For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Turning Heartbreak into Action

This was my follow up to my previous blog post, written on Facebook written July 26th, about how to not let J35's vigil be in vain. I want to document it here so it remains a reference. We must learn something from her about the strength of love and unwillingness to give up. Somehow feels fitting that after 10 years of blogging, this marks my 1000th blog post.

Two and a half days later and J35 is still carrying her dead baby girl, what would have been a much needed boost to this critically endangered population. Two and a half days later, and my heartbreak is turning into outrage, especially after hearing a reporter pitch the important questions to Governor Jay Inslee this afternoon on Q13 Fox News, and hearing his lame responses. (You can watch the whole segment here: It is beginning to look like the task force will result in more of the status quo: keep boats further away, cull seals, and increase hatchery production. I will tell you right now that none of those things will make a serious difference to these whales. If we want to change the story, we have to get involved. Here are my immediate suggestions.

Attend the task force and working group meetings and ask the hard questions there, face to face. Go to every one you can. There clearly has not been enough public involvement in this process. I haven't been myself and I know it's hard to interrupt regular life to go and participate. But we MUST participate. Here is the meeting schedule.

Governor Inslee is very misinformed about the Lower Snake River dams. Much of what he said today is false. Here is the truth: We don't need to wait for the science to tell us whether breaching the dams is the most effective thing we can do to recover endangered salmon and endangered orcas. The science has already been done. The US Army Corps of Engineers did an expensive and exhaustive five year study that was published in 2002, concluding that breaching the dams was the most likely option to meet salmon recovery criteria on the Snake River. The lengthy environmental impact statement process currently underway is a delay tactic. Inslee also claimed that dam breaching is a federal issue, because it would require appropriations from Congress to proceed. Also not true. Bonneville Power Association, who owns the dams, could pay for the breaching and get credit on their federal debt for the dams. Finally, Inslee claimed dam breaching was a long-term issue and short-term actions were needed. There is little else that would have a larger impact faster than dam breaching, and the process could be started within a year. The earthen berms at the dams can be removed to restore a free-flowing river, leaving the concrete structures in place, and it could happen in a matter of months, not years. He needs to be called out on these false facts - give his office a call at 360-902-4111. They received a lot of calls today. Let's keep it going. (You do not have to be in Washington to call! They don't even ask where you are from.)

While you're at it, give Senators Murray and Cantwell a call, too. We have heard behind the scenes that some people at the federal level will publicly support dam breaching if the big three of Washington (Inslee, Murray, and Cantwell) state their support. All three have stated they want to protect the whales they claim are icons of Washington State. Let's make them prove it. Seattle office numbers for Murray: 206-553-5545, Cantwell: 206-220-6400. Tell them about J35. Enough is enough.

Finally, do NOT let them divide us. I have seen so much finger pointing from whale people blaming fishermen and fishermen blaming whale people. It has been boiling over, because people are rightfully pissed off, but let's not forget the ultimate goal, which is not to take away the livelihood of our neighbors. I have read the science and been in the field and I can tell you with certainty that neither whale-watching nor recreational fishing are to blame for the mess we are in. To have a loud enough voice to be heard we must set aside our disagreements on the lesser issues and focus on the big ticket items that will get more fish for everyone, such as dam breaching, fighting fish farms, and major habitat restoration.

If you have more suggestions let's hear them. If I've learned something from J35 in the last few days it's that I will not give up without a fight.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On Grieving Whales

J35 Tahlequah and her son J47 Notch on July 15, a little over a week before Tahlequah gave birth to a calf that lived for less than an hour.

“I just heard on the radio that there’s a whale pushing a dead baby.”

That was the message from a friend accompanying the news that J- and K-Pods had returned to inland waters on the morning of July 24th. Bizarrely, the confirmation of this tragic news didn’t come from the Center for Whale Research directly, but from a news reporter who made a Facebook post stating a new calf was seen alive with J35 Tahlequah for less than an hour before dying.

I’m sitting on the rocks at Lime Kiln watching members of J- and K-Pods go both north and south when the news hits, and my phone starts buzzing with notifications in my backpack. It’s almost not surprising anymore for this population that can’t seem to catch a break. This year it seems every time they return to inland waters after an absence there is another hit to take. L92 Crewser is deceased. J50 Scarlet is emaciated. Now J35 has lost a baby.

We’re coming up on three years without a successful birth into this critically endangered population. The last calf born that is still alive is L123 Lazuli, first seen near the end of 2015. 2015 was a baby boom year, but only five of the eleven known calves born in that 13-month period are still alive. Prior to that, it had been another 2+ years without any successful births.

