Posts Tagged ‘orca’

What killed orca J34?

Cause of blunt force trauma still unclear in endangered killer whales

Annual status updates (in remembrance):

  • 20 Dec 2020: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2019: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2018: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2017: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2016: Sechelt Band members spot J34 floating dead off the Trail Islands (B.C., Canada)

2020 call to action:

Ask DFO to release the final necropsy report so we can all learn as much as possible about how to prevent death by blunt force trauma in endangered southern resident killer whales like J34.

Specific unanswered questions:

  1. Given the proximity of the Nanoose Range, in what ways was acoustic trauma assessed, and what was the condition of J34’s auditory system?
  2. Does the nature of the blunt force trauma suggest the mechanism of injury was a vessel, and if so what type of boat or ship operating in what way(s)?
  3. If the investigation assessed any video of a potential strike of a killer whale in the days immediately prior to J34’s stranding, what were the results?

Two years ago today, on Tuesday 20 Dec 2016, the dead body of a southern resident killer whale (SRKW) known as J34 was discovered floating in the Strait of Georgia just north of Vancouver (BC, Canada). Also known as Double Stuf, J34 was a beloved adult (18 y.o.) male member of J pod who suffered “blunt force trauma” from a still unknown or unspecified source. We should ask every year, on December 20: what killed J34 and how we can prevent such tragic losses from happening again?

This post serves as a place to aggregate what we know about the stranding of J34. It is revised whenever new information surfaces from the investigation of his death, and as we learn generally about the nature and causes of blunt force trauma in cetaceans. The post is organized into three sections: evidence; discussion; and conclusions.

Please add your contributions in the comments. We’ll intermittently incorporate new information and ideas into this post. Citizen scientists are welcome to process, re-analyze, or contribute to the J34 stranding raw data archive. We also maintain a similar on-going blog post regarding the stranding of SRKW L112 in February, 2012, which may provide valuable comparisons to the case of J34.

J22 and J34 chatting with J38 off the west side of San Juan Island (01 Sep 2007). See animation of their localized communication below…

Here at Beam Reach we are especially motivated to learn as much as we can from J34’s death because as a younger whale (in 2007), he and his immediate family gave us bioacousticians a very rare opportunity to spatially document communication of SRKWs by using an array of hydrophones to localize each call. While J34 and his mother, J22, traveled along the west side of San Juan Island, his four-year-old brother J38 (a particularly curious juvenile?) strayed away and made a rare, close approach to an array of hydrophones we were towing behind our hybrid-electric research catamaran.

In the animation, you can listen to these family members calling back and forth as you watch the moving dots which indicate the relative locations of J38 and J34/J22. We don’t know if the responses to J38 came from his mother or his sibling (because the stay closer together than the precision of our localizations), but on dark days like December 20 it’s heart-warming to think of J34 as an attentive and talkative older brother.

WARNING: Graphic material!

This remainder of the blog post contains photographs and videos of dead orcas and the necropsy of killer whales, including J34. A necropsy, also known as an autopsy, is a postmortem examination that often includes anatomical dissection. Please don’t read on if you would rather not view these media which can be upsetting, but contain essential information for understanding what mechanisms injure and/or kill wildlife that we all value and want to conserve.

The results of J34’s necropsy will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales…

Initial Necropsy Results SRKW J34, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Aug 23, 2020 screen capture of DFO necropsy results page for J34.
Still no details… Where is the actual report?

This 4-paragraph notice stands in stark contrast to the report that NOAA has provided for L-112… or the synopsis of L112’s case provided by the SeaDoc Society and the summary of the gross necropsy by Cascadia Research.


The following sections present the various lines of evidence that are pertinent to understanding the stranding and injuries of J34. To understand each line, it may be helpful to refer to the J34 stranding map and/or the J34 stranding chronology.

Pre- and post-stranding distributions of SRKWs and other marine life

Historic distribution from NOAA satellite tags

If you look at the maps of critical habitat for SRKWs in the U.S. and Canada, you might easily conclude that SRKWs rarely if ever travel north of the Fraser River delta. However, these maps — even if corrected for effort — are heavily biased to the summertime distribution.

One important insight from the NOAA-led satellite tagging program is that during the winter months (Dec-Feb) the entire Strait of Georgia is was traversed by SRKWs. Based on tags deployed during the winters of 2014 and 2015, J pod commonly circumnavigates Texada Island (based on tagged individuals L87 who travels with J pod and J27). The typical route taken by J pod to or from the northern Strait of Georgia is via the Active Pass and in the main basin (between the Gulf Islands and the Vancouver mainland). Interestingly, during the winter the Fraser delta does not seem to be a point of interest as it is during the summertime.

