West Seattle, Washington
By Dennis Hinton and Judy Pickens
Special to West Seattle Blog
Last year about this time, “Big Wally” closed the spawning season by hanging out in lower Fauntleroy Creek for two weeks. The 7-to-8-pound male coho was likely waiting (in vain) for a mate.
This year, the last of four spawners spotted in the creek was “Little Jill,” a small hatchery-released female. Collectively known as “jacks,” these immature coho come back to fresh water after only one year at sea instead of the standard two.
At about 15″ long, Jill was first thought to be a cutthroat in to feed on fresh salmon eggs. But after she zipped up and down the fish ladder for a few days, volunteers saw that her adipose fin was clipped – the way hatcheries mark smolts when they release them. Watchers last saw her November 2nd, showing signs of deterioration common to spawners.
Volunteer watcher Mark Ahlness claimed the first spawner sightings October 27 – a 3-to-4-pound female and a smaller, red-sided male. The little one was soon a carcass fluttering in the flow. A third fish came in before Jill; at least one other was spotted at the mouth, but watchers didn’t find it in the creek. No fish were seen venturing farther upstream than the fish ladder (just across Fauntleroy Way SW from the beach). Watchers saw no indication of spawning.
Given favorable high tides and creek conditions, watchers continued their surveying until yesterday (Sunday, November 19th), with no further sightings.
The watch involved a dozen volunteers this year. About three dozen visitors stopped by to check out the fish and habitat.
Previous five years’ totals: 7 in 2016, 0 in 2015, 19 in 2014, 0 in 2013, 274 in 2012.
10:12 AM: Jeff Hogan of Killer Whale Tales just called to report orcas visible southbound off Me-Kwa-Mooks [map], shortly after a texter told us that Orca Network reported orca sightings in the past hour off Bainbridge Island. We’re grabbing the binoculars to head down for a look.
10:45 AM: Some are visible off Blake, some further north and south. We are with Jeff and other watchers toward the south end of Emma Schmitz Overlook. Whitecaps on the Sound are making viewing a bit challenging.
11 AM: Jeff and Kersti Muul are still watching from the south end of Emma Schmitz – the whales are close to the other side of the Sound. We have to move on.
12:13 PM: Kersti reports in a comment that they’re still southbound, south of the Fauntleroy ferry lane now.
1:16 PM: An update from Jeff – before 1 pm, the whales were visible from Dilworth on Vashon [map], then turned northbound: “Probably K pod.”
2:09 PM: Still northbound, according to a texter who also says the whales have been confirmed as K-Pod, and according to Claire’s comment below.
3:09 PM: Brittany says via Twitter that they’re visible from Constellation Park with binoculars.
Throughout the day, both firsthand and with the help of tipsters, we reported on Southern Resident Killer Whales’ travels past West Seattle’s western shore today. As they headed southbound, they were visible through binoculars, closer to the other side of the Sound than to us – but when they turned around and headed back north, they were close to shore, visible without assistance, as you can see in David Hutchinson‘s video above and Trileigh Tucker‘s photos below:
And more video – a long look at them from Ben Maund, recorded from Lincoln Park:
Will we see them again tomorrow? Depends on where they are following the fish!
(Added Wednesday evening: Photo by Trileigh Tucker)
10:10 AM: Thanks to Kersti Muul for word that orcas have been spotted in our area – believed to be southbound between Bainbridge Island and Elliott Bay, so you would want to look from Alki, for starters.
10:37 AM: Thanks also to Alisa from Orca Network, which has at least one commenter seeing from Alki, reporting they are closer to the west side of the Sound than this side, so you’ll need binoculars.
11:05 AM: We are seeing them from Constellation Park, with binoculars. By the ship anchored off Manchester with a red hull.
11:20 AM: The biggest group is still southbound, now off the east side of Blake Island. Also here: Donna Sandstrom from The Whale Trail, who says to save the date 6 pm December 12 for a Southern Resident Killer Whales update at C & P Coffee (WSB sponsor). And a spotter is here for WSDOT, which shuts down pile-driving on the Colman Dock project when orcas are close by.
12:33 PM: Orca Network says the whales are now off north Vashon, still heading south. (Speaking of Orca Network, its campaign to free the last Southern Resident in captivity, Lolita/Tokitae, has a fundraiser at Endolyne Joe’s [WSB sponsor] in Fauntleroy, 8 am-10 pm next Monday (November 13th), with 25 percent of the proceeds to be donated.)
