By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
West Seattle-based, West Coast-spanning The Whale Trail chose an auspicious week for its annual winter gathering: It began with two opportunities to watch Southern Resident Killer Whales passing our shores, southbound Monday and northbound Tuesday.
The message of the gathering this past Tuesday night at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor): It’s not too late for the resident orca population to rebound, despite being near a historic low.
Whale Trail founder Donna Sandstrom noted this is the third year they’ve had a “winter gathering,” four years since launching the ongoing series of Orca Talks. “Our tagline is connect, protect, inspire,” and she wanted everyone to feel inspired to take action, particularly toward protection – more on that later.
The first to speak were two photographers whose work you’ve seen here – Trileigh Tucker and Kersti Muul. The night’s lineup also included West Seattle-based researcher Mark Sears, often in a research boat when the resident orcas are in the area, and Lynne Barre from NOAA.
Trileigh, who also is a retired professor, opened with photos of orcas in the ferry lanes, including their near-shore pass last month.
The orcas tail-lobbed and breached and spyhopped, as she captured. And she recalled the cold, rainy day when people gathered to watch while shivering.
Some of her photos were from
Alaska Antarctica, where she recalled watching killer whales harassing humpbacks, and how amazing it was to see them organize and strategize.
Kersti followed. She said following Trileigh was no coincidence – she had studied with her at Seattle University, and been mentored by her.
Her photos opened with K-25 from November 8th during a “resting line.” She showed numerous photos of the fins from that day’s visit, when they passed in big groups.
Then – photos from an April visit by transients – she says you are most likely to see the transient whales closer to shore. Her photos included the beauty of the mountains, the sky, and more, and she expressed appreciation for the beauty of “where we live.”
“How can you tell he’s a transient?” she was asked. The fin and the saddle patch provide clues, Kersti replied.
She also spoke about the day in September 2017 when a boat got too close. And she had watched the whales again earlier Tuesday too – with her mom, who hadn’t seen them in decades, since a time when they were so numerous it wasn’t that rare a sight.
Donna subsequently said that returning to a time like that is a goal of hers – that people not be surprised to see the whales, even to get to a point where their food is abundant enough that they’re seen often. “I wish I could bottle the feeling, when you see the whales,” she said.
She introduced Mark Sears (whose daughter and often-collaborator Maya Sears was also present). Mark said it’s been “very exciting” to have so many resident sightings lately. First, though, he spoke about the transient killer whales “who are in here year round.” Since the turn of the millennium, they’ve come into Puget Sound more often. He showed a slide of T-87, an “old boy” who has a nicked fin. “They are naughty, not nice, when you see them out on the water … there’s a lot of blood and guts.” And he showed slides that provided proof – “any Seal Sitters here?” he asked, then playfully told them to close their eyes before he showed a slide with a photo of what was clearly a chunk of spotted harbor-seal skin.
In early November, Mark said, it was an “exotic group” that came in – the L-54 family of residents, and two males that travel with them, L-88 and L-84 (whose own family lines have died off), “who were like escorts.”
When they’re out in a boat by the whales, he explained, they’re getting samples of the whales’ waste, “a treasure trove of biological material” to analyze and send to labs.
They also get bits of salmon in hopes of determining what the whales are eating and where the fish came from – which fish runs are important, etc.
He too showed photos from the November 8th visit when the whales were close to shore – including “what we call a ‘tight rest pattern’,” saying that for whale-watching, “this is about as good as it gets.” He showed a photo that he felt was heartening because the animals clearly were in healthy shape, not underweight.
He knows the whales on sight, and had photos from a week-plus ago when J pod came in. He showed a male “sprouting” – growing what become dorsal fins 6′ or so. And he showed notes his dad took in 1951, out fishing off Colman Pool – operated by the Sears family for decades – with notes including “black fish in bay all day long” – the orcas being the “black fish.”
During Q&A, we noted that some people ask about what seems to be the extreme proximity of the research boat, at least the way it looks from shore; Mark explained that they actually are 100 yards behind the animals. Brad Hanson from NOAA said the whales don’t react to their presence and may not even realize they’re behind them – “they’re pretty much going about their business ahead of us – today a lot of socializing, chasing fish – the sampling is incredibly important … we’re getting everything from the prey species, doing other types of health assessment, trying to understand why they are having as hard a time as they are.”
Also from NOAA, Lynne Barre talked about “Being Whale-Wise.” she first reminded everyone that the population is down to 76, the lowest in more than 30 years, so NOAA has started a “Species in the Spotlight” program – two runs of West Coast salmon, abalone, and leatherback turtles are in the spotlight too.
