Video of farewell ceremony in fall 2005 stabilized

Southern resident line up. (credit: Center for Whale Research)

Southern resident line up. (credit: Center for Whale Research)

A couple years ago Val put a bunch of effort into stabilizing a video of some rare southern resident killer whale behavior that Beam Reach observed during our first field program in fall, 2005.  In support of an upcoming fundraiser for The Whale Museum, we have uploaded the stabilized version to YouTube and then stabilized it as second time using YouTube’s editing enhancement.  (The original, shaky footage is also stabilized as of 2014, but only using the secondary YouTube stabilization.)

We hope the double-stabilized version (embedded below) doesn’t make you too seasick.  You may also enjoy the links below and appended background information re-posted from what was originally published at

Stabilized video

Video credits go to Beam Reach students Brett Becker and Courtney Kneipp. Still photo credits go to the Washington State Department of Ecology and Iris Hesse of the Center for Whale Research. Listen for a very unusual simultaneous call made by many individuals during the last minute of the recording.

Related links

Re-printed blog post from

Originally posted on May 16, 2006 —

One of the most remarkable behaviors of the southern residents is the “greeting ceremony” in which two groups of orcas line up facing each other and then mingle together. This article describes a similar “ceremony” acoustically and visually (video; photo gallery), and then discusses whether it may have been related to a “greeting,” a “goodbye,” or a more complex combination of activities.

I offer it here in the hope that others who witnessed this particular event may further consider what occurred. Please feel free to comment on this article and/or contribute your thoughts via the discussion forum. Insights from other accounts of different “ceremonies” performed by the southern resident (or other) orcas would also be welcome. Perhaps we will piece together a publishable story?

On October 4, 2005, only a week into a month of sailing with the southern residents, students and teachers of the Beam Reach marine science and sustainability school approached San Juan Island along with members of J and L pods. The Beam Reach research vessel, the sailing catamaran Gato Verde, paralleled the orcas as they moved northward from Salmon Bank along the west side of San Juan Island during the mid-afternoon. In the early evening, starting around 4:30pm PST, the pods began to concentrate within 100 meters of shore below Hannah Heights.

The “ceremony” that we observed (along with Tom McMillen, observers from the Center for Whale Research, and Sharon Grace [and others?]) was similar to “greeting ceremonies” that sometimes occur in the spring as the southern residents return to the Salish Sea from their winter ranges. One group of at least 9 adults and one calf (probably a subset of the group that had been traveling northward with us) congregated within 100 meters of shore ~0.5km southeast of a promontory with abundant driftwood (48o 29.65N, 123o 7.62W). They remained on the surface, gathered into an extremely tight group, traversed the shoreline southward for a few minutes, then doubled back to the north. Meanwhile, a different group of at least 9 adults rounded the driftwood point, heading south, and began to congregate in a rough line just south of the promontory’s rocky bluffs. They, too, remained largely on the surface, drew together in a line, and proceeded slowly southeastward toward the southern group. When they were about 25m apart, the southern group lunged forward, submerged, and quickly met the northern group. The two groups mingled, turning quickly and making brief dives, and remained together for an extended period (at least 15 minutes — we left at ~5:15pm to make port before nightfall — and probably much longer).

The ceremony was documented by Beam Reach with still photographs, digital video, and stereo underwater sound recordings. Preliminary analysis of the still photographs and video suggests that at least J40, J14, and L41 were part of the southern group. Tom McMillen of Salish Sea Charters with Iris Hesse and EEH (??) of the Center for Whale Research (CWR) were drifting near the northern group and photo-identified many of its members. Based on an initial examination of still photographs taken of the combined groups, Dave Ellifrit of the CWR noted that L84, L41, L90, L72, L55, L82+calf, L25 with L41, and Raggedy (K40) were present. Any additional photo-identification (and associated) debate is welcome!