12:49 PM: Jeff Hogan from Killer Whale Tales says they’re visible from the Lincoln Park picnic-shelter area.
1:08 PM: They’re still southbound, midchannel, south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock. The whale-watching boat Chilkat Express (as ID’d by MarineTraffic.com) is just north of them.
2:23 PM: Now a report from Fauntleroy that they’ve turned north – at least, the one big group has – and is again visible in the ferry lane area. “Super close to shore,” Kersti tells us, viewing from Lincoln Park.
3:52 PM: They put on quite a show passing Alki Point and are now still NB in the mouth of Elliott Bay.
(Added 4:55 pm: Photo by Trileigh Tucker)
8:37 AM: Thanks to Kersti Muul for sharing the report: Orcas seen off Alki this morning, headed southwest. Let us know if you see them – commenting here is great, and/or use our 24-hour text/voice hotline, 206-293-6302 – thank you!
12:28 PM: Alisa from the Orca Network is reporting that the orcas are confirmed as Southern Residents and are now northbound again, passing the Fauntleroy ferry terminal area as of less than 15 minutes ago.
2:10 PM: Now reported to be off Lowman Beach. Thanks again for the updates!
3:33 PM: We are at Constellation Park, where the orcas are visible – albeit in major sun glare – north of Blake Island.
Several people asked us on Sunday – and another one, just as we started writing this – about a dead marine mammal at Seacrest, near the West Seattle Water Taxi dock (that’s part of it in the foreground of the photo above, taken last night). As always, we referred inquiries to Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network (206-905-SEAL) and then asked the group ourselves. Here’s what Robin Lindsey from Seal Sitters tells WSB:
It is an adult California sea lion. There is rope tied around the body which indicates that someone unsuccessfully tried to sink the dead animal. At this point, there is no apparent indication of foul play or entanglement.
We have documented the condition of the carcass and contacted our regional NOAA stranding coordinator. The EPA recently changed requirements for towing and/or sinking marine mammals (not only large whales, but sea lion carcasses) and Seal Sitters MMSN has begun the process to secure any required permit from the government agency in order to handle the floating, decomposing seal lion. Unfortunately, that process may not be terribly expedient.
Robin is hoping to hear from NOAA today; we’ll add an update here when she does. Whatever happens won’t be easy, she warns: “I might add that weighting and sinking a large animal is not the easiest task – nor is disposal or burial of such a large, heavy animal should he drift onto shore.”
Though the annual gathering along Fauntleroy Creek is billed as singing and drumming, today, the messages resonated most – messages written by participants of all ages, to tie to the fence at the creek overlook across and upslope from the ferry terminal.
Some were simply notes of welcome. One even carried an apology. And of course there was also singing and drumming, led by Jamie Shilling:
The songs urge the salmon to return:
And the singing/drumming begins. Volunteer watchers counted 7 coho spawners in Fauntleroy Creek last year. pic.twitter.com/NgFIZNisoU
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) October 23, 2017
And then there’s an urging of environmental respect, “Habitat,” to the tune of the half-century-plus-old “Lollipop.” Some wore salmon hats, decorated during the Fauntleroy Fall Festival a week earlier:
Leading the activity then, and emceeing the gathering today, was creek steward Judy Pickens, who noted that the welcoming event goes back to 1994:
She provided updates including the explanation that volunteers will now be watching for coho spawners, likely into mid-November, since the prediction this year is that they’ll arrive late. She also says a UW researcher will be studying pre-spawning mortality in the creek and will be waiting for word of any fish in obvious distress – less of a problem on Fauntleroy Creek than Longfellow Creek in eastern West Seattle, which has more of a runoff-pollution problem.
With Judy’s help, we’ll have updates during salmon-watcher season – and she says they’re hoping to organize another weekend event where you can come to the creek and talk with volunteers; we’ll let you know as soon as we get word of that.
With the help of texters/callers/commenters, we tracked orcas through the area this afternoon. And tonight Gary Jones shared photos from Alki Point! Passing ferry passengers got the best view:
The Kitsap Transit foot ferry, too:
Gary said the orcas were spread out over a distance, headed north when he photographed them around 5 pm.
According to Orca Network, they were likely Southern Resident Killer Whales.
1:04 PM: Thanks to Kersti Muul for the tip that resident orcas have been heading southbound – we just checked Orca Network for updates and they were seen from Bainbridge Island not that long ago. So we are sharing this heads-up. If you see them off West Seattle, please let us know – best way is via our 24/7 hotline, text or voice, 206-293-6302 (or comment below) – thank you!
