Washington Tribe’s Whale Hunt Proposal Gets First Look From Regulators

A gray whale breaching in the Pacific Ocean.Courtesey of NOAA
A gray whale breaching in the Pacific Ocean.
Courtesey of NOAA


by David Steves OPB


Washington’s Makah Indian tribe wants to resume its traditional practice of whale hunting.

The first step in winning federal approval came Friday, when NOAA Fisheries issued a draft environmental impact statement analyzing the tribe’s request.

The Makah tribe drew international criticism from animal rights groups in 1999 when it hunted a gray whale off Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It was the tribe’s first whale hunt in more than 70 years.

The Makah have cited the ceremonial and subsistence nature of whale hunting, which it negotiated as a right preserved under its 1855 treaty with the U.S. government.

On their website the Makah tribe says whaling and whales are central to their culture.

“The event of a whale hunt requires rituals and ceremonies which are deeply spiritual. Makah whaling (is) the subject and inspiration of Tribal songs, dances, designs, and basketry.” the tribe says. “For the Makah Tribe, whale hunting provides a purpose and a discipline which benefits their entire community.”

The Makah are seeking to hunt gray whales from the eastern North Pacific stock, which is fully recovered from the impact of historic whaling in the Pacific. The gray whale was removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 1994. The eastern North Pacific population is estimated to number about 20,000 whales.

NOAA Fisheries has proposed several options. One would allow the tribe to take up to five whales per year. Another would continue a prohibition against hunting gray whales.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, associate deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

The draft analysis and additional information is available online. The public can submit comments over the next 90 days.

Will Sonobuoys In The Pacific Help The Navy But Harm Whales?



By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

The Navy conducts training and testing in a stretch of the Pacific  roughly the size of Montana.

It wants to continue and expand its activities in these waters off the West Coast from Washington to Northern California. But first, the Navy must renew its permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The plan calls for detonating explosives, moving vessels, and deploying 700 more sonobuoys per year. And that’s drawing criticism from environmentalists who say the increased use of sonar poses increased risk for whales and other marine mammals.

Sonobouys are three-feet-long cylindrical floats are dropped from aircraft into the water. They use active sonar for the audible clues that can help them locate enemy submarines.

“It’s a critical mission for the Navy to be able to identify and locate submarines and utilizing these types of equipment is how we do that job,” said John Mosher, the environment program manager for the Navy in the Northwest.

The Navy says it keeps a lookout for marine life before conducting tests. It estimates that the added buoys will lead to more than 100,000 potential sonar exposures for marine life.

Mosher acknowledge that “exposure numbers” for marine mammals will increase if the Navy gets its way.

“But I’d like to stress that those exposures are at the low level of behavioral disturbance,” he added. “The animals may hear the device but it’s that simple. No injury, no long-lasting impact whatsoever.”

EarthJustice lawyer Steve Mashuda said increased use of active sonar will disrupt marine mammals’ feeding, breeding and calving.

“It’s behavioral disruption, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize this is happening over and over and over again,” he said.

Mashuda said the Navy is increasing the potential risk to marine mammals without increasing the precautions it’s taking to avoid harming them during testing.

Environmentalists takes particular issue with the Navy’s proposal to conduct tests within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It’s an area known to be frequented by blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales and endangered orcas.

“We have been saying for a long time that we’re not attempting to stop the Navy from training,” Mashuda said. “But what we are saying is there are areas on the coast, particularly the Washington coast, where we know that there are higher concentrations of marine mammals.

The Navy did not respond to requests to comment about its need to conduct testing exercises in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The Navy recently has been criticized by residents of the Olympic Peninsula for proposing to conduct electromagnetic warfare testing in the Olympic National Forest.

Residents of the island communities in Puget Sound report recent increases in loud fighter jets, or “growlers” overhead.

The Navy is expected to release a final environmental review of its proposed marine training and testing activities this summer. The public will have a final chance to comment then.

In preparing that final review, the Navy is holding open house meetingsand taking submitted comments until Feb. 2.