An interesting aspect of this event, first pondered by Tom McMillen (and later discussed with Ken Balcomb and Dave Ellifrit?), is that it approximately coincided with the last time that the matriarch L32 was seen. Earlier in the day (about an hour before the ceremony began?), Tom observed L32 with son L87 and noticed that she was emaciated and had a weaker-than-normal blow. CWR photographs confirm that L32 had a sunken blowhole area (“peanut head”) that day. L32 was not observed after the ceremony and L87 was observed the next day (or maybe 2 days later?) without L32, so L32 is now presumed to be dead. Could we have witnessed a “goodbye” ceremony?

Perhaps, but the CWR photographs reveal that the ceremony also involved foraging (birds hovering over orcas at surface) and sexual activity (sea snakes). Beam Reach video shows traveling behavior, milling, tail lobs, and pectoral fin slaps. There was a lot of acoustic activity prior to the meeting of the two groups, including abundant echolocating and intermittent calls, and an amazing coordinated acoustic event in which many individuals call simultaneously (without an obvious cue).

I’ve created this movie that juxtaposes the best of the Beam Reach video and underwater sound. Please note, however, that I was unable to synchronize the sound and video. I am tempted to associate the simultaneous calls with the dynamic lunge of the two groups together, but (I regret) there is currently no way to know whether that is right. Video footage was acquired by Beam Reach students Brett Becker and Courtney Kneipp. Acoustic data is from 2 ITC hydrophones mounted 1.4m apart on a horizontal pipe at 4.4m depth. (The engine noise at the beginning of the movie is from the Beam Reach research vessel.)

Please don’t hesitate to comment, email, or start a discussion thread if you have information or ideas about this fascinating behavior of the southern residents.

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Marine water workshop – Salish Sea situation in 2013

Notes by an oceanographer from an upper trophic (orca) perspective during the outer-coast/less-local/more-regional portion of the annual meeting of the Marine Waters Monitoring Workgroup of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Group (PSEMP) at APL/UW on 3/28/14.  This meeting is a rare effort and opportunity to synthesize ocean observations from the previous year and across the Salish Sea and outer coast of the Pacific Northwest region (with an over-emphasis on Puget Sound).  I was not able to stay for the rapid-fire talks related to plankton & pathogens (e.g. harmful algal blooms) or water quality.

Freshwater inputs — Ken Dzinbal

In long-term medians from rivers across region, the overall long-term seasonal pattern is a dry period in Sep-Oct (extending into late fall for some rivers), then a wet spring with big storm pulses Feb-June.  In 2013, Fraser mean daily discharge at Hope (above tidal influence) peaked in late May, ~1 month earlier than historic median.

Fred Felleman mentioned that 2013 was a terrible year for Fraser river Chinook and a bumber year for Columbia Chinook, and that the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) responded one would expect for the “best salmon samplers on the planet”  — they were rarely sighted in inland waters and tracked often on the outer coast near the Columbia river mouth.  PSC Fraser panel is a good source of historic data on Fraser flows.

Boundary conditions & water masses — Skip Albertson

Less upwelling in Aug/Sep; SW winds!  Usually we have N winds and upwelling in September, but we almost had down-welling due to unusual winds out of the southwest.

We looked at Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and index that changes slowly.  Initially there was colder water up against the coast, but then offshore waters got warmer and warmer.  Overall in 2013, the PDO index was slightly lower than long-term means.

Cha’ba mooring (offshore Washington) — John Mickett

Temperature-Salinity plot for all of Puget Sound shows median values near 11 oC and 30 psu with low (6.5 mg/l) dissolved oxygen (DO) levels.  This suggests a stronger-than-usual influence of oceanic water.  Christopher Krembs pointed out that the goal is to start looking at Puget Sound water properties in terms of water masses that may traverse the different basins, rather than

The big story on the outer coast in 2013 was the hypoxia.  John showed pictures of many dead Dungeness crabs washed up on Ruby Beach.  Looking at data from 3 and 84 meters, you see phytoplankton blooms (chlorophyll concentrations up ~20 micrograms/l).  In mid-August we saw DO levels drop to ~1 ml/l a level which stresses or kills organisms.  At about the same time we saw very unusual warm surface water temperatures (up to 16-18 oC, well above the long-term means of ~12 oC) which were due to the wind reversals that led to stratification and subsequent solar-heating.