Pre-stranding distributions

The J34 stranding map shows the last sighting of J34 (in Puget Sound) on 12/14/16. It also depicts the progression of acoustic detections of J pod from Haro Strait (at 3 am on 12/17) to the Fraser river delta (~9 hours later, just after noon on 12/17). The map below suggests that if J pod took their typical route via Active Pass, the distance traveled in those 9 hours is about 50 km, suggesting their speed was 5 kph (a typical mean speed for SRKWs). If they had continued into the Strait of Georgia at that pace, they could have reached the vicinity of the stranding (another 70 km along the estimated track below) in about 14 hours, hypothetically arriving around 4 a.m. on Sunday 12/18/16.

The U.S. sighting networks observed and identified many of the J pod whales that J34 was with when in Puget Sound and in San Juan County on the Dec 10th and the 14th. On 12/14/2016 ~14:00:00, Orca Network reported J pod at Point Robinson (see photo below). The pod went as far south as Point Dalco and turned back east and then north at 16:35.

One of the final photos of J34 taken on 14 Dec 2016 ~1330 at Pt-Robinson, WA. (Credit: Keenan via Orca Network)

Distributions simultaneous to the stranding?

Are there any sightings or hearings of SRKWs and/or other marine mammals during the possible period of the stranding (roughly first 12/18-20/2016)?

Post-stranding distributions

At almost exactly the same time that J34 was located off Sechelt, J pod went south through Haro Strait (on 21 Dec ~10:00) along the west side of San Juan Island. Three days later (12/24 ~16:10) J and K calls were heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophones (lasted 2 hours).

Also on 12/24/2016, Jeanne Hyde reported hearing T018/T019 matrilines on the Orcasound Lab hydrophone (5 km north of Lime Kiln). Were any other Bigg’s KWs sighted to the north or south, before, during, or after the stranding?

Pre-stranding environmental conditions


A southerly wind off Sechelet was significant (~15 kph) and rising as the body of J34 was secured and towed to shore in the late morning of 21 Dec 2016. Prior to that southerly wind event, however, the previous 24 hours experienced light northerly winds (<~5 kph). Earlier in the week — between Dec 18 and mid-morning on Dec 20 — similar light northerly winds were interrupted by 2-3 other strong southerly events. The most significant southerly storm had peak wind speeds of almost 30 kph and was sustained near 20 kph for ~18 hours, blowing consistently out of the southeast (from ~120 degrees true; towards ~300 degrees true) .

Wind speed observations from the Sechelt station (86 m elevation). Blue wind speed (in km/hr) and green wind direction (in degrees true divided by 10) are also depicted as black wind vectors. You can see the southerly that was building as J34 was towed to shore just before noon on Dec 21, as well as the previous southerly events interspersed with northerly or confused light winds.

Tidal currents

We should be able to pull a surface current vector time series out of some or all of these Canadian observed data sources:

  • Ocean Networks Canada ADCPs and/or other current sensors on the Venus line (nodes off the Fraser delta)
  • Drifters?

In the interim, here’s a synopsis by Mofjeld & Larsen (1984) of the dominant (M2) tidal current component depicted as current ellipses:

While currents are strong off of Victoria in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they mostly slosh back and forth in the Strait of Georgia north of the Gulf Islands in NW-SE alignment with the general bathymetry.

While a trajectory model should integrate net transport from surface currents, our current assumption (pun intended) is that the net transport was negligible and therefore the drift trajectory of J34 was governed mostly by the wind.

Tidal height

Tidal height is probably not relevant as the dominant wind direction suggests the carcass likely did not encounter the shoreline prior to being discovered. For the record, though, here is a time series from a local tidal station.

Discovery of J34 carcass

The best description of how J34 was first discovered floating dead north of Vancouver, BC, comes from an excellent synopsis written by the Sechelt First Nation [archived link | original link (broken in 2018)]. They reported that a killer whale “had been spotted floating off the Trail Islands within our territory on Tuesday evening, December 20th, 2016.” The synopsis also includes these helpful details:

“Immediately, shíshálh Nation member Vern Joe on his gillnet vessel “Sechelt Renegade” sprang into action to try to recover the whale however, was unable to locate the mammal in darkness. Paul Cottrell arrived at the shíshálh Nation offices the following morning, December 21st, 2016 and travelled with Resource Management Director Sid Quinn and Fisheries Technician Dwayne Paul to search the last known location. Despite challenging sea conditions, the 26-foot aluminum crew vessel owned by the Nation was able to assist in the recovery of the whale. The whale had been spotted during our search by a passing tug at approximately 11:00AM, two nautical miles off the southern most Trail Island.”