Where is the hope? The baby boom at least showed us they are capable to having calves when they have the nutritional resources to do so, but what actions are we taking to give them that chance? Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research summed it up this way to the Seattle Times: The (Southern Residents) have very little reproductive potential left, and we are wasting it in a process that cannot succeed unless thinking leaves the box. We have to call it quits or fight like hell to restore wild salmon in as many ecosystems as possible as soon as possible.”

He and many others have been sounding the emergency alarm on this population since their endangered listing more than a decade ago, but what have we really done to give them a shot at recovery? A lot of important research has been done. I understood the need for NOAA to gather the data about many things we already knew about the whales, such as where they travel when they’re not in the Salish Sea and just how much salmon they are eating and from where. The abundant scientific data wasn’t there, and that data would be needed to defend the endangered listing of the Southern Residents in court and advocate for the hard line actions they need to recover. But at this point it’s hard not to agree that we are studying these whales to death. Thirteen years after their endangered listing and their population has declined further to a 30 year low. We know better than ever where they roam yet their critical habitat has not been expanded. We know better than ever what they eat and yet salmon numbers continue to decline. The latest claim, in what is perhaps a veiled effort to derail controversial efforts that are gaining momentum such as breaching the four lower Snake River dams, is that no one action and no one salmon run is going to recover these whales. Okay, fine. So what action is going to recover these whales? If you’ve got an idea of something we can do that will recover Chinook salmon abundance coast-wide like these whales need, we are all ears. But until that happens, I say we do the drastic, big ticket items now that will dramatically improve Chinook runs on certain rivers. Breach those damn dams already.

But no, we have to form a committee to talk about it some more. I haven’t yet given up hope on the Governor’s Task Force because for the first time it is bringing all the right interest groups to the table with a clear mandate, a short time line, and buy-in from at least the state level government. But when the main action items you’re hearing about are culling seals, further limiting fishing, and keeping whale watch boats even further away, it does not inspire confidence that the discussion has truly changed at all.

Meanwhile: let’s collect more data! I realize my cynicism on this front is a bit hypocritical, since I’m a researcher collecting data on these whales, too. The science-trained part of me knows that policy decisions should be based on science. That’s why we assembled public sightings records to show how much less the Southern Residents are using the Salish Sea, to try and add more weight to the push for an expanded critical habitat designation. But part of my appreciation for these whales has always transcended science, and for that part of me, a new line is emerging for where we have no right to conduct more studies and collect more data and intrude on what is sacred to and for and about these whales.

I started to realize where this line was when a research team went out to collect a breath sample from J50, who has been obviously ill for over a month. It was an action that garnered much popular support, because the hope from many is that we might find out what is wrong with her and intervene to bring her back to health. I think playing God in this way is a slippery and dangerous slope regardless; this is a young whale who likely experienced a difficult birth and has not been growing normally, being very small for her age. Will we medically support her her entire life? And what if our intervention makes it worse, and the stress kills her? Who are we to say that now, this whale, is the one we will try to save? Where was our human hand of God when L95 Nigel was killed by a satellite tag? Where was it when J28 Polaris slowly died before our eyes, followed by her son J54 Dipper? We see tragedy after tragedy unfold and nothing is enough for us to act and do anything to fix the underlying symptoms of this ailing population. I don’t think we have the right to try and put a band-aid on the painful experience of watching J50 wilt away so we have something positive to say about our actions. We have not given her a world in which to thrive: why should we feel okay about that?

I completely respect the research team that was on the water, as well as their motivations and care for these whales. But it did not sit well with me to see the J16s approached to get the breath sample. J50 Scarlet along with her mother J16 Slick and sister J42 Echo has been spread out and foraging for over half an hour. As soon as the boat approached, the whales took up flanking position, with mom and sister on either side of the Scarlet, and started steadily traveling. I am willing to go on record and say I don’t believe the whales usually react to boats, but to me this felt like whales who didn’t want to be approached. Another researcher agreed that the J16s have been mostly unapproachable on the water recently. What do we need that breath sample for? We know she’s sick. We know she’s likely going to die. Is knowing what particular strain of whatever disease is killing her going to suddenly spur us to action? I doubt it, so let’s just leave her and her family alone.