Upcoming public meetings:


Grays Harbor College HUB

1620 Edward P. Smith Drive

Aberdeen, WA 98520


Isaac Newton Magnet School Gym

825 NE 7th St

Newport, OR


Eureka Public Marina, Wharfinger Building, Great Room

1 Marina Way

Eureka, CA 95501

Navy Seeks Permits To Expand Testing Off Northwest Coast

Sailors unloading sonobouys from a Sea Hawk helicopter. The Navy wants to expand its permit to deploy vessels and sonobouys off the Washington, Oregon and northern California coastline.U.S. Navy
Sailors unloading sonobouys from a Sea Hawk helicopter. The Navy wants to expand its permit to deploy vessels and sonobouys off the Washington, Oregon and northern California coastline.
U.S. Navy


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW


SEATTLE — For the past several years the Navy has been in the process of renewing the permits it needs under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue detonating explosives and performing sonar tests and other military activities along a large swath of the Northwest coast, from Northern California to the Canadian border.

Starting Monday, the Navy is asking for public comment on asupplement to its initial environmental impact statement. The supplement includes consideration of an increase in escort vessels and other traffic and anti-submarine warfare training using sonobuoys. Sonobuoys are 3-foot long buoys that are dropped from aircraft into the ocean. The devices use active sonar to detect submarines beneath the surface. The sonar is harmful to whales and dolphins.

Marine mammals like porpoises, gray and fin whales and endangered orcas travel through the Navy’s training range. That’s raised alarm among marine mammal advocates who have voiced concerns about the Navy’s activities. EarthJustice and others conservation groups are opposed to the Navy’s desire to conduct testing and training within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The Navy says it will keep a lookout for marine life during the exercises.

The public has until Feb. 2 to submit comments.

Upcoming public meetings:


Grays Harbor College HUB
1620 Edward P. Smith Drive
Aberdeen, WA 98520


Isaac Newton Magnet School Gym
825 NE 7th St
Newport, OR


Eureka Public Marina, Wharfinger Building, Great Room
1 Marina Way
Eureka, CA 95501

Let’s Have Peace On Earth For Endangered Killer Whales



By Chris Genovall, Huffington Post, Canada

The holidays are a time for celebration as we come together with family and friends for seasonal gatherings or at places of worship. But this time of year should also serve as a time for reflection. We might do well to reflect on whether we will ever achieve “peace on earth” unless, and until, we are willing to extend goodwill and compassion to the non-human inhabitants (i.e. individuals, families, and communities) with whom we share this planet, especially those whose very existence hangs in the balance. Here in British Columbia, that means killer whales.

Two distinct populations of resident killer whales reside in B.C.’s waters. The Northern Residents are commonly found on B.C.’s north coast and the Southern Residents within the Salish Sea. 

The Northern and Southern Residents differ in population size, population trends, dialects, and importantly, their status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Northern Residents have a larger, more stable population and are designated as “threatened,” whereas the Southern Residents have an extremely small, declining population, and are designated as “endangered.” Their population has been hovering around 80 since 47 whales were captured and taken for the aquarium trade prior to 1974.

Owing to diminished numbers of Chinook salmon (their primary food), vessel disturbance and underwater noise, pollution, and now facing the pending threat of oil spills, Southern Resident Killer Whales confront a very uncertain future.

Recent viability analysis of their fate by Canadian and U.S. scientists gives them a 50 per cent chance of survival over the next 100 years. Sadly, the population projections for the year 2030 have already been realized, as the number of Southern Residents is now below 80 whales.

The recent death of J32, an 18-year-old breeding female, is a stark reminder of the precipice the Southern Residents stand upon.

Because Southern Resident Killer Whales have been lawfully classified as endangered, the federal government is compelled to implement a recovery strategy that ensures their survival. Yet, the government continues to delay implementation of a credible and comprehensive plan. Their current action plan lacks action, ostensibly because gaps in ecological research are deemed a reasonable excuse for inaction. Twice already, the federal government has lost in court for their failure to act in accordance with science and the law to protect these animals.

