Swimmer Interdiction Security Dolphins: Are They Here?

Dolphins in the military (Creative Commons Photo)

Orca Network reports that a bottlenose dolphin, (which normally prefer warmer water and rarely venture into the cold water of Puget Sound) has been seen several times in the vicinity of the Port of Tacoma. According to Cascadia Research, there have only been two documented occurrences of bottlenose dolphins here previous to this one, in 1988 and one recently, in June of this year, both of which were identified following their death.

The most logical explanation for these unusual appearances is that the dolphins somehow became disoriented and strayed from their normal environment, and as unfortunate as that may be it is not that unusual for dolphins and whales to become ill or injured and lose their bearings. The characteristics of the ocean this year brought warmer water offshore, so it is possible that a small pod of dolphins followed fish northward. Given that a deceased bottlenose dolphin was also found in June, it could well be that several came north together and the one we are seeing now is the lone survivor. Often in nature these experiments – where animals wander outside of their normal range – are indicative of changing climatic conditions, or general loss of resources in their usual habitat. Although sometimes these emigrations are successful, leading to the establishment of new populations, often the animals find themselves in very marginal conditions and don’t thrive.

That said, it is also possible that the more recent sightings are linked to the navy’s planned marine mammal underwater surveillance, the Swimmer Interdiction Security System (SISS) at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. After a three year process of obtaining permits and doing an environmental impact study, the navy announced in early 2010 that the program to use dolphins and sea lions to patrol the waters of Puget Sound would be implemented within the calendar year:

The dolphins and sea lions are the stars of a new swimmer interdiction security system, but like nuclear warheads, the Navy will neither confirm nor deny their presence.

“Because it’s a security system, we are not going to discuss when or if the animals are there,” said Tom LaPuzza, spokesman for the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. He added, however, that, “You can go by there in your boat and see them and know they are there.

They’re evidently not there now because their homes haven’t been built, LaPuzza said. Construction can’t begin until the fish window closes in July.

LaPuzza doesn’t know yet how many animals will be heading north. There will be a total of no more than 20, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the program.

Four floating enclosures, 30 feet long by 30 feet wide, will each house up to four dolphins. Their water temperature will be kept at a minimum of 52 degrees.

(Komo News, May 2010)

In the photo of the dolphin that is now in Puget Sound, you can see that although it’s skin looks bumpy the animal appears to be in good weight. You might assume that the navy would not work a dolphin that was sick, but it is not possible to tell from the photo if the dolphin has a skin ailment, or whether it is the normal response these warmer water species have to cold water.

This bottlenose dolphin was photographed in southern Puget Sound in mid-December. (Photo by Josh Oliver, courtesy Cascadia Research)

“Skin lesions are indicators of cold stress in marine animals because they can occur as a direct result of prolonged exposure to cold, although other indicators (such as increased respiration rate) are likely to be observed before onset of skin discoloration occurs. Thus, skin discoloration would be considered as a secondary indicator of cold water stress, and more than one secondary indicator would be needed to ensure that skin discoloration is representative of cold water stress for any specific individual.”

In terms of working an animal that shows signs of cold intolerance, the navy has a set protocol that determines when the dolphins must be pulled from the cold environment, and since the skin bumps are considered a secondary reaction, the animals are allowed to work with this condition:

“Although trainers and handlers monitor marine mammals constantly during open-water work, special care would be taken for cold-stress indicators when animals are working in water temperatures approaching the LCT of the animal. The animals would be continuously monitored for increased respiration rate, behavior change, and shivering. Other secondary indicators (skin discoloration, weight loss) would not be evident during individual sessions because these conditions occur over a longer period of time, and thus would be considered as part of the longer term monitoring program. When during a session the thresholds for the secondary indicators of increased respiration rate, shivering, and behavior changes are exceeded, the core body temperature of the animal would be measured. Measurements would be repeated at 30-minute increments until the end of the session. The method of core body temperature measurement would be one of several approved for use in MMP animals by the veterinary staff (e.g., rectal temperature probe, stomach temperature pill, implantable temperature sensor, etc.).”

So it is possible that this is one of the dolphin sentries, either in training or possibly having temporarily strayed from the handler’s control.

Although the navy says that the actual work will be carried out at night, significant training needs to be accomplished before the animals will reliably perform their duties and return to the boat when recalled, and this is more easily done during the day. The animals need to get used to their enclosures, and possibly new trainers and handlers. They need to become familiar with the basic environment in the areas of Puget Sound where they will be expected to work, and will need to adjust to the lower water temperature (it can be a full 10 degrees colder here than the water in San Diego, where their initial training takes place).

Under the best of circumstances, dolphins can refuse to work and ignore the handler’s commands to return to the boat – and if the animals don’t know where ‘home’ is, they might wander around for hours or days before being located:

“Trained marine mammals may also fail to obey simple commands from their trainers when exposed to colder temperatures, particularly with respect to behaviors that require exposing skin to air temperatures below freezing (Scronce and Bowers 1985). Deviations from normal behavior, such as altered swimming behavior and refusal to beach, might be good indicators of cold stress because they can indicate that the animal is trying to minimize exposure to cold temperatures.”

“When an MMP marine mammal becomes separated from its workboat, trainers recall the animal with an acoustic recall pinger. The pinger is a low-power, sound generator that is lowered by hand into the water from the side of a boat. The pinger is omni-directional, and the sound is transmitted into the water. This pinger is a commercial device that has been used for many years by the MMP. The marine mammals are trained to respond to
the sound from the pinger as an emergency recall.