The line I don’t feel comfortable crossing got even clearer to me with the death of J35’s calf. Many members of the whale community started saying that they hoped we would recover the body, to learn more about why it died. Again, I ask: does it matter? We know from the last decade of study that up to 70% of the pregnancies in this population are failing, many of them late in the pregnancy or shortly after birth. We know that nutritional stress in the form of not enough Chinook salmon is a serious contributor to this problem, worsened by the toxic load these whales are carrying and passing along to their offspring. What will taking this precious little body that should have been a hope for the future and cutting it up in the lab teach us that we don’t already know? As I write this it has been more than 24 hours since the newborn died, and J35 is still carrying the carcass with her. Let me say that again: a grieving mother has been carrying the dead body of her child for more than a day. After what we have done to these whales, we have no right to take and study that body.

Perhaps my words sound harsh. Maybe they should be, because I’m angry. Enough is enough. I fell in love with these whales at a young age because of their innate charisma, their often playful personalities, their amazing life histories. I study them and write about them and share photographs of them out of that love, but also out of a sense of duty to protect what I love; I don’t know what else to do, or how else to do it. But this population is clearly at a breaking point, and the outlook does not look good. The governments on either side of the border have taken no actions of the magnitude needed, and it doesn’t look likely that they will. The Endangered Species Act is already failing to adequately protect these whales and it is under attack to be severely weakened. I pin my hope upon the task force because I have to, because I will not give up. Surely these passionate people can come together in the midnight hour and do what needs to be done, even if it is ten years too late. As I think of Tahlequah out there carrying another dead whale, I cannot express the heartbreak that I feel. Please, whoever is listening, do what needs to be done. I will witness whatever plays out, because I owe the whales that. But I don’t know how or if we would survive counting these whales to zero.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

July 12-17 with Js and Ks

After another nearly two week absence, some of the Southern Residents returned to the Salish Sea on the morning of July 12. It was all of J-Pod, and this time they brought K-Pod with them for their first visit to the Salish Sea since March! I saw a few Js in the morning head north then south off Land Bank.

There's been a lot of focus in the region on whale watch and private boats, while the largest and noisiest vessels (one of which is shown here beyond J19 Shachi on July 12) fail to get as much attention
That evening, most of whales somewhat bizarrely headed north up San Juan Channel towards the Fraser, a route I'm not sure I've seen them take in that direction before! A mixture of Js and Ks stayed on the west side, but were mostly too far away to view from shore. On July 13, the whales that had stayed south snuck north in the early morning to meet the others, and over the course of 10 hours all the Js and Ks came down in three very, very spread apart groups. Most of the whales were in the first group which I missed, but that's okay, because the later groups were the K13s and then the K14s, which gave me a chance to get my first good look at members of K-Pod in 2018!

K27 Deadhead heading south past Lime Kiln on the afternoon of July 13
In the evening, the K14s came down, and we heard some great vocalizations from them. You can listen to a clip of their chatter here.

K26 Lobo heading south on the evening of July 13
The Js and Ks did more west side shuffling on July 14, and we spent three hours in the evening watching the J16s, J17s, and K12s go back and forth off Land Bank. It truly felt like one of the "good ol' days" with playful whales just hanging out and going back and forth on the west side. The J17s gave us the closest and most active pass of the night:

Ahhh....sunset whales.

K33 Tika

One of the J16s in the orange glow of a San Juan summer sunset
The only thing that compares to sunset whales is early morning whales, which we were lucky enough to get the very next day! When calls were heard on the hydrophones by friends of ours, we headed out to Lime Kiln, expecting to see Js and Ks again. Most of them had actually headed back out west, and it turned out just the J16s and J17s had stayed! But they took their sweet time going slowly north past Lime Kiln against a strong ebb tide, so we got several hours of viewing time.

J26 Mike

J36 Alki

J17 Princess Angeline

From left to right: J44 Moby, J53 Kiki, and J17 Princess Angeline

J35 Tahlequah and J47 Notch
You can see a video clip I took of the J17s passing off the Lime Kiln Lighthouse here.

Interestingly, J46 Star was not with them. After the tragic death of her mom and little brother in 2016, she's started spending a bit less time with her closest living family in the J17s. I was a little worried until other whale watchers confirmed that she did indeed go west with the rest of J-Pod! She has been spending a lot of time with J31 Tsuchi and J40 Suttles, two other young females who have lost their mothers, a fact which really pulls at the heart strings!

