BP Oil Disaster – How To Help

I don’t have much time right now to devote to blogging myself, but I will keep you posted on important marine mammal events and will let you know as soon as the Southern Resident orcas return!

This link will take you to a great blog post, filled with information – I copied the text below but the original post has videos, photos and links:

“Throwing The Social Media Kitchen Sink At The Oil Spill & ‘Drill Baby Drill'”

Throwing The Social Media Kitchen Sink At The Oil Spill & ‘Drill Baby Drill’
by Ron Callari

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told Good Morning America on April 30 that the White House will not authorize additional oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico until the investigation of the exploded and sunked BP oil rig is analyzed. While this horrific event is casting doubt over the whole “drill baby drill” mantra movement, social media as its known to do is rising to the occasion to help alleviate some of the repercussions.

Youtube, the world’s most popular online video community has over a hundred videos uploaded on the topic to date (as of this posting). Here, you have Bobby Jindal, the governor of the state declaring a state of emergency and providing an overview of the current status, while asking the federal government for assistance.

Lousiana Shore Cleanup Facebook page

This is a page devoted to developing informational resources, and aiding in the location of new and existing groups that are involved in shore cleanup. Updates include topics like “how to be trained for cleaning oil soaked animals,” and where to register for volunteer clean-up crews in various towns along the coast.

Volunteer Louisiana Interactive Map

At Volunteer Lousiana’s Web site, you can access an interactive map to find a local volunteer center near you. The organization will will work with individuals and groups to identify local non-profits and faith-based organizations who need volunteers that would match the skills and interests of those that sign up. You can also register as a member on their Facebook page here.

Volunteer Louisiana interactive mapVolunteer Louisiana interactive map
Tweets From Louisiana Senatorial candidates

Two men locked in a race for a Senate seat this fall tweeted about a topic that affects their voters Thursday; the devastating Louisiana oil spill.

The incident is believed to have killed 11 people and rescue workers are having trouble containing the damage. The disaster is sure to impact the debate over President Barack Obama’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling and the forthcoming consideration of the climate change legislation. The two senators in a Battle of Tweets are appealing to their constituencies.

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who is challenging Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) tweeted the following message about what he’s accomplishing around the state.

Vitter taking up the opposition is appealing to his followers to join in and help.

BP Oil Spill Tweets

On The Week site, the online news site includes a live Twitterstream delivering unfiltered, real-time tweets from around the world that pertain to the BP Oil Spill.

In a Reuters wire just released prior to this posting, BP Pic admitted that it is culpable for the oil spill. “We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it up and where people can present legitimate claims for damages we will honor them. We are going to be very, very aggressive in all of that,” Tony Hayward told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

President Barack Obama has proposed opening offshore areas of the U.S., where oil exploration is currently barred, to drilling.Oil executives fear the oil slick, which is expected to hit the Louisiana shore on Friday, will halt those plans.

It’s odd that while the president adamantly opposed the “Drill Baby Drill” platform proposed by the McCain/Palin team during the presidential campaign, that his reversal on this issue opens him up for criticism attached to one of the country’s worst oil spill disasters since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. How the debate will resolve itself is conjecture at this point. But safe to say, social media is addressing the issue in real-time to counter some of the devastation, and will be one of the areas that will be judged after the fact by its success in helping to deal head-on with the incident.

Ron Callari
Society and Trends Writer
Follow me on Twitter

Earth Day – Celebrate With A Smile

Since the inception of Earth Day 40 years ago we have made huge strides in protecting marine mammals and the oceans in which they live, worldwide. Locally, with minor exceptions, we have stopped harassing the cetaceans, seals, and sea lions that call the Salish Sea their home, and we have started major efforts to clean up the waterways.