“Coast guard vessel, Cape Cockburn, towed the whale into the breakwater area located in Selma Park after it had been secured with a rope from the FOC zodiac operated by Fisheries Officers out of Powell River, BC.”

In their initial necropsy results (see below), DFO, described the discovery in a consistent, but more succinct way:

An approximately 18 year old male killer whale, identified as J34 was found dead near Sechelt, B.C. on December 20th, 2016.

shíshálh Nation members with Paul Cottrell (far right) and others. (Credit: shíshálh Nation)

Vessel traffic records

These text-based descriptions of the discovery led us in late December 2016 to query a Automated Identification System database (Siitech) for vessel location information. We searched the results for tugs and Canadian governmental vessels in the vicinity of Sechelt. We also noticed a strange pattern of AIS vessels (stationary?) showing up and disappearing within the Whiskey Golf area near Nanoose Bay (present ~12/17; absent until ~12/19 20:30; present intermittently between 12/20 9:00; details in the chronology spreadsheet).

The following screen shots summarize the relevant results. (Need to add captions and re-order more logically…)

The key findings were multiple tugs in the vicinity around 10 a.m. on 12/21 that could have reported the sighting first that morning. About the same time the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Cockburn appeared to search inshore of the Trail Islands and then intercept one of the path of one of the tugs. Afterwards the Cape Cockburn track is nearly stationary (indicating the period when they were securing the carcass for a tow), and then it proceeds directly to the mainland indicating the approximate position of the beach where the necropsy was performed.

Probable trajectory of the carcass

Pending more detailed analysis with the best available current observations, we take the prevalence of southerly wind events in the days prior to the stranding as sufficient justification to add a rough direction of drift to the J34 stranding map. The yellow line (screen shot below) represents the trajectory and is extending from the first high-confidence carcass location (the Cape Cockburn AIS lat/lon on 21 Dec 2016 at 10:42).

Rough estimate of the trajectory of J34 (yellow line), assuming that drift was governed predominantly by wind. The red fish connected to the yellow line represents first known location of J34 (where the carcass was secured; based on AIS positions for Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Cockburn. The ruler shows a 10 km (6 mi) distance for scale, though we have not yet attempted to estimate a drift speed for the carcass.

An important future step will be to review the literature regarding drift modeling for other killer whales or cetaceans. What is best methodology for modeling post-mortem transport? Was it used and was it consistent between the J34 and L112 strandings? What role could advances in 3D hydrodynamic current models of the Salish Sea (PNNL | WA Dept. of Ecology) play in stranding investigations — past and future?

It will be very valuable to learn what indications, if any, in the final necropsy report can constrain how long J34 may have drifted, and how long and fast he may have swum after being injured. With this added information we may be able to determine if the trajectory overlaps with the Whiskey Golf naval testing/training area, the Horseshoe Bay – Nanaimo ferry route, other regions of high vessel-density around Vancouver, and/or distributions of other marine mammals.

Acoustic observations

Due to proximity of the stranding location and preliminary trajectory to the Whiskey Golf area, and to acoustically establish presence/absence of marine mammals, we completed an initial evaluation of a subset of the hydrophone data that might help inform the stranding of J34. Most importantly we detected the calls of SRKWs on 12/17/2016 at ~12:11:02 off Fraser River mouth, BC. The calls were faint, but very likely from J pod based on confirmation of call (S1, S2, S3s, possibly an S7, and a S17 later) by Monika Wieland.

Map of the Venus cabled ocean observatory, including hydrophone locations off the Fraser delta. Credit: Ocean Networks Canada

On 12/17/2016 at 11:31:02 we noted strange tonal sounds that may have been a distant power boat, but could also have possibly been related to mid-frequency active sonar. And on 12/18/2016 at 22:01:02 we heard a low-frequency rumble — which might possibly be interpreted as a reverberating detonation. These potential military noise signals, however, were very faint and we have little confidence in their interpretation at this point. Finally, we heard humpback calls on 12/19/2016 at ~9:41:02, indicating the presence of other marine mammals in the vicinity of the Fraser river delta two days before J34 was secured.