She said there had been a gathering to talk about how they pulled together information and linked it together to understand both the reproduction and science trends. “Our whole recovery program is science-based” – that’s how they make their decisions. They also have a team based in La Jolla (California) using drones to photograph the whales, looking for physical signs, and they are studying their breath too.
“Be Whale-Wise“ is their campaign with viewing guidelines – “one of the most responsible ways to watch is from shore … to limit the impacts from shore,” Barre said.
Stay away, and don’t be ahead of them – they need to use echolocation to find prey, and more.
She said the U.S. is collaborating more than ever with colleagues in Canada. They hope Canada will develop stricter rules. They’re also talking about prey that’s important for the whales, especially chinook salmon. Next year, they will gather to talk about the longer-term view of how to increase the salmon supplies. That includes hydropower, hatcheries, harvest, and habitat – “the H’s.” Another gathering along those lines will include partners such as Sea World and Shell, she said, who are providing some grant funding in connection with a nonprofit organization. The health-workshop group will reconvene, likely in spring. She mentioned a long list of partner organization as well as government entities such as state and county departments.
Asked how kayaks can affect the whales, Barre spoke of a study done with northern residents – and they found kayaking can affect and change their behavior, swimming and diving patterns, much like motor boats do.
Another question: What about military testing? Barre said the US and Royal Canada navies both have “very strict protocols” and watch for whales, and stand down when they’re in the area.
“We need to put the whales first, and get in balance with them,” when viewing so many of these issues, Donna noted.
She concluded with the words of warning: The Southern Residents are at a near-historical low. If they continue that way, they will be gone within a century. “We are at the intersection of whether these whales are going to make it or not.”
So what can you do to maximize the survival chances for these whales, 12 years after they were listed as endangered?
Be aware of what’s threatening them:
*Lack of prey
*Noise & disturbance from boats
The availability of prey, especially salmon, involves many sources – Columbia, Snake, Fraser, Klamath, Sacramento, Puget Sound (chum) – restoring habitat can do good. To increase salmon availability in Puget Sound (chum):
-Support Midsound Fisheries Enhancement Group – they’re healing the Sound, “project by project by project”
-Join in habitat restoration projects (Whale Scout organizes some) – “it’s medicine to get your hands dirty … planting a native plant is in the end a good thing for the whales”
-Other? “We’re all in this together and you’re going to have ideas… the important thing is that you act on what you’re called to do” – and collaborate – as the whales do.
Regarding pollution and chemical contaminants, the problem:
-Orcas are the top predator in the sea
-Toxins bioaccumulate in blubber and mother’s milk
-Released when stressed or hungry, making them more susceptible to disease
Solution: Reduce toxin inputs
-Improve stormwater quality
-Walk, bike, ride the bus once a week instead of driving
-Get your car checked for oil leaks
-Use organic gardening and home products
-Plant a native plant (“the more we can retard the flow of stormwater into the earth, the more we can clean it before it goes into Puget Sound”)
Issue: Noise, disturbance from boats
*Donna showed the Port of Vancouver study and highighted a “staggering statistic” – that the noise from commercial & whale watch boats leaves whales effectively “blinded” 5 1/2 hours a day – something she said has yet to get much attention here
Solution: Give the whales more acoustic space
=Create acoustic sanctuaries – whale protection zones
-Require permits for whale-watch operators – there’s currently no unique permit for this type of boat and Donna thinks that needs to change
-Commercial vessel slowdowns – in Vancouver, she says, the industry is ready for this
-Watch whales from shore – make it easy for people to know how and where to do that
“I do not want these whales to disappear,” Donna pleaded. “We can have a better ending for this story if we focus on it, commit to it.” She did that when she left a software career 10 years ago to found TWT, and now it has 90 shore sites – with customized signs, yet a shared experience, bringing communities together as well as connecting them with the whales.
Next up, through next year, they are adding more sites in Northern California.
She also recalled the story of Springer, whose rescue she was deeply involved with. (Springer has since become fully integrated and has had two calves – “it’s proof that whales can go home again,” and human collaboration made it happen, with leadership by NOAA Fisheries, “which was always putting the whale first. … I think those agencies need to take the same risks for the Southern Residents.”) You will also often find her out on the shore when the whales are in the area.
One more way to help save the orcas – “keep learning” – via events like this one. Share your story about the whales – with friends, legislators, media, anyone who will listen.
Hold a vision of recovery, she urged – 2 percent annual growth for the residents. If you wonder if it’s too late, experts say no, it’s not too late. They were down to 71 in the ’70s and recovered from that. (The northern residents are growing 4 percent a year.)
Don’t give up. (And if you want to help, The Whale Trail could use more, too.)