These words from the Environmental Protection Agency sum up how our thinking has changed over the last four decades:

The feverish pitch of Earth Day 1970 passed, but the environmental movement did not go away. Instead, the drive for a cleaner environment became part of our national ethic. Now it is taken for granted, the best possible testimonial that progress is being made. Our nation’s thinking has changed. Endorsing growth without regard to the quality of that growth seems forever behind us. The failure of the economy to take into full account the social costs of environmental pollution is being rectified. Not only are environmental considerations now factored into federal government decision-making but over and over again Americans pay for low-polluting or pollution-free products like low-sulfur heating oil, unleaded gasoline, and coal from fully reclaimed strip mines, for automobile emission controls, for electricity from cleaner fuels, and for more parklands and wildlife refuges. More fundamentally, we are beginning to understand that the environment is an independent whole of which man is only part.

Of course there is plenty of work left to be done, and these classic videos are amusing reminders of the preciousness of our planet. The first is the title song to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, followed by Monty Python’s Galaxy Song.

On behalf of marine mammals everywhere – thanks for all the fish, and please leave enough in the ocean for the future!

Voice Your Opinion On Orcas And Captiviy

As explained in a previous post, the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife is convening to study the conditions faced by trainers working with captive orcas. As part of that investigation they will need to take into consideration whether it is appropriate to keep these animals in tanks, giving a rare opportunity to have these matters heard by Congress.

Contact the chair of the subcommittee :

Email Address: http://www.house.gov/bordallo/contact.shtml

DC Address: The Honorable Madeleine Bordallo
United States House of Representatives
427 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-5301

DC Phone: 202-225-1188
DC Fax: 202-226-0341

WWW Homepage: http://www.house.gov/bordallo/

What I wrote:

Honorable Bordallo,

I am writing in order to voice my opinion about the situation regarding the safety of orca whale trainers in theme parks. It is my hope that you will take into consideration the inadequate facilities and husbandry practices provided by those corporations, and fix the loopholes in the laws that allow such conditions to occur. The safety of the trainers is linked to the mental health of the animals in their care, and changes need to be made in this area.

My background is in marine mammal behavior as well as in oceanography, it is my opinion that the orcas which were caught in the wild should be returned to their families. The orcas that were bred in captivity should have larger tanks, and the standards should be set by biologists, not by the owners of the theme parks as is now the case. Captive breeding of these animals should be discontinued.

Currently I write a blog for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and listed below are the posts I have written encouraging people to contact you on this matter.


Thank you for your time.

Candace Calloway Whiting

Salmon and Dams: ‘People For Puget Sound’ Calls on Federal Government to Consider Orcas’ Needs

The following press release came from People For Puget Sound:

Seattle, WA – Responding to a federal judge’s order that the Obama Administration more closely look at salmon-killing effects of Columbia and Snake River dams, the Executive Director of People For Puget Sound urged the government to remember that the fate of Puget Sound’s iconic killer whale population hangs in the balance. The Southern Resident population of killer whales is at a critically low level of fewer than 90 individuals, despite several new calves in the last year.

In a 2008 study by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government concluded that the Columbia River hydropower dams do not affect Puget Sound’s Southern Resident Killer Whales – even though the dams are responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of chinook salmon each year. Chinook make up more than 70 percent of the diet of those killer whales (also called orcas).

“NOAA’s own research has found that Southern Residents are jeopardized by salmon population declines as far south as California,” said Kathy Fletcher, Executive Director of People For Puget Sound, who sent the letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “NOAA’s conclusion – that low chinook populations close to home in the Columbia River have no effect on our orcas – just doesn’t hold water.”

Fletcher pointed to NOAA’s conclusion last summer, in an analysis of Sacramento River water projects, that hatchery production of chinook cannot make up for wild fish mortality over the long run. “NOAA found, in 2009, that ‘There is no evidence that a population produced predominantly in hatcheries can persist over the long run,'” Fletcher said, “and yet the Columbia River analysis relies exclusively on hatchery production to mitigate for the dam-related mortality of wild salmon.”