2:51 PM: ON reports they were seen headed this way from the north side of Elliott Bay as of about 10 minutes ago.
4:20 PM: Thanks for the update – just got a text that three orcas were seen passing Weather Watch Park!
4:35 PM: And Donna Sandstrom from The Whale Trail just called to say they’re off Emma Schmitz Overlook, visible WITHOUT binoculars. We’re headed down in hopes of photos.
5:13 PM: And … oh well. The orcas turned around and headed back north before we got to the shore.
(PHOTOS ADDED Sunday evening)
1:16 PM: Via text from Kersti Muul – orcas are back in the area, transients this time, seen southbound from north Bainbridge Island before 1 pm, “large male T87 and others with calf.” Please let us know if you see them (comment, and/or text our 24/7 hotline, 206-293-6302) – thank you!
1:32 PM: Update from Kersti – they’re now “outside Elliott Bay” so should be in view (now or soon) – be sure to bring binoculars.
4:34 PM: Thanks to the commenters who have provided updates – we had to cover (inland) events and weren’t able to go look!
SUNDAY EVENING: Thanks to Greg Snyder for e-mailing the two photos we have added above, and thanks to Kersti for adding photos in comments below!
Ian e-mailed us on Thursday to report encountering a Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteer dealing with a dead seal on the beach at Lincoln Park. We contacted Seal Sitters to find out more, and heard back today from Lynn Shimamoto:
On Thursday morning, Seal Sitters hotline operator Gretchen received a report of a dead harbor seal south of Colman Pool. I found the body of a juvenile seal with no obvious signs of injury. I asked our stranding network partners at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife if they could perform a necropsy. Dyanna Lambourn and Steve Jeffries, both marine-mammal experts at WDFW, agreed to pick up the seal at Lincoln Park. Soon their boat was speeding toward me. They pulled up close to shore, took the seal, and whisked it away for examination at the lab.
Information we collect on this seal will be added to NOAA’s national database. By calling the Seal Sitters hotline at 206-905-SEAL to report a marine mammal on the beach – dead or alive – the public is helping to contribute to the scientific monitoring of this population.
That’s 206-905-7325 – especially if you frequently walk/ride along the shore, consider keeping it in your phone.
Thanks to Kersti Muul for the photo – whale-watchers were out at Constellation Park at dusk, as Southern Resident Killer Whales that had been making their way south all day finally got this far. No telling where they are now, but if they continued southbound, we might see them heading back this way tomorrow … any time you spot a whale, please let us know via our 24/7 hotline, 206-293-6302 – thank you!
The Center for Whale Research confirms today that Puget Sound’s resident orca population has dropped again, with the death of J52, nicknamed Sonic. Here’s the news release they sent this afternoon:
As of 19 September, another Southern Resident Killer Whale, J52 – a two and a half year old male born during the so-called Baby Boom of 2015/2016 – is deceased, presumably from malnutrition.
His obligatory nursing ended more than a year ago, and his life was dependent upon salmon that have become in short supply this summer.
He was last seen alive near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on 15 September 2017, and photographs taken at the time reveal severe “peanut-head” syndrome associated with impending death. Young J52 was accompanied by his mother (seventeen and a half year old, J36) and an adult male (twenty-six year old L85, potentially his father) at least five miles away from the other members of J and L pods that were foraging within a mile or two of the coastline from Camper Creek to Bonilla Point west of Port Renfrew, British Columbia.
The observation of this sad event was at sunset, and the young whale appeared very lethargic while barely surfacing as the two adults were swimming around in circles and not feeding while attentive to the young whale. We estimated J52 was within hours, if not minutes, of death at the time, and he was not present during the J pod foray into Puget Sound on 19 September, though his mother and L85 were. The mother did not appear overly emaciated on either occasion, but she is lean and seems distressed. Yes, these animals do exhibit emotion, and death of an offspring brings it on. It is worthy of note that all of the SRKW observed this summer appear skinny and small compared to Bigg’s Transient killer whales in the Salish Sea that have abundant prey resources (seals and other marine mammals). Timing of food availability is everything, especially in critical phases of growth or gestation.
With the passing of J52, three of the six whales born in J pod during the so-called Baby Boom, which began in December 2014 with the birth of J50, have now died; and, two mothers (J14, J28) and a great-grandmother (J2) in the pod have also died. No southern resident killer whales from any of the pods have been born alive and survived thus far in 2017 – the baby boom is over. This population cannot survive without food year-round – individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.