In addition to a more thorough acquisition and careful analysis of ONC hydrophone data, it would be valuable to ascertain whether other hydrophone systems may have gathered additional information about the case of J34. Possible sources to investigate include:

  • SIMRES data from their hydrophones on Saturna Island
  • Any autonomous recorders that may have been deployed at the time (e.g. SMRU or JASCO mooring(s) related to the Terminal 2 expansion?)
  • Any DFO hydrophones in the vicinity (e.g. in/near Active Pass, or in/near Nanaimo)
  • Any Naval recordings from the relevant time period (e.g. assets associated with the Whiskey Golf area and/or Nanoose?)

Any military testing/training activities planned? Were there any other intense sonic events reported in the week prior to the stranding, like earthquakes or lightning strikes?

Necropsy report(s)

An impressive team of experts conducted a necropsy on the beach more-or-less immediately. The necropsy was performed by Dr. Stephen Raverty. Also present were DFO Pacific Region Marine Mammal Coordinator Paul Cottrell, other DFO staff and biologists, as well as staff from the Vancouver Aquarium.

20 Dec 2018 note:
Because the final necropsy report has not been published, despite repeated requests by Beam Reach for updates from DFO, this section currently presents only the initial results, a summary of the final report, observations from other experts, and diverse photographic and video documentation from all sources that we’ve been able to find. Luckily there were some excellent videos taken by some of those present on the beach, but we’re eager for a full assessment of the necropsy results as soon as possible. As Canada is currently forming multiple Technical Working Groups to make short- and long-term recommendations for the conservation of endangered SRKWs, now is a good time to learn as much as we can from J34 and ensure that prevention of further “blunt force trauma” to SRKWs is included in the 2019 conservation efforts.

DFO Initial Necropsy Results

The DFO “Initial Necropsy Results” were available online, both via the DFO web page (via this link; broken in 2018) and the NOAA stranding page (via the same link; broken in 2018). Luckily, we archived it at the time so can provide it here — both as text & a screen shot (both below), as well as a PDF.

An approximately 18 year old male killer whale, identified as J34 was found dead near Sechelt, B.C. on December 20th, 2016. J34 was a Southern Resident killer whale, a population listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in Canada. A necropsy was performed to determine the cause of the animal’s death.

Initial examination indicates that the animal appears to have blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury. A CAT scan will be conducted on the skull to determine if there are any fractures. Additional information from tissue and blood analysis can take 2-8 weeks. DFO is investigating what may have caused the blunt trauma to the animal. Anyone with information please call our Observe Record Report line at 1-800-465-4336.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like to acknowledge the Sechelt First Nation, whose efforts and collaboration were central to locating the animal and facilitating a successful necropsy. We would also like to thank the BC Ministry of Agriculture (and in particular, Dr. Stephen Raverty, Veterinary Pathologist who performed the necropsy exam), Vancouver Aquarium staff, as well as numerous dedicated DFO staff and biologists.

The results of J34’s necropsy will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales from a population health perspective. This data allows us to look at trends, pathogens, or other indicators that may affect their survival.

This page will be updated as new information comes in.
Date modified:

Screenshot of the initial necropsy results.

As of December 20, 2018, the URL of the initial necropsy results appears to be broken, e.g.:

Dec 20, 2018 screenshot of DFO web page search results for “necropsy.”

Clicking on the links to the initial report currently resolves to the general Canada-wide DFO home page — both either the relevant DFO web site, or the NOAA West Coast SRKW stranding site (where the link was promptly posted and was functional in December, 2016).

Observations from Ken Balcomb (via email)

Based on a review of the initial necropsy results and associated video, and possibly other press sources, Ken Balcomb volunteered the following in an email (03 Jan 2017):

“I would not characterize the blubber thickness as being “normal” as reported, based upon what I see in the video; but, I presume that blubber thickness was measured at numerous locations and samples taken for lipid content analysis. The blubber looks a bit thin to me, and dry? similar to J32. The discoloration that is apparent ventrally is similar to that I have previously previously observed for L112 and L60 (the former from photos and the latter from participation in the necropsy).”

Insights from emails with Stephen Raverty and Paul Cottrell (2016-2018)

  • 27 Dec 2016: “DFO has enforcement officers investigating this event and additional information may come to light.  We plan to have CT scans conducted of J34’s skull to assess for possible ear pathology and have harvested 1 ear for diagnostic evaluation.” “The necropsy is complete and all samples collected.”
  • 05 Jan 2017: “There are still some aspects of the investigation that are underway and we need the additional findings to complete the document…. we are trying to retrieve buried bones to evaluate.”
  • 21 Mar 2018: “animal had a significant dorsolateral hemorrhage on the left side, indicating blunt force trauma. See broad summary below.”