“The Southern Resident Killer Whales will go extinct without more chinook salmon. The orcas and the people of the Northwest who care about their fate deserve a plan for the Snake and Columbia River’s fish-killing dams that protects and restores our salmon and our resident killer whales.”

Fletcher’s letter observed that a number of prominent orca scientists brought this inconsistency to NOAA’s attention a year ago. These scientists also noted that the Columbia River analysis omitted consideration of Lower Snake River dam removal, despite strong evidence that this is the most effective measure for assuring chinook – and Southern Resident orca – survival.

A federal court has now given NOAA one last chance to fully review the scientific underpinnings of the Columbia River study. Fletcher wrote Locke and Lubchenco, “The court has directed NOAA to look at the best available science. People For Puget Sound, representing over 20,000 concerned citizens, urges you not to overlook the Southern Resident orcas during this review, and to take seriously the real possibility of their extinction if wild salmon are not restored to the Columbia River basin.”

Conservationists and fishermen are challenging the Obama administration’s plan for the Columbia and Snake dams in a federal Court in Portland, Oregon. People For Puget Sound is not involved in that lawsuit.

Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents plaintiffs in that case, said he hopes that the Obama administration’s current re-examination of the science behind the Columbia River analysis will be consistent with its findings for the Sacramento River. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay before they can find a decent meal. We need the Obama administration to ensure that the Columbia River, the largest salmon-producing river in the lower 48 states, can do its part and feed the orcas, too.”

Transient Orca Attack On Gray Whale Near Whidbey Island

First, a huge disclaimer: I did not witness this attack, and usually avoid writing about these events because the focus of this blog is on the fish-eating Southern Resident orcas, not the mammal-eating Transient orcas which attacked the whale. I have a huge fondness for all the marine mammals that the Transients dine upon, so it is a topic I would just as soon not put my attention on.

However, when I got up the gumption to watch the video of yesterday’s attack, my interpretation of what I could see was a bit enhanced by my personal experience with gray whales, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to give some insight to the gray whale’s behavior.

Here is the video, from KingTV:

What I would like to add is the fact that if the gray whale which was attacked is healthy, the Transient orcas probably just tested him and took off; gray whales are not helpless – far, far, from it. They were called “devil fish” by 19th century whalers because when harpooned the whales would whack the boats with their tails with enough force to break the skiffs or send the whalers flying.

I happened to be a student on a research study once which took place in the gray whale calving lagoons in Baja, where we learned the capability and strength of gray whales first hand. The objective was to figure out where the whales went when they left the lagoon, so a baby whale was netted, taken to shore and fitted with a tracking device before being returned to his mother. His very angry mother. She swam back and forth slapping the water with her tail and spyhopping (sticking her head out of the water) during the time the baby was on the beach.

Every precaution had been taken to ensure that the whales would not be hurt and that the baby would be onshore just long enough to take measurements, strap the transmitter jacket on it, and check to make sure it worked. I was on the capture boat, tracking the mother with binoculars while a helicopter overhead was poised to follow her if she took off. It was the most amazingly well planned and kindly executed event, and all was going well until suddenly the mother disappeared from view, and the next we knew of her whereabouts was when the capture boat suddenly thudded, as though we’d run aground. And then a second time, before the mother surfaced and returned to her vigil off the beach. She had bent the prop on the boat.

After two days of following the baby’s transmitter signal it stopped working. We found the transmitter jacket – it had been designed with a magnesium bolt that would corrode quickly in the saltwater and then fall off, which it did. But the Styrofoam flotation was smashed, and I always wondered if that mother whale hadn’t given it a whack for good measure.

So most likely that gray whale which was attacked yesterday was giving the orcas a good fight, and when you watch the video closely you will see the whale’s defensive strategy – he put his vulnerable stomach up, and my guess is that he was striking at the orcas with his powerful tail. Given a choice, predators go for the easiest prey, usually the weak and the young, and the Transient orcas would have quickly decided to find their meal elsewhere.