Upwelling comes from 30-40m (ref Ryan McCabe) and has much higher DO than what we saw.  That’s why we think these low DO events in the shallow water were advected horizontally, having formed somewhere else.

End of May (5/31)  and beginning of July (7/1) sees Columbia River plumes in surface waters.  Are these related to court-ordered dam releases?

San Juan channel — Jan Newton (slides from 2013 research apprentices)

North station off NE San Juan Island; South station just south of Cattle Pass (tends to picks up Pacific Ocean influence)

Normally, Fraser plume is advected south in the summer and north in the winter, with associated up-/down-welling changes.  It creates a strong pycnocline near 30-40m.

Redfield AC (1950) Note on the circulation of a deep estuary: the Juan de Fuca-Georgia Straits

In 2013, TS plots from Centennial calibrated CTD show that 2012 was an anomalously cold year.  The 2013 T-S ranges were +1 oC higher, and slightly fresher.  In mid-October the cold 2012 water was ~0.5oC lower than long-term medians.

PDO shift from + to – values near 2007 correlates with warmer to cooler transition in inland water temperatures.  There are initial hints that during the inland cooler periods we see higher seabird (and other upper trophic level animal?) populations.

Harbor porpoise acoustic studies — Aileen Jeffries

CPODs and land-based visual observations.  CPODS for 3 years in Burrows Pass, also at Biz Point and now at PTMSC

Harbor porpoise population plummeted in 50s, were nearly gone in 70s and now seem to be on a rebound.

Acoustic detections from Burrows typically show nighttime peaks of ~50 minutes/hour and 1/10th those levels during the day.

Click rates of 400-600 clicks/s during foraging; about 20 clicks/s otherwise (histogram).

Seasonally they are less present during the summer (low in May/June) than winter at Burrows Pass (based on visual sightings).

Primary prey is herring, smelt, and sand lance.  Florian Granger (did PhD in Europe on harbor porpoises) says that they often travel in groups of 3.

What about anchovies and the possible decadal dynamics on the outer coast?

John Mickett asked why the diurnal pattern is so strong in Burrows Pass.  Aileen thought that they were targeting animals that follow the vertical migration of zooplankton to surface waters at night, but also suggested day-time boat interference might be a factor (but implied they had not quantified boat traffic).  Dzinbal suggested that squid might be following the zooplankton…

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Shore tethering of Vemco receivers: lessons learned

During our study of adult salmon movements in the San Juan Islands, we tested a novel method of deploying Vemco (VR2W) receivers. With permission from local land-owners, we used free climbing equipment or pitons to anchor a crab pot line to the rocky shoreline, marked it as fish research to discourage vandalism or theft, and then used it to tether the Vemco receiver mooring to shore. This allowed us to deploy and recover the mooring from a small boat, saving the cost of divers and simplifying the re-location of a mooring.

Schematic of shore tether method

Schematic of shore tether method

Tethered mooring materials, methods, and locations

Salmon school passes around the fish tag receiver mooring at Lime Kiln State Park

Project map (Google map in which green markers denote deployed receivers, magenta are recovered from our UW/NOAA collaboration (2011-2013), yellow were planned sites for 2011-12, red are other potential sites, and blue are landmarks):