Summary of the final report by Paul Cottrell

The gross lesions are consistent with blunt force trauma and based on the anatomic site of impact, the sustained injuries would have contributed significantly to the demise of this animal. The tracking hemorrhage throughout the subcutis of the head suggests that the animal would have survived the initial trauma for a period time, prior to death. Although the brain was too autolyzed to assess for hemorrhage (coup contra-coup), a few bone spicules and sheaves up to 3-4 cm long were interspersed within the brain tissue. Based on qualitative assessment, the animal was considered in moderate to good body condition and there were no apparent lesions or abnormalities which may have predisposed this animal to injury.


1). Thorax, left dorsolateral: Hemorrhage, subcutaneous, muscular, fascial and paravertebral, severe, segmental, acute with variable amounts of edema fluid

2). Skull: Hemorrhage, subcutaneous, marked, bilateral to circumferential, tracking

3). Occipital region, rostrolateral blowhole, and acoustic fat: Hemorrhage, marked, multifocally extensive, acute

2016 DFO list of SARA incidents

The stranding of J34 was not noted in the 2016 annual report of DFO’s Marine Mammal Response Program (PDF).


Photographs (and video screen shots)

These images are either screen grabs from videos or photographs put into the public domain. We will try to caption and credit them appropriately in future revisions of this post.

Towing to shore

Necropsy images

Press coverage


Hypotheses to discuss w/differential evidence

  • Vessel strike causes blunt force trauma and death
  • Another mechanism (antagonistic or defensive whale?) causes blunt force trauma and death
  • Blast (or sonar?) causes initial injury (blast trauma) and death
  • Blast, sonar, or other damaging sound causes initial injury (PTS), reducing animal’s ability to avoid strikes; vessel causes second injury (blunt force trauma) and death
  • Loud noise causes initial injury (TTS), reducing animal’s ability to avoid strikes; vessel causes additional injury (blunt force trauma) and death
  • Which of the non-acoustic causes could result in evidence that is also consistent with blast trauma, and/or PTS, and/or TTS?!

A major outstanding task is to aggregate and review the literature on: underwater blast trauma in marine mammals; the signs of TTS and/or PTS in killer whale hearing systems; blunt force and other trauma caused by ships and/or boats striking marine mammals. [When/why is there blood in the pan bone’s acoustic fat? What resolution of CT scan is needed to resolve damage to ears/bullae due to blunt force trauma versus acoustic trauma?]

Key evidence to discuss

  • Initial necropsy report: “blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury.”
  • Final necropsy (summary): “gross lesions are consistent with blunt force trauma and based on the anatomic site of impact, the sustained injuries would have contributed significantly to the demise of this animal”

Overall J34 map

Link: interactive Google map

Overall J34 chronology

Link: J34 stranding interactive Google spreadsheet


Without the final necropsy report published and fully reviewed, it is too soon to draw any conclusions about what killed J34…


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Emazing talk on fossil fuel ship noise & killer whales

This afternoon I’m giving a talk at the 2014 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in which I present our estimates of sound pressure levels from commercial ships in Haro Strait, the core of the summertime critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales. I also take a first look at noise impacts of the current tanker and bulk carrier fleets and ask how those impacts may change if a suite of proposed fossil fuel export facilities are added to the Salish Sea.

Powered by emaze

For this talk, I’m excited to have experimented with in-browser HTML5/CSS methods of presenting (alternatives to Power Point and Prezi). There are a bunch of interesting new players like SlideCaptain (good for equations), but I settled on Emaze because of how gracefully it handled embedding of sound and video.

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I know, I have already given my top marine mammal moments, but after some discussion I was granted permission to give more details about one of my favorite encounters, and one that I didn’t even mention in my earlier blog because I was unsure about posting it.

10/03/2010 K21

I briefly mentioned our encounter with K21, Cappuccino, making the S10 call by our hydrophone before, but here I will give you a few more details.

We had been following the whales from East Point, and had almost reached Turn Point. We had been having trouble all day keeping up with the whales because we can only go 2.5 knots through the water so we don’t get very much flow noise on our hydrophones while recording, so we were hanging out with the stragglers of the group which happened to be K21. He was on our port side for quite awhile at about 9 o’clock, when he very abruptly turned 90o towards us.