I’m also guessing that the gray whale stayed on guard for a while, then swam into shallow water where he could rest without fear of attack.

Friendly gray whale (Creative Commons Photo)

Gray whales have shown themselves to be friendly towards humans – nowhere more evident than in the calving lagoons where the whales often swim over to check out the boats and to be rubbed, and don’t tip the boats or otherwise bother us. It is another example of the nature of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and we humans can learn much about co-existence from these gentle creatures.

Congress Responds To The Death Of SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau

Do to the complicated laws governing captive marine mammals, it will take an Act of Congress to remedy the circumstances that allow theme parks to put humans in dangerous situations for entertainment, and permits those parks to keep orcas in inadequate tanks.

And it looks like Congress has decided to step in and do something. On April 27, the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife is convening a meeting to study the issue, and have asked for testimony – at least from federal officials. I hope that they also ask to hear from whale biologists, and listen to the complaints that have been lodged by the Humane Society.

Something has to be done to keep the trainers safer, and even though most of them love the whales in their charge the truth is that they have very little power or control when administrative decisions are made. They can’t do much to change the pool size, or where and when animals are transferred or how they are used. It is very frustrating and heartbreaking, and any improved regulations for the animal’s welfare will only help the trainers in the end.

Safer trainers and happier animals, sounds like a win/win to me.

I’ll fill you in on how to voice your opinion to the House committee soon.

The legal situation governing captive marine mammals (from a previous post):

What it boils down to is that Lolita needs a lawyer, and a good one. Here is why:

-First, Lolita was captured right before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was implemented.
-Second, because she was caught ‘pre-act’, the powers-that-be decided she should be directly excluded from the status of endangered that protects the rest of her family (the document reads ‘any member of J, K, or L pods’ in captivity).
-Third, Animal Welfare is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. When it came to determining what standards a dolphin or whale should have in captivity, they asked the theme parks and aquaria to set the standards, not biologists.
-Fourth, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (known as APHIS) is required to inspect and enforce compliance with the pathetic standards set by the theme parks. It is up to them to interpret the measurements, and they consistently measure Lolita’s pool incorrectly.

– And fifth… no one in any of these organizations with whom I spoke feels they can do anything to change the standards set for captive cetaceans. But people made the decisions that allow a handful of individuals get very wealthy in the mistreatment of these gentle (and in the case of Lolita; endangered) animals. So it would seem that people can also change those laws and remedy the situation.

Meanwhile, individuals and groups continue their efforts to improve Lolita’s life. In 2009 Shelby Proie and SaveLolita.com used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain inspection records and to have their complaints addressed. As far as I can tell by looking at the documents, it looks like APHIS denied some of the information on the basis that “it’s release would cause a clearly unwarrented invasion of personal privacy”. The results that they did provide were not remarkable, other than to state that Lolita has the company of Pacific white-sided dolphins, and they are “biologically related” to orcas. That is like saying locking a human up with a monkey for company is equivalent to a human companion.

How Orca Communicate – Sound (Introduction)

We know that orcas communicate with each other using a variety of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls, and as we get back to the series on sound and communication we will continue to talk about each of those types of communication. But in order to understand what the orcas might actually be expressing we need to understand three major things: what they need to communicate, what kinds of constraints and limits do they have, and what are the contexts, or situations, in which they use sound. And in order to understand those concepts, we’ll need to dive into their world – which is much different from our own – and see how sound works there.

Bottlenose dolphin sounds were among the first to be studied. (Creative Commons photo)

I can’t emphasize this enough: if you want to understand what kind of information dolphins and whales can exchange, if they “talk” to each other, if they have song and music or laughter, then you must think about them in terms of their needs and their environment.

And you’ll need one more tool: an understanding of communication networks. The best example I can think of for that is to imagine yourself at a concert – we all hear the music and the words to the songs but everyone has a slightly different experience depending upon where they are sitting, what their companions are doing, how well they hear, and their native language. If you go to an opera in a foreign language you will hear the music and words, but much of the meaning is lost.