After more than a decade of waiting, the Southern Residents are no better off now than when they were listed as endangered 15 years ago. Federal fisheries managers appear unwilling to address the availability of Chinook salmon, an essential food for whales, lest they rile interests in the sports and commercial fishing sectors.

If our grandchildren are to grow up with resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, then crucial decisions need to be made now. For example, an analysis by federal scientists shows that curtailing Chinook fisheries in the ocean can improve the survival rates of these whales. Correspondingly, letting more Chinook salmon spawn could rebuild Chinook runs and provide these whales with the food supply they need.

Federal and provincial governments seem intent on turning critical habitat for killer whales into a shipping corridor for Alberta oil, U.S. coal, and B..C LNG. Moreover, harmful pollutants continue to flow from regional industrial, residential, and agricultural sources into their waters and food. If the National Energy Board knew these whales are unlikely to survive increased tanker traffic – when combined with existing food, pollution, and noise issues – would they be legally compelled to reject Kinder Morgan’s tar sands pipeline and oil tanker expansion proposal?

The federal government’s long-awaited Resident Killer Whale Action Plan finally appeared in 2014. Many had anticipated the plan would include measures to mitigate the hazards confronting the Southern Residents. Alas, the plan failed to include substantive action to reverse what is becoming a grave situation.

But this quandary is not simply a numeric one. Highly intelligent, social, and sensitive, with sophisticated communication skills and very strong familial ties, these whales have an intrinsic right to live their lives.

While the debate regarding the fate of the Southern Residents primarily and understandably takes place in the realm of science, management, and policy, it also brings up issues around ethics, morality, and even spirituality. In fact, I would argue that the matter of what we will choose, or will not choose, to do on behalf of this endangered population of killer whales is, for British Columbians and Canadians, one of the quintessential spiritual decisions of our time.

Having been raised a Catholic, I often times recall the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Keith Warner and David DeCosse of Santa Clara University have written that, “St. Francis of Assisi is an example of someone who understood himself to live in a world charged with divine life, in a sacramental world. He was named Patron Saint of Ecologists because he celebrated the beauty and diversity of creation through his prayer and preaching. [In] his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ Francis sang of all creation as brother and sister. This song is an expression of his moral imagination, because it reflects how he understood himself to live a life of essential kinship with all creation… He viewed the entire created world as members of the divine family… He stands out in Western Christianity as one who lived out a bio-centric vision of the moral life.”

Which brings us once again to the question, if we cannot find the charity in our hearts to allow the Southern Residents to truly recover and regain their rightful place in the coastal ecosystem we both share, then what will that ultimately say about us as a species?

A version of this article previously ran in the Victoria Times Colonist.

Pipeline proponents consider explosives in ocean to scare whales from potential oil slicks

By Stanley Tromp, the Globe and Mail


The proponents of two controversial pipelines to British Columbia’s coast say they would consider deploying underwater firecrackers, helicopters and clanging pipes, among other methods, to ensure whales don’t swim toward any disastrous oil spill that might result from increased tanker traffic carrying bitumen to Asia.

It’s called hazing and documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show the methods have been studied carefully by U.S. scientists before and since the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill killed 22 orcas in 1989. Last month, the Washington State Department of Ecology asked Trans Mountain to describe any plans it might have to help whales in a spill. In the preamble to its request filed with the National Energy Board, the department notes the proposed expanded pipeline would contribute to “potential cumulative effects on sensory disturbance,” something that “was determined to be significant for southern resident killer whales.”

“NOAA [National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration] identified oil spills as an acute extinction threat to the southern resident killer whales,” the U.S. department says in its request for information from the pipeline project.

“Please describe any Trans Mountain plans to minimize the direct acute threat to marine mammals in general and southern resident killer whales in particular by applying techniques such as the use of ‘hazing’ to drive the animals out of areas heavily affected by surface oil slicks,” says the request for information.

On June 18, Trans Mountain replied that some hazing methods “have historically worked well with killer whales,” and it might consider endorsing them in consultation with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the lead Canadian response agency.

“The need for and use of marine mammal deterrence activities would be considered prior to or during emergency response operations,” Trans Mountain writes.