View San Juan fish tag receiver deployments in a larger map

Deployment method

A typical deployment involved dropping a researcher off on shore. While the boat driver stood off and prepared the mooring, on shore the researcher created a climbing anchor using cracks of convenience in the rocks and/or trees. Aluminum alloy wired nuts, chocks, and hexes were the most common anchoring devices. Both seemed to weather the salt-water environment very well, though the stainless wire rope in the nuts and chocks showed some signs of corrosion after about a year in the field. Once set, the anchor was attached to a length of leaded crab pot line, a float was tied to the end, and the float was cast well offshore. The driver then returned to pick up the researcher and together they retrieved the float. The shore tether was then tied to the mooring and as the boat backed away from shore towards the deployment point, line and anchors were deployed until adequate water depth was attained. Finally, the mooring assembly was lowered into the water and released. (Early on we used a slip line, but eventually just dropped the moorings as they seemed to sink vertically and not too fast.)

Recovery method

A typical recovery also began by dropping a researcher on shore. First the anchor was removed or checked and maintained. Then the tether was disconnected from the anchor and attached to a float. The float was cast offshore, the researcher picked up, and the float brought onboard. Then the dirty work of hauling up the mooring began. A bow roller helped, as did having two people work together. An important innovation was a short piece of PVC slit so that it could be passed around the line and used to strip fouling off as the line was brought aboard. Once the mooring was raised, the receiver could be removed or swapped. Then the mooring assembly could be stored or immediately reused in a new deployment.

With a small boat capable of doing 25 knots on flat water, this method allowed us to service 4-6 receivers per day. At the end of the study, we were able to retrieve 8 receivers in a single day trip beginning and ending in Seattle.

Lessons learned

  • Galvanic corrosion (between a stainless steel shackle and a length of galvanized chain) caused the loss of Lime Kiln receiver (luckily it was found on a beach near Victoria).  Connect the Vemco to the mooring anchor using a single type of metal (e.g. a galvanized shackle).
  • Mooring depths should be at least 5-8 meters deep especially in high surge environments.  Shallow deployments resulted in the loss of 2 False Bay receivers (one was found on a nearby beach).
  • Dive recoveries were required 4 times, primarily because of chafe (Iceberg, Sucia, Sentinel, Patos).  Minimize tension and contact with rock edges?
  • Human disturbance rare (despite faded labels, only Turn Point and Obstruction were disturbed; neither was removed).

Examples of different amounts of fouling

The amount of marine organisms that colonize the mooring float, receiver, and/or anchor — as well as the line — varied tremendously between sites.  Geography and oceanography are likely the controlling factors, but there was some suggestion that deeper deployments had less growth overall, and especially reduced amounts of brown algae colonization.

Undergraduate involvement

Unlike diving, this method allows students to assist in deployments and recoveries without specialized training. The method helps motivate new knot tying skills as well as small boat operations.

While Beam Reach students have not yet utilized data from the San Juan salmon tracking study, we hope that the Hydra database will facilitate that. To date, our only student projects using Vemco data came from our own tagging of ling cod at Lime Kiln State Park with pressure-sensing tags and monitoring achieved with a VR100 system.

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Salmon field work ends with winter dives

Yesterday David Howitt and his crack team completed the retrieval of the last couple Vemco receivers that were being used to track adult salmon in our collaborative fish research with UW and NOAA/NWFSC.  Here is David’s field report, along with some great photos:

  • Boat operator and two divers depart from Roche 1100, return Roche 15:30 – 4 1/2 hours
  • 2 Dives, 2 retrievals, pretty straight forward with finding near shore anchor block early in dive at Succia. Sentinel found drifting line, went down to 60 feet and were lucky
  • Will deliver pier blocks, Vemcos and tanks to Val tomorrow
  • found one weight belt at Succia, lost one knife.
  • Succia Vermco SN# 100913
  • Sentinel Vemco barnacle encrusted
  • Pouring hot tea into gloves really helped
Dive stats:
#1 Sucia,  11:57 minutes,     41.56’,          46 degrees in water.
#2 Sentinel,  12 minutes,          62.25’,          45 degrees in water.
Note the water temperature!  Bravo to David and his tough team for finishing the field work in the depths of winter!!
Divers atop the rock outcrop which served as shore anchor for the Sucia receiver.