After spending the day up north on the 16th, the J16s and J17s were back to doing the west side shuffle on July 17th. When in the evening I heard that they had gotten up to County Park and flipped back south, we decided to head out to Land Bank to try and catch them. I was very surprised when we got there to instead see the K22s foraging off Land Bank! We ended up seeing the K12s and K13s head back south, with many more fins and blows way offshore in the middle of Haro Strait, so it looked like the rest of J-Pod and K-Pod had snuck back in undetected!

K37 Rainshadow on the evening of July 17
Right as the trailing orcas were heading south, we were surprised by a humpback whale heading north!

It sure has been great having Js and Ks around daily over the last week; we just hope they're finding enough salmon to keep sticking around!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Summary of June Southern Resident Visits

Yikes, I think more than two months without a blog post is a new record, and not in a good way! It has been a very busy summer so far, and thankfully part of that has been due to some visits from the Southern Residents over the last six weeks. In the interest of sharing some photos and recapping some sightings, I'll make this a bit of a summary blog.

June 11 - 16: J-Pod and the Greater L4s

On June 11th the Southern Residents returned to the Salish Sea for the first time in nine weeks. All of J-Pod returned with the group I've called the "Greater L4s", made up of the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s. (The L12s actually came in too, but left the next day, while the others stayed.) This was obviously cause for great celebration, including playing hooky a morning from work to go say hi to them all and truly kick off the summer whale-watching season.

L55 in Haro Strait June 11
It was a picture perfect, glassy calm morning to be out on the water, and we got some fantastic hydrophone recordings before there were any other boats out. You can hear a clip here.

J38 Cookie also seemed "excited" to be back, though as much as we were hoping he was helping to make babies, he was actually fooling around with a couple of other young males, J39 Mako and L109 Takoda.

Regardless of what they were up to, it was just great to see some exuberant, roly-poly whales.

One of the best parts of seeing the whales after a long absence is to see how much they have grown, such as L122 Magic who already looks so much bigger at 3 years old!

L91 Muncher and L122

I think everyone was holding their breath that after such a long absence, the Southern Residents might only make a brief 24 hour visit, but luckily they stayed around for the next five days. On June 15, they were doing a good old fashioned "westside shuffle", and I got to see them early in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night!

The morning included a special moment at Land Bank where it was just me and the whales, and I was treated to this spyhop from J36 Alki.

Spyhop from J36 Alki

In the afternoon, the J16s and J19s came up as far as Lime Kiln before turning around, but not before J16 slick took a turn in the bull kelp right off the lighthouse, and did four or five spyhops making sure we got a nice look at her from every angle!

J16 Slick flings some kelp in the air with her tail
"Which side is right?....
....or my left?"
In the evening, after a big group of Js zipped north on a huge flood tide, they then turned and rocketed back south right off the shoreline of Lime Kiln, all in a big line.

A little behind them came the rest, in a slower and more playful fashion.

Breach from J37 Hy'shqa

Sadly, on the morning of the 16th, the whales were headed back west again, but two other things made their first visit of the summer even more bittersweet. One was that L92 Crewser was not with them, bringing the population down to just 75 whales. The other was that three year old female J50 Scarlet was looking emaciated. All calves, but especially female calves (due the male-bias sex ratio in calves in recent years and also the female's ability to produce more whales) are so, so critical to this endangered population. We are all crossing our fingers for this little whale, who has been a fighter from day one, with the scarring she showed right after birth potentially being from a difficult birthing process where other whales had to assist. As of today, July 15th, more than a month later, she is still with us, but is not yet looking better.

June 20 - 21: J-Pod and the Greater L4s

On June 20th, the same group of Js and Ls came back into inland waters, and they were in party mode as they passed Land Bank's Westside Preserve in one big group in the afternoon.

J27 Blackberry and his brother J39 Mako

Some of the L4s
They went all the way up to the Fraser, then when they came down the next day they split into two groups. J-Pod came down one of the "normal" ways, but the Ls came down San Juan Channel, and I saw them as they exited Cattle Pass. The few times I've seen Residents exit Cattle Pass, they always seem to go beserk, and this time was no exception as they were breaching and tail slapping all over the place as they moved out into the bigger, windier seas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It was a quicker visit this time, as on the 22nd the whales were westbound out the strait again. The same Js and Ls made another visit to inland waters June 27-29, but were not very cooperative for shore-based whale watchers this time as they passed the west side of San Juan Island in the middle of the night each time. That would wrap up their visits for June, and then there would be another nearly two week absence before the Southern Residents returned in mid-July. Js came back in on June 12th, bringing K-Pod with them for their first visit to the Salish Sea since March! But this will all be further recapped in my next post, which I promise won't take two months to share!