Look closely, you can see him underwater!

Catching a breath as he headed for us

As he got closer Todd killed the engine and he sure made a B-line for us. He swam right up to our stern, where our first hydrophone was at the time, stopped, made a vocalization, and went on his way. I like to think he was telling us hello or actually trying to communicate with us since his call was so directed to the hydrophone. He was so close that we could see him swimming underwater!

Since he was so close and gave a call at the right moment we got an awesome recording of it. His call is classified as an S10 call, but he combined two of them to make an extra long call. It came out so beautifully on the spectrogram because he was so close, the background noise couldn’t really be detected.

The spectrogram of the S10 call from K21

Here you can listen! —> S10

9/16/2010  J28 and her calf, J46

Finally, I have saved the best for last. This special encounter happened on our most bio-diverse day and is still the most vivid memory I have with the whales.

There we were aboard the Gato Verde collecting some great data for our research projects, most of the afternoon we had been with members of J-pod. Of course we thought just being around the whales was cool in itself, which it is, but we were in for a special treat. J28, Polaris. and her calf J46, Star, had been trailing us for a while, but they were getting some speed and catching up to us on our starboard side. They were probably about 100-150 meters away milling around, and we were all stood on the deck just staring at them. J46 did a couple tail slaps and gave Mama some kisses, it was just too cute.


All of a sudden they both directed their travel towards us, Todd killed the engine and we all observed with excitement.

J28 (left) and J46 (right) swimming towards us

As they approached the boat together, J46 sped up and pulled away from his mama as if she was curious about us. I was standing right on the edge staring into the water as J46 came up to us, turned over on her side, basically gave the boat a hug with her peck fins, and opened her mouth as if she was smiling at us. I even made eye contact with her! As weird as it may sound, I felt like we made a connection of some kind during that moment. We were also able to see his teeth when he smiled at us. I mean, she was RIGHT THERE!


J28 followed behind her, and they both swam off behind us. All this happened in about a matter of two to three minutes, and it all seemed so unreal! Everyone on the boat was so excited, even Todd said that had never happened to him before.

Just to clarify, during all of our time with the whales we follow the Washington State Law and the Be Whale Wise guidelines, but sometimes the whales can surprise us by being curious.

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Two weeks in a pinch

I have could never find a good chance to update the blog.  This is most likely due to the fact that I was out at sea for two weeks and no internet connection.  Also might be the fact that I have too much to do and I’m always scrounging around to finish everything.  I hope everyone is getting updates on our travels and experiences through the other blogs though.  We have been through quite a bit these past 2-3 weeks.

We set off on the end of April and headed out to look for the whales.  Todd was a bit late picking us up that day because he had to go out to buy groceries to prepare for our two week departure.  Jason also got a call from the Stranding Network about another Steller sea lion washed up on a beach on Orcas Island.  We ended up departing at a very late time, but two weeks, I was looking forward to it no matter how late we left.  The next day, unexpectedly, J-pod returned to San Juan Islands, after a long period of absence.  Jason heard the update right when we docked on Stuart Island; my heart jolted straight away.  The residents are back!  I was really excited from hearing this, trying to contain myself in the middle of Todd’s sailing lecture.  We did peek our heads out off of Turn Point to see if we could spot them.  We actually did too!  They were pretty widespread, as I could only spot two females surface a couple of times.  We believed them to be foraging around that time, which was 6 pm.  But the next day, they were gone.  No updates left of the residents, which made us sad.  The salmon runs are probably not quite here yet.

The next few days, we did not hear from Orca Network about any updates on the whales’ whereabouts.  We did see quite a number of other marine mammals though, such as harbour seals, dall’s porpoises, and more.  But getting lots of science goals out of the way was really great.  We calibrated our hydrophones, went through a behavior exercise with Jason on the Gatito, had a couple of sailing lectures, wrapped up our final research proposals, and journal club readings.  It was sort of nice that the whales did not come by during this time, because it was indeed crunch time when we had to finish up our proposals.  I can recall I was one of the ones that were sleeping later than usual, with my eyes popping out of their sockets from working on the proposal for hours.  We finally turned it in on Friday, after what I felt was a long process of hard work.