It then lists the techniques that might be available, including fire hoses directing streams of water at whales, boat traffic to generate noise, helicopters to make noise and stir up water and other acoustic deterrents.

The response notes that NOAA has approved use of metal pipes called Oikomi pipes for noise and a kind of low-frequency bomb in the event of an oil spill, but Trans Mountain cautions: “No single deterrence technique will work in all situations.”

Northern Gateway’s submission to the National Energy Board last year discussed hazing for three pages, adding “oil response plans (including a marine mammal hazing plan) will be developed with DFO and certified responders before operations.”

Fisheries and Oceans did not reply to The Globe’s questions about hazing.

If both pipelines are approved, tanker traffic plying the B.C. coast would increase by more than 600 ships a year, raising concerns from aboriginals, environmentalists and U.S. officials about the increased potential for a spill on the Pacific coast.

U.S. authorities have closely examined hazing for years. One 1994 study found Oikomi pipes – 2.4-metre-long reverberant metal pipes hung from a vessel and hit to produce a ringing sound – could be deployed from boats spaced 180 metres apart to create an acoustic fence to move whales away.

Underwater firecrackers, also called seal bombs, have also been studied. They are small explosives inside a cardboard tube. When weighted, set with an eight-second fuse, and tossed into the sea, they sink and explode with an acoustic signal. A report of 1986 said they have been used successfully in hazing non-whale marine species.

But despite all the studies, Don Noviello, an oil spill response specialist at Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and author of reports on hazing, said it’s not clear whether the techniques will work.

“I am unaware that any whale hazing techniques have been, or will be, scientifically tested on actual whales,” Mr. Noviello said.

Added Vancouver Aquarium whale specialist Lance Barrett-Lennard: “I do think that hazing might be appropriate in some circumstances.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

EarthFix Conversation: Puget Sound Whales For Sale

A young orca captured in Penn Cove in 1970, which is believed to be Lolita, an orca that whale activists have been fighting to have set free in Puget Sound after 44 years in captivity at the Seaquarium in Miami. | credit: Dr. Terrell Newby
A young orca captured in Penn Cove in 1970, which is believed to be Lolita, an orca that whale activists have been fighting to have set free in Puget Sound after 44 years in captivity at the Seaquarium in Miami. | credit: Dr. Terrell Newby


By: Ashley Ahearn, KUOW


The resident killer whales of Puget Sound are an endangered species. There are about 80 of them left.

But there was a time, not too long ago, when people were catching these whales and selling them into captivity.

In the 1960s and ‘70s an estimated 35 orcas were taken from Puget Sound. 13 were killed in the process.

Sandra Pollard has documented the history of orca capture in Puget Sound in a new book: Puget Sound Whales For Sale: The Fight To End Orca Hunting.

She spoke with EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn about this dark period in orca history.

Ashley Ahearn: Let’s go back in time here a little bit, why did people start catching orcas?

Sandra Pollard: I think there was probably an element of the trophy hunter there but also they didn’t like whales very much in those days, particularly the orcas, because they thought they were taking the salmon. And in the ‘60s the Navy used them as target practice for strafing runs and many of the whales that eventually turned up in marine parks had bullet holes in them.

So they were not respected. They were disliked. The people who did revere and respect them were the Native American people and they’re on their tribal crests and they looked up to them and they still do.

Ahearn: So it’s been almost 50 years since the first captive orca arrived in Seattle. Can you tell me about that whale and what happened, what was his story?

Pollard: That’s correct. The first whale was called Namu and a man called Ted Griffin had an aquarium down in Seattle, the Seattle Marine Aquarium, and he’d always wanted to have a killer whale and two whales actually washed up in British Columbia at Warrior Cove. They got caught in nets when a couple of fishermen abandoned their nets to get away from a storm. So they had two whales up there. One a bull and one a calf. The calf escaped but unfortunately the bull did not.




So Ted Griffin flew up to Warrior Cove and secured the whale, but then of course, he had to get it back to Seattle. So, with the help of fishermen, he built a three-sided pen with a net on one side and steel bars on the other and they brought Namu, as he was then called, down to Seattle in that three-sided pen. That was a 400-mile journey which took 18 days, and made a glorious entrance into Seattle to go-go dancers and great jubilation. But at the same time there were people there who didn’t like what they were seeing and there were protesters waiting with “Save The Whales” signs even back then. But that was how it all started.