Divers atop the rock outcrop which served as shore anchor for the Sucia receiver.


Encrusted receiver and float atop dive tanks

Encrusted receiver and float atop dive tanks


Map showing all the receivers retrieved (in magenta) at the end of our San Juan Island salmon tracking study.  Only one receiver remains -- at Lime Kiln.

Map showing all the receivers retrieved (in magenta) at the end of our San Juan Island salmon tracking study. Only one receiver remains — at Lime Kiln.

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A new door to acoustics at Lime Kiln State Park

Today the Whale Museum Research Curator Eric Eisenhardt and his son Given helped install a new door on the acoustics shed adjacent to the Lime Kiln lighthouse. While the Beam Reach students had given the shed a face lift a few years ago (de-mossed roof, new paint, better drainage), the old door had been looking severely abused by the southerly storms and sun for a long time. The Whale Museum procured a new door about a year ago and I agreed to fiberglass it so it could better stand up to the elements and Neptune’s wrath.

After measuring and planning a bit with Eric, Liam, Bre, and Carrie lent hands with a absolutely STUNNING outcome: the door fit perfectly on the very first try! Normally, I gather there is some back and forth on mortice depth, planing the frame, or adjusting strike plates, but it all just worked. We screwed in two screws and the door swung right into its frame. We swung it out and put in the rest of the screws, and it still swung into the frame with only a gentle push from the wind. Then we put the handle back on and it swung in and clicked shut. STUNNING.

Anyways, it will need some paint (and a little polyurethane to protect the door label Jenny designed), but the door is in place! A special thanks to Bre for volunteering to dispose of the door in a ceremonial fire at her place.


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The Second Summer


Southern Residents on the west side of San Juan Island, WA

Southern Residents on the west side of San Juan Island, WA

Summer brings many things to the San Juan Islands… Sunshine and warm weather grant us long days, gardens and fields full of greens and flowers, and an ocean brimming with life. The Salish Sea undergoes a boom of productivity in the summertime. As the phytoplankton bloom, the forage fish prosper and salmon begin to pump through the winding channels and straits, making their way back to natal streams to spawn. And who loves salmon more than we do? The Southern Resident Killer Whales, and so as they return to the Salish Sea, I follow suit, returning to the lighthouse and Lime Kiln State Park for the second summer.


Lime Kiln Point State Park, WA

Lime Kiln Point State Park, WA

Lime Kiln Lighthouse, for those who aren’t familiar, is on the west side of San Juan Island in Washington State. The Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW), an endangered population of orcas, often pass the lighthouse in the summer time as they chase after their prized prey, Chinook salmon. Being able to watch the whales from shore makes the lighthouse an icon of the island, and an ideal location to conduct research. This summer I am lucky enough to return to the lighthouse and my research project from last summer to work with the Beam Reach Program and The Whale Museum again as a University of Washington Mary Gates Research Scholar. Both Beam Reach and the Whale Museum support the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network, which has a hydrophone array in the water that I am using to record SRKW vocalizations and monitor underwater sound here at the lighthouse.


Just like last summer, my first full day back at the lighthouse I was lucky enough to have whales pass by. We heard them coming from a mile away, literally, as they passed the Orcasound hydrophone and Center for Whale Research heading south down the west side of the island. Members of L pod passed us by in a fairly quick, yet exciting encounter. The whales were incredibly vocal, producing lots of pulsed calls, squeaks, and echolocaiton clicks. A few individuals even breached, although it was off in the distance. I couldn’t have asked for a better first day back. That evening, as L Pod made their way back out to sea, a few transients crept along the west side. Although they never quite reached the lighthouse, I got a peak at them with my binoculars. The rest of the week was pretty slow here at Lime Kiln. A sub-group of L pod, known as the L-12s, was hanging around on and off last week, but they seem to prefer the southwest side of the island to the lighthouse, although they did make their way north for the Orca Sing celebration Saturday evening.

