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Saturday, August 29, 2015

August 16th: The Reed College Killer Whale Department, Drones and Killer Whales, and Resting Ks and Ls

On August 16th, the Reed College biology professor who advised my senior thesis and is about to advise the senior thesis of my research partner Michael was up on San Juan Island, and thankfully the conditions aligned for us to be able to get her out to see whales (right after her ferry arrived)! Reed isn't exactly known for studying killer whales, but maybe that's about to change? :) There's one other student who published a killer whale thesis in the 1980s (and is now a well known whale scientist - Rus Hoelzel), but this photo compromises most of the unofficial Reed College "Killer Whale Department".

It was a bit of an unusual whale encounter for several reasons. First of all, more often than not, when there are Southern Resident Killer Whales in inland waters, at least some J-Pod whales are among them. Not so on this day - J-Pod was out west, and remaining "in" were the K13s, L4s, L26s, L47s, and L95. Another unique social group! And even more unexpectedly - they were resting! For whatever reason, we've seen less traditional resting behavior from the Southern Residents in recent years, where they get into a tight, slow-moving line and stay in resting formation for hours at a time. Presumably they've shifted to resting more at night, perhaps due to there being fewer disturbances then. This was the first real resting line I had seen this summer. It's one of the more impressive sights, because all the whales tend to surface close together and within a few seconds of one another, meaning you get to see LOTS of dorsal fins at once. The only downside was the whales are quiet while they're resting, so we didn't get any vocal recordings of this interesting social group!

 If disturbances are what's causing the whales to shift when they rest (and that's purely speculation on my part), this sure didn't seem like a great day for resting either. Consensus from many people on the water was that it was one of the worst days for private boater behavior of the summer, with multiple boats repeatedly driving right through or in front of the resting whales. Being an August weekend, there were plenty of boats out in general, behaving the rules, on both sides of the whales. Oh, and add in the fishing and shipping traffic and Haro Strait didn't exactly seem like the best place for a nap!

One of the not-so-quiet freighters that regularly traverses Haro Strait
 The whales seemed to think otherwise, however, and continued on their way seemingly unperturbed. One of the other things we witnessed, however, was definitely seen by us humans as a potential nuisance: we saw two boats launch and fly drones within about 30 feet of the orcas. Look in the top right of the image below to see the drone:

Many people who witnessed this were outraged, and it led to many discussions and false accusations after the fact. I personally wasn't sure what the rules were about flying drones around the orcas. I've done some research since then. It turns out there aren't any regulations in place in Canada at this point in time, while in the US they're defining drones as "aircraft" which means in Washington State the same vessel regulations apply to drones as apply to whale-watching boats: that it's illegal to fly them within 200 yards of an orca. The two folks responsible for the incidents on August 16th found this out the hard way - both were slapped with $1025 fines by WDFW.

WDFW (right) pulling up to a private boat to hand out a citation - notice the drone hovering above

It wasn't pleasant to watch the drones flying right over the whales, but I think that was mostly a visual thing for me. In all honesty, I suspect the whales didn't even have a clue the drones were there. At worst, they're a very, very minor annoyance compared with everything else the whales have to deal with. I'm perhaps somewhat in the minority here, but while I suppose drones should be regulated, I wish less attention was being focused on that and more on the more pressing issues these endangered whales are facing. There's no doubt that the resulting footage is stunning - you can see a clip one of the fined operators got here. Drones will undoubtedly play an interesting role in research, with amazing possibilities for more affordable aerial photogrammetry research, etc. going forward. Right now I just don't think the science is there demonstrating any impacts of drones on marine mammals, but clearly private operators need to obey the existing vessel guidelines when flying drones near orcas.

But back to the whales! The other great thing about resting whales, aside from seeing so many dorsal fins close together at the surface at once, is being there when they wake up! Often, they all get going all at the same time, and go through a very active spurt at the surface. This time was no exception! One captain on the water commented that it was one of the best "awakenings" he had ever seen, and I would have to agree. It's not often you see orcas breaching and cartwheeling as much as these guys did over the next five or so minutes!

This was right off Open Bay, and as the whales passed Kellett Bluff, they changed behavior yet again, fanning out and going into foraging mode. We got a nice last look at L95 Nigel before heading back in:

It was another beautiful, whale-filled day on the water, and we at the Orca Behavior Institute were happy to be able to share it with one of the professors that helps make our research possible!

1 comment:

Rabbits' Guy said...

This post points out how the Orca watching has become like people going to a performance at a big open-air concert. Is there a financial process whereby the Whales get a pretty good cut from the cost to watch?