Ahearn: And there was a Canadian biologist who went along for the trip and he describes the separation of Namu from his family. Can you read that section?

Pollard: Yes. The biologist was called Gil Hewlett and this is what he had to say.

“When they are within 300 yards of the pen, Namu lets out a terrifying squeal, almost like a throttled cat. He leaps out of the water and crashes against the left corner of the pen. There is terrific thrashing and he is making all kinds of sounds. Then they are there again, the same family of the cow and two calves. They came straight up behind the pen to about 10 feet away, tremendous squealing going on. Namu seemed to lose all coordination in the pen. He kept getting swept against the cargo net and swimming vigorously forward. The family unit circles around towards the end of the pen.”

Ahearn: Now the family unit follows him a certain distance but then they stop. What happens?

Pollard: Yes the female and the two calves follow him to an area called Seymour Narrows up in British Columbia near Campbell River and then they gradually fell back. And it has been found that the Seymour Narrows area is really the dividing line between the northern residents and the southern residents.

Ahearn: What was the public sentiment around orcas that were being captured and taken into captivity for entertainment? How were people responding at the time?

Pollard: For the most part I think they were thrilled to see this exotic creature up close and personal and impressed by the abilities it had because they are such intelligent creatures that they learn tricks for food. But I think the general consensus was more one of wonder. But there were still those creeping suspicions that this wasn’t right.

Ahearn: It seems that in terms of public sentiment changing about orca capture the most notorious, the most well known capture, occurred in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island in 1970. Can you tell me what happened on that day?

Pollard: That was on either August the 7th or 8th, 1970 and the three pods of Southern Resident orcas known as J,K and L were going north, probably back to the San Juan Islands, and Ted Griffen and Don Goldsbury and the capture team they went out in boats and started to turn them back towards Whidbey Island and the idea was to drive them into Holmes Harbor, which is a sheltered place on Whidbey Island. And they used seal bombs, which are loud explosive devices. And they also used buzzing aircraft.

But they didn’t get them into Holmes Harbor. The whales are very clever and they brought in their diversionary tactics. The mothers and the calves headed up for Deception Pass and the males did a decoy action by going in the opposite direction. But it was too late. The boats outstripped them and they turned the mothers and the calves back and drove about 100 whales into Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. And they were held there in nets until they went through the selection process, which would be to corral the mothers away from the calves and split them up, because it was the calves that they wanted. They were smaller. They easier to transport. And they were easier to train.

The capture net pens in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island 1970.

And the rest of the whales that were turned away that they didn’t want, they stayed around. They’re a family unit. They’re highly social and they stay together for life. There is no dispersal, other than by death or human interference. So those whales stayed with the whales in the capture pens and eventually seven whales were selected for marine parks, which were already waiting around the world. Four calves were drowned and there also had been a female who had died. She had charged the net to try to get to her calf, so she also died during the process, as well. And this caused an uproar and a lot of feeling against the captures. And that started to be the turning point.

And the last whale to be taken from Penn Cove was Lolita and she remains at the Miami Seaquarium where she has been for 44 years.

Ahearn: Sandra, when did we stop taking orcas out of Puget Sound to sell to marine parks around the world?

Pollard: We stopped doing that in March, 1976 when six orca were driven into Olympia and the seal bombs were used and it caused a great hue and cry. There were protesters on the water. There were protesters on land. And there was a lawsuit, as well. So after a couple of weeks there were only two whales left because three had escaped. One had been turned away because it was too big and the two whales were turned over to the University of Washington to be radio tagged and tracked for as long as possible. I don’t think they were tracked for very long, but there was a lawsuit which stopped the captures in Washington state and Seaworld were not able to come back into Washington state and capture orca again and that was the last capture in Washington state.

Ahearn: So really the end of a very dark era for the orca in Puget Sound.