Since then, the lighthouse has been quiet; the days have been spent gearing up for the summer, talking with visitors, and thinking about the Southern Residents and their relationship with the ecosystem. Whale activity has been relatively slow for the month of June this year and it has me, and others, scratching our heads. What is keeping the whales away from the west side? Is there not enough salmon for them to eat? Are there too many boats? Have they found a better place to hang out for the summer? Whatever the reason, I hope they start shuffling the west side again soon! Help me, and other scientists, monitor killer whale activity by listening to the Salish Sea Hydrophone network, logging your observations, and sending out email alerts when you hear whales.


Solo Sunset

Solo Sunset

As I was writing this blog post, we got word of L-Pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I am hoping they continue swimming east until they arrive back here at Lime Kiln. Maybe J-Pod and K-Pod are following them in? Until then, I will keep listening to the hydrophones and thinking about what they might be up to out in the ocean.

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L-pod killer whale (L-112/Sooke/Victoria) dissection videos

Today (3/7/2013) marks the anniversary of the cranial dissection of L-112, a 3-year-old southern resident killer whale that was found dead at Long Beach on February 11, 2012.  More than a year after her death, we are still gathering information about her case and many questions remain unanswered.  Acoustic recordings made on the outer coast that winter are undergoing or await analysis and publication, final details from the initial and cranial necropsies have not been fully reported, and CT scans and dissection of the middle/inner ear bones are pending.  There is not yet scientific consensus regarding key questions, including “What was the cause of her trauma?” and “Approximately how long was she dead before being discovered on the beach?”

In pursuit of answers and as a contribution to gathering all relevant data, today we present the edited footage from the cranial dissection of L-112/Victoria/Sooke and offer the raw footage to interested parties.  Below is a 1-hour-long (1:09:03) distillation of almost 5 hours of raw footage from two Flip HD cameras.  This is a synopsis of the dissection, including all audible commentary regarding trauma observations made by members of the necropsy team.

Killer whale L-112 cranial dissection from Beam Reach on Vimeo.

The synopsis is mostly chronological, but some effort has been made to group footage anatomically, with an emphasis on sound production and reception. There are titled sections on the following topics:

  • 0:00:16 Disclaimer and introduction
  • 0:05:57 Sampling blubber and skin (for Ted Cranford)
  • 0:07:29 Removal of skin and blubber
  • 0:13:30 Examination of the blow hole
  • 0:14:24 Dissection of the melon
  • 0:16:56 Phonic lips (with insights from Jason Wood)
  • 0:22:49 Hemorrhage observations
  • 0:24:40 Melon and eyes
  • 0:29:54 Sub-mandibular dissection
  • 0:32:54 End of day 1
  • 0:33:16 Removal of eyes
  • 0:34:18 Melon and phonic lips
  • 0:36:55 Tongue, mandible, and pharangeal area
  • 0:45:01 Phonic lips dissection (including esophageal hemorrhage)
  • 0:49:17 Dissection of auditory bullae (bony structures containing middle and inner ear)
  • 0:57:49 Upper jaw teeth (12 on each side!)
  • 1:01:04 Narration: transition from bullae to brain
  • 1:01:55 Discussion of inner ears
  • 1:04:35 Removal of the brain

We have not included the archived footage from live-streaming of the necropsy, nor have we incorporated the many still photographs that were taken by Beam Reach staff, Sandy Buckley the necropsy team photographer, or others who documented the dissection. We welcome further efforts to assimilate all available information and in that spirit have included the above video and all raw footage collected by Beam Reach in our web-site-wide creative commons license (non-commercial attributed derivative works are permitted).