All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable. We know that the SRKW population-sustaining prey species is Chinook salmon, but resource managers hope that they find something else to eat for survival, at least beyond their bureaucratic tenure. Our government systems steeped in short-term competing financial motives are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction. If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future. Most PVA’s (population viability analyses) show functional extinction as a result of no viable reproduction within decades to a century with current predator/prey trajectories, but it can happen more quickly than that.
J52’s birth was announced in March 2015. The death leaves the resident orca population at 76 – 77 counting Tokitae (who remains in a Florida theme park, called Lolita).
The photo and reminder are from David Hutchinson of Seal Sitters:
Seal Sitters’ “Shore the Shore” banners have recently been installed by Seattle Parks & Recreation along a section of Alki Avenue. Just a reminder that we are now entering what traditionally has been the busiest months for harbor seal pups to rest and warm up on West Seattle beaches. For those of you who have recently moved to this area, Seal Sitters is part of NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. We respond to reports of any marine mammal, alive or dead, on the beaches of West Seattle from Brace Point through the Duwamish River, including Harbor Island.
If you come across a marine mammal on our local beaches, please keep back, keep people and pets away, and call Seal Sitters’ hotline at 206-905-7325.
You can also remember that number as 206-905-SEAL.
We’ve been lucky enough to be able to share news, and photos/video, of recent orca sightings. Now, you can do something for the whales – by volunteering to help with the Orca Half Marathon next Sunday (September 24th):
Do you have a few hours to spare Sunday morning? Are you concerned about our endangered southern resident orcas and do you want to promote shore-based whale-watching? The Whale Trail needs your help!
The Orca Half Marathon will be held this Sunday 9/24 in West Seattle from 9 to 1. The Whale Trail is the charity partner for this event for the second year in a row.
The course follows the West Seattle shoreline, passing four Whale Trail sites along the way.
450 race participants are running for individual orcas. Race bibs are customized with the ID and life histories of specific whales!
Mike, the inflatable orca modeled after J-26, will greet runners, their friends and supporters at the finish line.
L-pod was in the area yesterday, making an early and unexpected return to our waters. Maybe they were checking out the course – or looking for Mike?
You Can Help! We need 10 to 15 volunteers to help to staff an aid station for the marathon (passing out water to runners).
Sign up NOW at the Orca Running website here, and be sure to tell them you’re with The Whale Trail! (Write it in the registration form.)
Once the marathon slots are filled, we also need help with Whale Trail activities, especially tending Mike. He eats a lot of inflatable salmon. ;)
Setup starts at 8:30 and we’ll close down at 1. Come for a few hours or stay all day!
Please email email@example.com and let me know what hours you can be there.
The need to protect the southern resident orcas has never been more clear or urgent.
There are 77 individuals in the population – 7 fewer than this time last year.
If the current population trend continues or worsens, J, K and L pods could go extinct in less than 100 years (WDFW 2005)
Join us on Sunday and become part of the solution for the southern residents. Meet your neighbors, have fun, and maybe we’ll see some whales!
About The Whale Trail
The Whale Trail is a series of sites where the public may view orcas and other marine mammals from shore. Our mission is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and our marine environment. Our overarching goal is to ensure the southern resident orcas recover from the threat of extinction.
Through our current sites and signs, including two on every Washington State ferry, we reach more than 50 million people each year. The Whale Trail is currently adding new sites along the west coast, from California to British Columbia, throughout the southern resident orcas’ range and beyond.
The Whale Trail is led by a core team of partners that include NOAA Fisheries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle Aquarium, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and the Whale Museum. The Whale Trail BC is spearheaded by the BC Cetacean Sighting Network.
Many members of The Whale Trail teams met when they worked together to return Springer, the orphaned orca, to her pod. This summer we celebrated the 15th anniversary of Springer’s homecoming, coinciding with a confirmed sighting of her second calf!
The Whale Trail is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, headquartered in Seattle. Donna Sandstrom is its Founder and Executive Director.
7:58 AM: Thanks for the texted updates! Orcas are now reported to be southbound past the 4100 block of Beach Drive; we had an earlier report of some in Elliott Bay. Let us know if you see them!
8:18 AM: We have conflicting reports on direction so we’ll just amend this to “seen off West Seattle.”
8:26 AM: Thanks to Bruce Easter for the photo from the Elliott Bay sighting – added above.