Pollard: It certainly was. And one wonders if that hadn’t happened how much longer the captures would have continued and how many more whales we would have lost.

Sandra Pollard is the author of Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight To End Orca Hunting. You can find out about upcoming stops on her Northwest book tour here.


Whale poop may help fight climate change



By John Metcalfe, Cross-posted from CityLab, Source: Grist


It’s not a good time to be living in the ocean. Aside from oil spills and the scourge of plastics pollution, the seas are becoming ever more acidic due to humanity’s CO2 flooding the atmosphere. The altered PH of the water makes for a bevy of problems, from making fish act in really weird ways to dissolving the shells of creatures critical to the marine food chain.

But a group of scientists from the University of Vermont and elsewhere think the ocean’s future health has one thing going for it: the restoration of whale populations. They believe that having more whales in the water creates a more stable marine environment, partly through something called a “whale pump” — a polite term for how these majestic animals defecate.

Commercial hunting of great whales, meaning the baleen and sperm variety, led to a decline in their numbers as high as 66 percent to 90 percent, the scientists write in a new study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. This mammalian decimation “likely altered the structure and function of the oceans,” says lead author Joe Roman, “but recovery is possible and in many cases is already under way.”

The researchers — who are whale biologists — present a couple of arguments for how these animals help secure the climate-threatened ocean. The first is their bathroom behavior: After feeding on krill in the briny deep, whales head back to the surface to take massive No. 2s. You can see the “pumping” process in action amid this group of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka:

whale poop
Tony Wu/University of Vermont

You have to feel for the person who took that photo. But these “flocculent fecal plumes” happen to be laden with nutrients and are widely consumed by plankton, which in turn takes away carbon from the atmosphere when they photosynthesize, die, and wind up on the ocean floor. A previous study of the Southern Ocean, to cite just one example, indicated that sperm-whale defecation might remove hundreds of thousands of tons of atmospheric carbon each year by enhancing such plankton growth. Thus, these large whales “may help to buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses” like warmer temperatures and acidification, the researchers claim.

The other nice thing whales do for the climate is eat tons of food and then die. In life, they are fantastic predators. But in death, their swollen bodies are huge sarcophagi for carbon. When the Grim Reaper comes calling, whales sink and sequester lots and lots of carbon at the bottom of the sea, like this dearly departed fellow:

whale corpse


While there’s no exact measurement of how these “whale falls” impact global carbon sequestration — and some argue it can’t have that big of an effect — Roman thinks it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about protecting these vulnerable creatures. As he told an Alaskan news station last year, “This may be a way of mitigating climate change, if we can restore whale populations throughout the world.”

This story was produced by The Atlantic’s CityLab as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.

Northwest Researchers Document Whales Which Set New Breath-Hold Record

Satellite tag being attached to the dorsal fin of a Cuvier's beaked whale. The tagging arrow can be seen in the air as it detaches from the tag.Erin Falcone Cascadia Research under NOAA permit 16111
Satellite tag being attached to the dorsal fin of a Cuvier’s beaked whale. The tagging arrow can be seen in the air as it detaches from the tag.
Erin Falcone Cascadia Research under NOAA permit 16111


By Tom Banse, NW News Network

Think about how long you can hold your breath and then let this discovery blow your mind.

Northwest-based whale researchers have documented a new breath-hold record among mammals. They timed a dive by a beaked whale that lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes.

A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One by scientists with the Cascadia Research Collective of Olympia revealed two new records. The researchers tagged Cuvier’s beaked whales, a rarely seen species which forages in deep ocean waters worldwide, including off the U.S. West Coast.

Lead study author Greg Schorr says his team tracked thousands of dives by these whales. The longest lasted 137 minutes.

“Imagine holding your breath while flying from Seattle to San Jose,” says Schorr. “That would be similar to what these animals are capable of doing.”

Schorr says one beaked whale also dove deeper than any other mammal seen before, including the previous record holder, a southern elephant seal. The tagged whale dove nearly two miles below the surface — 2,992 meters deep.

“They basically can store huge amounts of oxygen in their muscle tissue and release it in a very controlled manner to allow them to dive to these depths,” explains Schoor.

