx and his group were the last ones that were so close, so I headed north with them, camera still in hand. Often Onyx travels with older female J8 Spieden, but not today. He was in with the juveniles and some other females goofing around and having a good time!

L87 Onyx surfaces on his side behind J38 Cookie

Look at the size of that pec fin! A pec wave by L87 Onyx

The first of several inverted tail slaps by Onyx

L87 Onyx in close contact with a couple of other whales
It took a while for the whales to return this spring, but if the first five days of J-Pod behind around is any indication, we're in for another great summer of whale encounters! This is definitely a day that will not soon be forgotten.