What a way to start the day! Thanks to the King County Water Taxi‘s West Seattle crew for sharing that video – from the Doc Maynard, they saw orcas on this morning’s 6:15 and 6:35 am sailings, Frank Massaro tells WSB, adding that crew member Jade Farrar recorded the video during the latter.
10:09 AM: Thanks to Kersti Muul for the texted alert – she says transient orcas have been sighted headed this way, southbound toward Alki Point – one week after this visit. Let us know if you see them!
10:42 AM: Update from Kersti (also in comments below) – they’re now visible from Alki Point Lighthouse.
3:07 PM: Three photos added above, all taken by Kersti at Constellation Park. (If you see whales off West Seattle, that’s always breaking news, so please let us know, text or voice, via our 24/7 hotline, 206-293-6302 – thank you!)
Jake reports he was running in Schmitz Park this morning when what he believes was a barred owl divebombed him twice:
Happened approximately here, around 7am. pic.twitter.com/63i8e0ZI30
— Jake VanderPlas (@jakevdp) September 14, 2017
It’s been months since our last “divebombing owl” report. This particular behavior is addressed in this infosheet from the state – usually related to nesting/staking out territory for it.
The photos are from Kersti Muul, one of the first people to let us know this morning – texting our 24/7 hotline at 206-293-6302 – that transient orcas were headed this way.
She reports, “Some that have been ID’d so far (but not in total) are: T101, T102 and 36B’s, T37A1, T36,” saying T102 is the “large male” in her photos, which were taken from various spots on West Seattle’s west-facing shore.
“They traveled slow, and stealthy, disappearing smoothly into the milky, smokey horizon. Reappearing with exhale. Our beautiful marine kin. When T102 first surfaced, I was alone, as was he. It was thrilling to share a moment of peace with him.” Then she saw them again headed north this evening:
The evening pass wasn’t quite so peaceful, with one group of boaters disregarding the Be Whale Wise guidelines: “These young men went barreling towards the three Ts and everyone on shore gasped. I reported them to NOAA. This is a good example of behavior we really want to call out and change.”:
Now – here’s a way you can help educate. One of the groups Kersti works with, Whale Scout, has volunteer orientation/training events coming up – one of them not far away. Noon-4 pm September 17th at Seahurst Park‘s Environmental Learning Center. She explains: “Volunteers will be trained to help people figure out where, and how to watch whales from shore, restore salmon habitat and learn how to ID individual whales. It is an excellent opportunity to discover just how well you can watch whales in West Seattle, as well as how you can help our critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, and the dwindling salmon runs they rely upon.” Here’s more information. This training will be just in time for what Kersti says is the anticipated return of the Southern Resident Killer Whales to our area, likely next month.
9:31 AM: Thanks to two texters for the heads-up via our hotline (206-293-6302) – orcas are headed this way, southbound. Kersti Muul says they were seen off Golden Gardens (Ballard); an unsigned text says they were seen off West Point on the north side of Elliott Bay. Please let us know if you see them!
10:06 AM: An Orca Network commenter says at least two are headed toward Alki Point, still southbound, as of a few minutes ago.
Last year, WSB readers tracked the deer eventually nicknamed “Westley” on his journey through West Seattle and to points south – he was first sighted on Pigeon Point in October, last reported in south King County about three weeks later. Today, a new West Seattle deer sighting:
The photos and report are from Amy:
Spotted about 15 minutes ago in our backyard. We live surrounded by the West Duwamish green belt, overlooking West Marginal Way. We’ve lived here over sixteen years, and this is the first time we’ve ever seen a deer!
We also got a call earlier this month about a deer sighting in Top Hat, but no photos and no other reports – until now.
Weather Watch Park was a seal-pup-watch park for a while Friday afternoon, but the little harbor seal that Seal Sitters Marine Stranding Network was guarding did not make it. So reported Robin Lindsey from Seal Sitters in a note to volunteers today. She says the pup was on the beach twice that day – first “forced back into the Sound by an encroaching tide,” then back on the shore in the afternoon. It didn’t appear well, Robin noted, “tiny and terribly thin with some kind of issue with the left eye.” It was still on the beach when volunteers left after dark, keeping the cove taped off, and still there early Saturday morning, appearing to be having seizures. It was taken to PAWS in Lynnwood, where euthanasia was decided as the most humane course of action due to “a number of health issues.” It weighed only about 15 pounds. A necropsy is planned.
P.S. As Seal Sitters reminded us last month, it’s pupping season around the region. If you see a seal or any other marine mammal on a local beach, or in trouble offshore, their hotline is 206-905-SEAL.