To gather the results, the researchers used barbed darts to attach temporary dive recorders to the dorsal fins of eight whales. The satellite-linked tags were made by a Redmond, Washington company, Wildlife Computers.

Schorr says he reacted with disbelief after seeing the deep diving record for the first time. He says the research team independently verified the results by putting the depth sensor in a pressure tank at a NOAA lab in Seattle.

“Indeed the readings are correct,” Schorr reports.

The U.S. Navy was the primary funder for this research. The Navy wants more info about whether anti-submarine warfare exercises using sonar harm whales.

It is “a very pertinent question,” observes Schorr. Naval sonar use has been associated with whale strandings elsewhere. In fact just this week, environmental groups blamed a joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea for a mass beaching of Cuvier’s beaked whales along the coast of Crete.

Closer to home, environmental and tribal groups have gone to federal court to seek more study and restrictions on sonar and underwater noise to protect marine mammals in the U.S. Navy’s Northwest Training Range Complex. This ocean range stretches from Northern California to the Canadian border.

Schorr says the next phase of his team’s research will compare whale behavior in the presence and absence of naval sonar activity on an ocean training range off the coast of Southern California. That is the same place where the record-setting dives were observed.

U.S. moves towards Atlantic oil exploration, stirring debate over sea life

A blue whale near rigs off Southern California. Experts disagree on the effects of seismic surveys on sea mammals. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
A blue whale near rigs off Southern California. Experts disagree on the effects of seismic surveys on sea mammals. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

By Michael Wines, The New York Times

The Interior Department opened the door on Thursday to the first searches in decades for oiland gas off the Atlantic coast, recommending that undersea seismic surveys proceed, though with a host of safeguards to shield marine life from much of their impact.

The recommendation is likely to be adopted after a period of public comment and over objections by environmental activists who say it will be ruinous for the climate and sea life alike.

The American Petroleum Institute called the recommendation a critical step toward bolstering the nation’s energy security, predicting that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs and generate $195 billion in private investment.

Activists were livid. Allowing exploration “could be a death sentence for many marine mammals, and is needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone,” Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president at the conservation group Oceana, said in a statement on Thursday.

Oceana and other groups have campaigned for months against the Atlantic survey plans, citing Interior Department calculations that the intense noise of seismic exploration could kill and injure thousands of dolphins and whales.

But while the assessment released on Thursday repeats those estimates, it also largely dismisses them, stating that they employ multiple worst-case scenarios and ignore measures by humans and the mammals themselves to avoid harm.

Many marine scientists say the estimates of death and injury are at best seriously inflated. “There’s no argument that some of these sounds can harm animals, but it’s blown out of proportion,” Arthur N. Popper, who heads the University of Maryland’s laboratory of aquatic bioacoustics, said in an interview. “It’s the Flipper syndrome, or ‘Free Willy.’ ”

How the noise affects sea mammals’ behavior in the long term — an issue about which little is known — is a much greater concern, he said.

A formal decision to proceed with surveys would reopen a swath off the East Coast stretching from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Fla., that has been closed to petroleum exploration since the early 1980s.

Actual drilling of test wells could not begin until a White House ban on production in the Atlantic expires in 2017, and even then, only after the government agrees to lease ocean tracts to oil companies, an issue officials have barely begun to study.

The petroleum industry has sunk 51 wells off the East Coast — none of them successful enough to begin production — in decades past. But the Interior Department said in 2011 that 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 312 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could lie in the exploration area, and nine companies have already applied for permits to begin surveys.

President Obama committed in 2010 to allowing oil and gas surveys along the same stretch of the Atlantic, and the government had planned to lease tracts off the Virginia coast for exploration in 2011. But those plans collapsed after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April 2010, and the government later banned activity in the area until 2017.

Thirty-four species of whales and dolphins, including six endangered whales, live in the survey area. Environmental activists say seismic exploration could deeply imperil blue and humpback whales as well as the North American right whale, which numbers in the hundreds.

