THE WHALE TRAIL: ‘It’s not too late’ for resident orcas to recover, but …

(Tuesday photo by Kersti Muul)

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.”

(April 2017 photo by Kersti Muul)

“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.

(April photo by Kersti Muul)

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
*Toxin accumulations
*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.

(June 2017 WSB photo – Donna Sandstrom at left)

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.)

8 Replies to "THE WHALE TRAIL: 'It's not too late' for resident orcas to recover, but ..."

  • Kersti Muul December 16, 2017 (8:35 am)

    Wow Tracy! What a great and amazingly detailed story.

    I’m so glad you were there, it was such a wonderful gathering. It left us with a lot of hope, renewed energy and some new friends; while rekindling old friendships and partnerships. I was not kidding when I said that the whales bring amazing people together.

    West Seattle can’t be beat for its beauty and opportunity for discovery of amazing wildlife. Thank you for always spotlighting the wildlife photography on the blog; it really inspires people to get out there and it helps others learn about how much there is here to protect.

    I know Donna works tirelessly and passionately for these whales and I’m honored to be a part of the Whale Trail. Practically every whale I’ve seen has been from the Whale Trail!

    Thank you for writing this, the SRKWs deserve the coverage! Keep spreading the word about how we can all be a part of the solution ♥️🦋

  • Donna December 16, 2017 (9:05 am)

    Thanks so much for the write-up, Tracy. And to the speakers, volunteers, and everyone who attended. The southern resident orcas have a lot of wonderful people pulling for them. We are heartened, and hopeful. Happy Holidays everyone – see you on The Whale Trail!

  • Kathy December 16, 2017 (12:22 pm)

    I don’t know if this could help the orcas, but why doesn’t our city have a “no idling” ordinance and post some signs around the city to that effect? It disturbs me that nearly every time I take the dog out for a walk in the Alki neighborhood, I see people sitting with their car parked running the engine, burning oil and gas, putting contaminants into the air unnecessarily which can eventually get washed down into our water. Sometimes I ask them why they are running their engines. Usually they say “to keep warm”, usually associated with cell phone use. Wear a jacket! Idling more than fifteen seconds is bad for your car and bad for the environment. I am a little concerned about confronting  people doing this because I could end up the victim of a “curb rage” incident.   Stop Idling Seattle

  • Alkistu December 16, 2017 (5:28 pm)

    Thank you Tracy for this insightful article. I hope a lot of human residents of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound) get to enjoy this article.  

    As Human residents we do have a tremendous impact on the survival of the Southern Region Killer Whale and the food chain they need. When we live on these rain soaked hills everything we emit washes down to the sea. 

    At Sustainable West Seattle and with a variety of other non-profits, native groups and concerned citizens, WE believe a whale sanctuary that lets nature rebuild the necessary habitat is the only answer..

  • TJ December 16, 2017 (9:11 pm)

    A “no idling ordinance”? Hopefully you are joking? Look at the freeways around here…lots of idling going on. What about stopped at red lights? Unfortunately its only going to get worse with more people moving in. People are looking at something as miniscule as idling cars to help orcas are going quite overboard. Perhaps these particular orcas will use their intelligence to switch their diet to marine mammals (whose numbers are strong and humans do not rely on for a food source)? Survival of the fittest has been going on this planet before we were here

    • WSB December 16, 2017 (10:00 pm)

      Saying you don’t want to do a little because you can’t do a lot is kind of silly. If you’re in a ferry line or a drive-thru or waiting for someone at the curb, cutting the engine is something you certainly can and should do. Part of the reason some don’t is that there’s a myth it’s bad for your car to turn it off and on. Not so. One of many references:

      A law might not help much given the enforcement challenges of other laws on the books (noise, etc.) but if awareness of the myth about idling convinces a few more people to turn off the engine when they can … that’s a little bit of help. (Please note, though, idling is NOT mentioned in the story above. Many other suggestions are – so if you care, read about them.)

      • Kersti Muul December 16, 2017 (11:48 pm)

        Also of note; orcas can’t just ‘switch up’ their diet. They are distinct ecotypes with highly advanced cultural evolution, which extends to their diet, hunting strategies, pod dynamics, dialects and many, many other things. 

        Idling your car is bad form. Idling not only pollutes the air but it wastes gas, requiring fossil fuels extraction and I’m sure you know where I’m going on this. It very much impacts the orcas by way of warming the atmosphere, in turn the oceans. SRKWs eat salmon and salmon are extremely sensitive to temperature change. Salmon also do not eat a lot when they are warm, and end up being smaller in size. The SRKW are going hungry; you see the connection here? It is not a solution in a vacuum but it is definitely another thing we can stop doing. What is good for whales is good for humans. How could you ever find fault in something positive, and beneficial to the planet?

        Survival of the fittest can’t work when the centrifugal motion of human destruction interferes with species’ ability to adapt to warp speed; which would be required in this case.

  • Pia V December 18, 2017 (12:07 am)

    Thank you Tracy for the well documented account about The Whale Trail event! This is a wonderful read, as an attendee I feel like this story perfectly captures the essence of the evening and the information that was shared. You and WSB hold such a key role in our community. It is so important to share knowledge and increase awareness of all things nature and our planet – we are incredibly lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest. Once we humans gain more awareness of what is actually happening in nature, the caring and concern we feel naturally reaches brand new heights, and we can do a whole lot of good with that new knowledge, passion and energy. That, at least, is how I personally feel about having learned more about our resident orcas/SRKWs in the past year. We are so very fortunate to have the opportunity to witness first-hand these highly intelligent, social mammals in their natural habitat, and do so safely from land. They are the largest member of the dolphin family, so what we are witnessing is a species with a high IQ and a brain much bigger and more complex, with likely more developed higher functioning capabilities, than the human brain. It is fascinating! For so long, man has looked up into the dark night skies for any signs of intelligence. We only have to look down to the depths of the oceans from our very own shores to find it. It is our honor and our responsibility as the top predator on land to undo the harm we have caused to the oceans where our fellow mammals live. Your article lists the logical steps we need to take to make sure SRKWs will continue to live here with us in The Salish Sea. Let’s do it!

Sorry, comment time is over.