But, before turning the proposal in on Friday, transients!  We were stationed out by Turn Point for almost the entire week, drifting about, waiting for the whales to show up.  It was on May 7 that we finally got to see the whales.  We got the text that there were two transients heading north on San Juan Channel.  Perfect!  We were right north of them, heading south.  In that sense, we immediately headed down towards them, in hopes to catch them on camera and film after not seeing whales for a long period of time.  We motored all the way down towards Orcas and saw several boats off in the horizon.  We thought that they were the whale watching fleet out there, and sure enough, they were.  There must have been over eight of them surrounding the two whales.  It was much more different than the time that Kathryn spotted the whales when we wanted to go to Neah Bay.  We were practically the only ones following them.  This made such a huge difference for us, since we had to tow the hydrophones this time to get recordings and boats kept getting in our way.  It was seriously very frustrating.  But we did get a great recording of what we thought of as a call around 17 minutes into the recording!

Afterwards, we sailed back to Friday Harbor Labs in preparation for the open house that was going to happen.  The open house was an event in the labs where the area is open to the general public.  All the students at the labs get to show off what they have been doing this whole time in the labs and demonstrate what they have learned so far.  I thought that this was a great time for everyone to share their findings and interests to the public, hoping to educate them as well about the science out in the world.  For their service project, Libby and Kathryn went to a walk to spread awareness about the salmon farms at Vancouver Island and Alexandra Morton was going to be there.  She was one of the leaders and since it was during the exact same day as the FHL open house, Nora and I had to take over the entire chore rotations and make sure everyone was attended to during the event.  The open house was a success.  I loved every bit of it: the enthusiastic kids, parents that had loads of questions, and all the FHL folk that came down to take a gander at the Gato Verde.  I really felt my communication skills come out during that day, since several times, Jason and Todd were occupied with another person and I would have to take over along with Nora.  Even better, was the fact that it was such a nice warm day.  During my break, I went over to visit the Zoobots and Kellen’s genomics class to see what they were up to.  I ate some gummi worms while investigating the labs, and learned some pretty neat stuff!  Vincent showed me this hermit crab that had a mutualistic relationship with a sea anemone that lived inside of the shell.  Whenever the hermit crab was fed, the tentacles would pop out, and gather and food.  That is just crazy!  I saw scallops also flip around and swim too, rather quickly I would have to say.  But all in all, it was such a great day.  To top it off, we had internet and stayed another night at the labs.  That meant another night of soda, showers, and comfy rest.

It was then, during the next day, that we saw two transients again.  We crossed the Canadian border and found two whales being followed by about 8 vessels once more.  We were at first very far out so it was difficult to see them.  I had the camera for the first time and it was hard for me to get shots of them since we were facing right towards the sun.  I tried my very best.  This time though, it was much more exciting than the day before.  We got to be able to see them act quite strangely.  For one, they started heading towards a boat and not going away from it.  We thought that there was perhaps a seal or something heading underneath the boat that the orcas were that interested.  But for a solid 10 minutes, it would not leave the vicinity of the boat.  The whales kept bobbing up and down around the Prince of Whales and stayed there for a long time.  They did the exact same thing to Eagle Wing.  What was most memorable was when we saw lots of great splashes and some interaction between the two whales.  And…what was most intriguing was that we thought we saw a bit of pink flash on the surface of the water.  Sea snake perhaps?  We all shouted and exclaimed in excitement over the orcas as they were just a spectacular sight to see, yet again.

I felt as if these two weeks zoomed by so quickly, that I did not even notice.  Time never waits for anyone does it?  But we did accomplish so much, and I have felt that I have grown so much since the very first day of Beam Reach.  I am constantly learning, being the youngest and only teen of the group.  I have a long way to go but I aspire to end with lifetime lessons and exuberant experiences that I can share to my folks back at home.

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Watching Whales

Evening sky at Griffin Bay

Hello from the Gato Verde!

Things have been going great so far — it feels wonderful to be out on the water.  I have not been sailing since 2008, and the moment I set foot on the Gato Verde, every reason for loving boats I had ever conjured in my mind came rushing back to me.  I actually used to have a great fear of boats. I think it began because my idea of being out at sea was based on one or two childhood whale watching experiences.  During one trip, I remember being so frightened that my mom had to literally sedate me with medication.  I spent most of the whale watch underneath my Little Mermaid towel, hiding from the wrath of the Massachusetts seas.  Despite my dramamine-induced drowsiness, I remember my panic reached a high point once we spotted whales.  Every single passenger scrambled to one side of the boat to get a better look, causing us to tip precariously (at least in my mind).  In this moment I remember feeling desperately out of control of my own fate…this boat was going to sink and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  Luckily, my fear of boating has gradually been replaced by a deep love of all forms of marine transportation.  This is the only instance where my fear of something has decreased as I have gotten older – all my other phobias have, unfortunately, seemed to increase with time.  Thankfully, the time for fear of boats has passed in my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be sailing again.  Everything has been working in our favor so far weather-wise (knock on wood), and things have been going very smoothly.  I even got to steer the boat for about 20 minutes yesterday!