Surveys generally use compressed-air guns that produce repeated bursts of sound as loud as a howitzer, often for weeks or months on end. The Interior Department’s estimate said that up to 27,000 dolphins and 4,600 whales could die or be injured annually during exploration periods, and that three million more would suffer various behavioral changes.

But many scientists say death and injury are not a major concern. Decades of seismic exploration worldwide have yet to yield a confirmed whale death, the government says.

“It is quite unlikely that most sounds, in realistic scenarios, will directly cause injury or mortality to marine mammals,” Brandon Southall, perhaps the best-known expert on the issue, wrote in an email exchange. “Most of the issues now really have to do with what are the sublethal effects — what are the changes in behavior that may happen.” Dr. Southall is president ofSEA Incorporated, an environmental consultancy in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Loud sounds like seismic blasts appear to cause stress to marine mammals, just as they do to humans. Experts say seismic exploration could alter feeding and mating habits, for example, or simply drown out whales’ and dolphins’ efforts to communicate or find one another. But the true impact has yet to be measured; there is no easy way to gauge the long-term effect of sound on animals that are constantly moving.

“These animals are living for decades, if not centuries,” said Aaron Rice, the director of Cornell University’s bioacoustics research program. “The responses you see are not going to manifest themselves in hours or days or weeks. We’re largely speculating as to what the consequences will be. But in my mind, the absence of data doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.”

Gray whales are arriving and you see them on trips from Everett

Gray whales have two blow holes atop their heads.
Gray whales have two blow holes atop their heads.

By Mike Benbow, The Herald

An estimated 22,000 gray whales will swim past Washington’s coastline during the next few weeks as they migrate thousands of miles to rich feeding grounds near Alaska.

A dozen or more of the giant creatures are expected to spend a few months in Puget Sound as they bulk up for the trip.

The whales don’t eat while spending the winter in their breeding grounds in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula or in the Gulf of California, so fuel stops are needed as they travel 5,000 to 6,500 miles to the Bering and Chukchi seas in the Arctic.

The Pacific Whale Watching Association calls it the longest migration of any mammal on Earth, with the whales traveling at about five knots and averaging 75 miles a day on the trip.

There have been a couple sightings of whales in the Sound already this year, so whale-watching season has officially begun.

Island Adventures Whale Watching, which offers three-hour trips from the Port of Everett, begins operations on Saturday and will continue until May 18.

California gray whales are sizable creatures, reaching an estimated 45 feet in length and weighing as much as 40 tons. They can live for decades.

Olympia-based Cascadia Research has been studying the small but growing group of grays in Puget Sound since 1990. It has identified whales that visit the Sound every year, feeding in shallow tide flats around Everett and Whidbey and Camano islands for sand shrimp. In addition to the regulars, there are also usually a few transients.

The resident whales regularly visit Mission Beach on the Tulalip Tribes Reservation, rolling in the shallows during high tide to stir up the beach and using their baleen plates to separate the shrimp from the water and sand.

They can eat about a ton of shrimp a day, according to the institute.

Michael Harris of the whale-watching association said the population of gray whales is growing, which could be good news for local whale watchers.

“We’re fortunate that we get about a dozen gray whales who hang out each spring for long periods of time feeding on ghost shrimp — what we call ‘residents’— but from the sound of things, we should be getting a lot of migratory whales in here, too. And maybe some hungry orcas following them in,” he said in a news release.

He added that researchers in California are reporting bigger than usual numbers of gray whales in this year’s migration.


Watch the whales

Island Adventures: Boards at 10:30 a.m. from the Everett Marina near Anthony’s Homeport Restaurant, 1726 W. Marine View Drive.

First trip is Saturday. The boat leaves at 11 a.m. Trips will continue through May 18. In addition to whales, customers frequently see harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, eagles and osprey.

Tickets are $69 for adults; $59 for seniors 65 and older, military, groups of 10 or more, students with ID and AAA discounts; $49 for kids 3 to 12; children 2 and under are free.

Go to www.island-adventures.com or call 800-465-4604. Reservations are suggested.

Cascadia Research: Learn more about California gray whales at www.cascadiaresearch.org.

Orca Network: Check for local whale sightings at www.orcanetwork.org