Later this spring in partnership with zoologist Dr. Kevin Flick of Poke the Dead Thing we plan to release a shorter (~20 minute) version of this footage for interested 6-12th-grade educators and marine naturalists. Key anatomical footage will be supplemented with diagrams, animations, and descriptions of bioacoustic functionality from the recent primary literature. In the interim, students and educators may enjoy studying the DOSITS overview of cetaceans’ fully aquatic ear and marine mammal sound production.

Credits and related links:

Salmon detector replaced at Orcasound

Another Vemco fish tag receiver was replaced today, helping prepare for another season of tracking blackmouth (resident Chinook salmon) in the San Juan Islands. This wintertime field work is part of a collaboration between Beam Reach, Tom Quinn’s lab at the University of Washington, and Kurt Fresh and Anna Kagley of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.  You can follow our efforts at

David Howitt and I dove from Val’s and Leslie’s shoreline (Orcasound, about 5 km north of Lime Kiln) into a sunlit, calm, and clear Haro Strait in search of a tether which was torn from its shore anchor last year.  Luckily we found a frayed knot of the old line still attached to a sub-tidal boulder.  Trailing a new tether (0.5 cm crab pot line) fed to us from shore by Ali and Val, we were able to follow the old tether out about 30 m to find a Vemco receiver (#100463) still attached to its concrete anchor at a depth of 8 m.

Old Vemco

Old Vemco

New Vemco

New Vemco

Interestingly, the concrete block (a 25 kg custom-cast 30 cm square about 15 cm thick) had been flipped over.  This could have happened when the lowering line was slipped last spring, or perhaps the currents tipped it over.  Also, the stainless steel snap shackle was still attached to a stainless steel U-bolt that was cemented into the block, but there was clear evidence of galvanic corrosion.  Future moorings should avoid such metal-metal contact, even for similar noble metals like slightly different types of stainless steel.  The best way we’ve to avoid corrosion but make swapping receiver-float assemblies is to drill through a pier block and then thread crab pot line up through it to provide an attachment loop for a snap/shackle.

We removed the old VR2W and replaced it with a new one (#101594), being sure to back up the corroded loop with the end of the crab pot line.  Then we swam back to shore and secured the crab pot line to a shore anchor (piton in an old bolt hole).

New shore anchor

New shore anchor (with hydrophone pipe in background)

Unfortunately, no data was immediately available from the recovered VR2W because the receiver’s bluetooth chip has failed.  The battery was discharged to such an extent during the deployment that the receiver went into what Matt at Vemco described as a “brown-out mode.”  This apparently is known to corrupt the bluetooth chip on the receiver motherboard and requires returning the receiver to Vemco for a new board (~$250 Canadian).  So, we’ll have to await repairs before we know whether any fish were detected at Orcasound in the last year or so.


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Dolphins react to air gun blasts 150 km away?

Last June (2012) marine mammal researchers and stewards around the Pacific Northwest were surprised to learn of seismic research cruises that would use air guns to survey faults and crustal structure on the outer coast of Washington and Oregon. Our concern was that there would be inadequate mitigation of potential acoustic impacts on marine species (particularly southern resident killer whales). It all happened very fast and I never heard much about how it went… until now.

Thanks to John Dorocicz who has been logging acoustic highlights from one of the hydrophones maintained by NEPTUNE Canada near the head of Barkley Canyon, I just had the rare opportunity of hearing airgun blasts in the real ocean — complete with simultaneous vocalization of nearby dolphins. The date and time of the recording match up very well with a cruise track of the R/V Langseth, the research vessel from Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.

Here’s where the Barkley Canyon hydrophone is located:

Barkley Canyon hydrophone

Here’s where AIS shows the Langseth was at 8:25 UTC on 2012-07-19, about 175 km south of the hydrophone.

Langseth seismic cruise track

And finally, here is a spectrogram of two seismic blasts recorded at 10:13 on the same day, along with sounds from (likely Pacific White-sided?) dolphins.