After a relaxing first evening anchored in Griffin Bay, we rose early to get a head start on what we thought would be a very full day of sailing.  We had planned to sail to Neah Bay, where there is a hydrophone in need of repair.  Beam Reach has never sailed that far, so we were all looking forward to the exciting challenge of charting new territory.  I woke up early after a fitful night of sleep, soothed by early-morning fog banks and loon calls.  We departed on schedule and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.  Around this time, I happened to look out the window; I had seen some sea lions sunning themselves on some rocks, and I thought I might see more in the water.  Instead, I saw a tall black shape sinking beneath the surface.  My breath caught.  No, I thought, there is absolutely no way.  It’s probably just a cormorant. Then, a blow.  “Whales!!” I cried, tripping over myself stupidly in an effort to get a better look.  “Whales, whales!!!”  I clapped happily, laughing in awe – I absolutely could not believe our luck.  Here we are, one day out from Friday Harbor, and we happen to stumble upon a beautiful group of transient killer whales.  Their pointed dorsal fins sliced through the water, and I sighed contentedly at hearing their piercing blows.  All plans of attempting a passage to Neah Bay lost, we followed the whales from nine in the morning until they gave us the slip around 3 pm.  The whales came within meters of the Gato Verde several times; during one encounter I even picked up the familiar smell of whale breath on the air (which, in my opinion, smells like rotten pumpkins).  I am happy to report that I recorded several videos of our time with the whales today…the quality, however, is somewhat compromised by the fact that I was leaping all over the boat in my uncontainable excitement.  If these past two days have been any indication, there will be much more to report soon!

Hope everyone is well,


Coming up for air

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Back on San Juan Island

I have been waiting to return to San Juan Island for 5 years.  The first time I came to Friday Harbor, I was 15 years old.  I arrived in Washington with the hopes of seeing a wild orca, and I began my hunt on the ferry to the island. I stood on the chilling bow, wind-whipped and shivering in 4 layers of clothing, scanning the horizon for black dorsal fins and telltale plumes of mist suspended in the air.  I knew the chances of seeing whales before I had even reached San Juan Island were slim, but I simply could not contain my excitement.  About halfway through the ferry ride, I noticed a zodiac idling a mile or so away.  The people on the boat were obviously looking at something, and I squinted my eyes to get a better look.  Moments later, a black shape rose out of the water, and my heart skipped a beat – orcas.  Somehow my father managed to snap a photo of me at this exact moment, and I can only describe the expression on my face as one of pure, unadulterated joy.  In suburban Ohio where I grew up, the closest thing to wild orcas are captive animals who lead sad half-lives at Sea World; it was an absolute thrill to see these animals swimming freely in the Salish Sea.  This unexpected encounter set the trend for the remainder of my trip – I saw orcas nearly every day.  I watched whales cruise by the lighthouse at Lime Kiln State Park and I followed them through the fog on a whale watch.  The only way I managed to leave the island without dissolving into tears was to promise myself that I would return someday.

As I boarded the Anacortes ferry one week ago, I was overcome with the same child-like excitement I felt during my first ferry ride.  I had waited so long to be reunited with this thick, fragrant air, the ethereal cathedrals of tall, leaning trees, and, most of all, the whales.  After seven days on the island, I have still yet to see an orca, but my disappointment has been tempered by a multitude of other wildlife experiences.  Friday Harbor Labs is situated within a biological preserve, and the area is bursting with life.  I have had close encounters with deer, sea lions, slugs, foxes, and river otters, temporarily satiating my desire for animal contact.  I have started to use our Sibley’s bird guide to identify the birds around our duplex (including a Red-Shafted Northern Flicker that has been drilling noisily on a metal lamp outside our window for the past few days) in an effort to hone my observational skills.  While these experiences have been fulfilling, there is still part of me impatient to get out on the water – I listen to the hydrophone network daily, ears tweaked for sweeping killer whale calls, and even though I know they don’t frequent the east side of the island, I keep an ear out for the gunshot ring of whales coming up for air.  We’ll be out at sea in two short weeks; in the meantime I will enjoy the company of other creatures and bask in the knowledge that I am finally back in this wonderful place.

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