In a way, that is where science is at the moment in terms of understanding cetacean communication – it is similar to going to an opera performed in a language we don’t understand, and where the actors can only be glimpsed as they move about because we got poor seats plus tall people with big hats in front of us obscure the stage. We hear the whales’ sounds, and see them briefly if at all.

But the whales and dolphins evolved in that three dimensional world which is often filled with the sound of each others voices, and this chorus of sound forms a communication network that can travel long distances.

Male humpback whales often hang vertically and ‘sing’ while in the breeding areas around Hawaii.

Humpback whales are probably the most familiar example of this, and if you get an opportunity to go to Hawaii in the winter when the whales are there you can experience it for yourself. It is a truly profound experience to wade out about as deep as you are able to stand then sink to the bottom – you will hear the whales’ voices even though they are miles away. You feel bathed in sound, and realize that the ocean, for the whales, is not a quiet and lonely place – they may be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, but at least some of the big whales are in contact with each other, and many other species – including us – can hear them too.

In coming posts we’ll continue to explore the orcas’ communication, and how we may affect them.

Orcas Seen Off Lighthouse Point This Morning Around 10 a.m. 4/4/2010

Orca Network Report:

Alki Point Lighthouse (U.S. Government Map)

Happy Easter! 4-5 orcas off Alki Pt. this morning, reported first by WA State Ferries, on the West Seattle blog at 9:56, and seen by Jeff Hogan at 10:10 AM off West Seattle.

We’ll let you know when we figure out which orcas they are – most likely Transients because they have been in and around Puget Sound recently.

How Orcas Communicate – Visual Cues

Although most of the senses that humans rely upon are present in orcas, the constraints of their environment limit the usefulness of all but sound as an effective way to communicate. Yet at close range, the high contrast of the orcas’ black and white coloration might allow them to signal their location or transmit other information.

Sprouting male L89 off Mitchell Bay (Photo by Basil von Ah)

Evolutionarily speaking, most traits of living organisms are linked in some way to their survival, and being able to blend into the environment and not be seen is one of the most common ways of avoiding predators. However making yourself hard to see can also make it difficult to find mates, so many animals solve that problem by changing seasonally, or having hidden patches of color etc.

But what about the animals that have dramatic black and white coloration? For instance zebras – even though those stripes help to break up the visual outline of their bodies and fit with the vertical nature of the grasslands they inhabit, they are still black and white in a color world, and their chief predator, lions, can see color.

Creative Commons Photo

And pandas – there is nothing about them that even remotely begins to blend into a bamboo forest, except that from a distance their coloration could be mistaken for sunlight and shadows. Bamboo forests, however, tend to have dappled shadows and softened sun spots.

The answer is that for many species, their coloration has more than one function. In the case of zebras, the mass of moving stripes in a running herd is thought to confuse their predators, and since each zebra has a unique pattern scientists now think that they can tell each other apart by their markings – especially useful for mothers and young.

Creative Commons Photo

Penguins are thought to use their dark plumage to gather what meager warmth they can from the sun. Pandas, naturally solitary, may need their dramatic color to find each other.

When it comes to orcas, the striking body pattern helps break up their silhouette, making them hard to see, and they are also known to flash their white undersides at schools of fish to drive them into compressed schools where the fish are easier to catch.

Orcas beneath the surface (Creative Commons Photo by Monika Wieland)

At this point it is not known if the orcas signal each other using their patterning, but we do know that body language has at least a limited roll in their communication when they are in close proximity to each other, so it only stands to reason that the whales might use their coloration to communicate – if only to reveal their location to each other, particularly in conditions where group hunting and stealth are needed.

Because we know that whales and dolphins have mastered the use of sound, we tend to downplay the importance of their other senses to them, and have yet to determine if orcas can even recognize each other visually. But I’m betting that if it turns out zebras can identify each other in a herd of stripes, orcas can probably recognize each other as well.