Airguns and dolphins


Listen to the recording and you’ll notice the low-frequency rumbles of the airgun blasts along with what seems like an increase in dolphin vocalizations (visible as wiggles at 4-6 kHz in the last fifth of the spectrogram).  I wonder if these were the first two blasts the dolphins experienced.  If so, then the suggestion (made by John initially) that the dolphins are responding to the blasts seems tenable.  But were there many blasts before this recording was made?  And why wouldn’t they react as much to the first blast in this recording as they seem to react to the second blast?

Regardless of the answers, it is exciting to hear what airguns sound like on Washington’s outer coast at a range of nearly 200 km.  The number of marine animals exposed to the sounds of seismic exploration is staggering and begs the question: is the risk of interfering with so many oceanic lives worth knowing more about the subduction zone that may someday rock our west coast cities?

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Reflecting on August: Part I

As the end of my summer approached closer each day, the day-to-day “To Do” list grew longer and I wasn’t able to write about all of the excitement that happened out at Lime Kiln Lighthouse during my last month on San Juan Island. I would like to take the following blog posts to share my final summer stories about the orcas and other wildlife that frequent the lighthouse and reminisce on my spectacular summer in the San Juan Islands…

August 6th, 2012

Any amount of days without whales at Lime Kiln Lighthouse can feel like an eternity, which only reminds me of how lucky I was this summer to have so many days with whales. The last few days of July and first few days of August still stick out as one of the longest “dry spells” that I experienced during my time on the west side watching for whales. The Southern Residents were out and about everywhere except the Salish Sea for a total of 8 days! I was beginning to think they might not return until September, but as always, once I was ready to set my mind on something about these mysterious animals, they proved me wrong. Word of the whales return came in the morning and I found myself, as I did many a Monday mornings, rushing out to the west side. I met up with the Southern Residents, mainly members of J Pod, at San Juan County Land Bank where they were slowly traveling north. The whales were spread from inshore to offshore, but the few that were close in to shore were quite interesting to watch. They were splashing and tail lobbing and I couldn’t help but smile. Not only had the whales returned to the west side, but it seemed they were fully enjoying themselves.

This memory still brings a smile to my face; it is one of my favorites from the summer. The fact that these animals have the ability to put such a smile on my face and a laugh in my belly is one thing, but I noticed that the feeling was infectious because the rest of the on-looking crowd had the same expressions as I did.

After watching to whales for a little while, they seemed to be going south, then north, then south, then north again, but their pace was fairly relaxed and I wasn’t completely convinced they were after salmon…I even caught a glimpse of one or two whales “logging”. Logging is when an orca appears to be simply floating, not moving forwards or backwards, on the surface of the water. This behavior seemed to continue, but I couldn’t tell if it was the same whale every time or a different whale. Regardless, I still thought it seemed like an interesting mixture of behaviors that was occurring that morning. As usual I followed the whales north to the lighthouse where I got to experience one of my favorite activities; walking north along the rocks in pace with a group of whales, there really just isn’t anything like it.

Later in the day the whales had continued their journey north and I had returned to the lighthouse, but the excitement was far from over! Word had spread that a new calf had been born sometime earlier in the day to J37 Hy’Sqa! For pictures and more details on the newest member in J Pod, J 49 and more photos like the one below, see the Center for Whale Research web page.

J49 and J37
Photo by Stewart Macintyre

Not only was I excited to learn about the new addition to the J Pod family, I was also somewhat shocked to hear the belief was that the calf had been born during the parade of the west side earlier in the day, and I may have just been watching the entire time…

I have been told a theory exists that upon their return to the Salish Sea, members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community “parade” along the west side of San Juan Island. I distinctly remember thinking that morning, “Wow what an amazing thing this is that these animals do, I am incredibly lucky to be able to experience this.” Looking back on it now, I recognize not only how lucky I was, but also how lucky we all are that the whales allow us to have the opportunity to view them in their natural habitat in such an enchanting manner…these orcas never cease to surprise me.

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