Each animal is also outfitted with radio and satellite transmitters that can be used to locate an animal when it is out of range of the acoustic pinger recall. Program personnel are well trained in the use of these tracking devices and can quickly ascertain a marine mammal’s location. When the MMP marine mammal is located, the trainers travel to the animal and then use pingers and positive reinforcement behaviors to retrieve the marine mammal… If neither a pinger nor a transmitter can locate the marine mammal, the first location physically searched is the MMP home enclosure. This is the most likely location where animals are found. If the animal is not found at the MMP enclosures, satellite telemetry system tracking for the animal commences.”

Whether this dolphin is wild or trained, lost or working, it does serve as a reminder that these animals will soon be swimming in the Puget Sound, patrolling to help keep intruders from attacking our shores. Whether we like it or not, the navy considers these sentries to be vital to our safety. They strive to take good care of the dolphins, if for no other reason than that these animals represent a huge financial investment and significant commitment of resources.

The quoted information on the SISS program was obtained from a navy document, the appendix of which alone is 110 pages:


If you are curious about the ocean temperatures, this is a good source:
Water temperature

Satellite Tagging Of Southern Resident Orcas, Part Two: Is It Worth The Risk? Your Opinion Matters!

Southern Resident orcas often come close to shore.

(Please note: this was written in 2010)
The orcas which ply the inland waterways of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are not random wild animals – we know them by name, we know their families and their histories. We know some of their quirks and personalities, we’ve watched some of them from the time of their birth to the time that they have had calves of their own.
For decades we have offered them protection from intentional harm, and there are individual whales in this population who have never experienced being shot, harassed, or netted. They are amazingly tolerant of our activities and interest in them, and never harm us.
So the question is, can we now justify applying painful tags to their dorsal fins in order to acquire data? Is it not a breach of the trust we offer them? Your opinion is important, and you have until December 23rd, 2010 to let the permitting agency know how you feel about this issue.
There are several things that need to be considered in order to understand the potential effects of tagging these orcas. In the previous part of this post, we looked at the mechanics of the tags and potential physical effects (the satellite tags are mounted with two inch barbs, which open like toggle bolts inside the tissue of the whale). In this part we’ll consider what the researchers hope to gain, and how they will go about it.
Here are the research goals as stated by the principle investigator of the research team:

In accordance with USGP #2, “Procedures involving animals should be designed and performed with due consideration of their relevance to human or animal health, the advancement of knowledge, or the good of society.”
1 Research Goals:
a. What are the scientific issues addressed by the research?
The purpose of this research is to improve information to meet Agency mandates on stock structure, movement patterns, and habitat use of cetacean species on various spatial and temporal scales in the eastern North Pacific Ocean.
Specifically, how will this research improve human or animal health or advance knowledge?
These type of data are required to meet specific Agency objectives under the ESA and MMPA.
b. What are the specific goals of the animal studies described in this protocol?
To maximize data gained while minimizing impacts to individuals and stocks.
c. Explain why animal studies are preferred to non-invasive alternatives in achieving these research goals.
There are no non-invasive procedures available that can provide the same spatial and temporal resolution, or adequate sample size for this type of movement data.

If those goals seem broad and general to you, you are right – the application to tag the Southern Resident orcas is just a small part of a larger tagging effort, involving 16 to 23 species of dolphins and whales, the goal of which is to “meet Agency mandates on stock structure, movement patterns, and habitat use”. Essentially, over the next several years the Fisheries Service wants to learn more about how the cetaceans utilize the ocean resources, with management goals in mind.
Of course the scientists themselves will be asking many more questions and will have specific research goals of their own, but the problem is that none of that is spelled out in the application. The only limits mandated by the application as it pertains to the Southern Resident orcas are: 6 dart (satellite) tags per year, adult males and females only. For the more benign suction cup tags, any whale can be tagged except calves less than six months old and their mothers.
The researchers have publicly stated that they will only dart tag adult males and post-reproductive females – but there is nothing to bind them to that agreement. And even if they do only select those categories, are the old animals really the best choice to withstand the possible side effects of invasive tagging (tissue damage and infection)? Also the post-reproductive females play an important role in the care of calves – the last thing they need is a painful tag that can get pulled or bumped by the young animals.

New calf L 117

Last week’s announcement that the newest calf may have been born to 46 year old Tanya (L – 5) brings up the question of how it is determined when a female is considered to be post-reproductive, and the idea of tagging an older whale that could be pregnant doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
So which orcas would the researchers target?
As of this writing (2010): In J-pod the only options among the females (over 40, although clearly that is too young to be guaranteed post-reproductive) would be Granny, nearly 100 years old, or 77 year old Spiden who wheezes when she breathes. In K-pod it would be just Raggedy, named for her dorsal fin which is already a mess, (40 year old Sequim who had a calf last year). L-pod has seven in the category, from 82 year old Ocean Sun (believed to be the captive Lolita’s mother) down to 45 year old Ophelia – all of whom participate in family care.
In terms of the adult males (over 15 years old), J-pod has four: the venerable 60 year old Ruffles (named for his striking wavy fin), Mike and the playful Blackberry, both 19 and Riptide, just 15. K-pod has just three: Cappuccino, Scoter, and Lobo. L-pod has eight, Mega, the oldest, is only 33 years old and the next oldest is 21.
Logically the researchers would have to rule out J and K pods or else target just a few individuals repeatedly.
The final fact to consider is that the process of tagging involves harassing the whole population repeatedly. The individual whales need to be identified, located, and successfully darted (even a large whale can be hard to tag, they are moving targets with rubbery (although thin) skin), it can take many tries. Certain orcas will be picked out and pursued – which the whales will figure out right away.

I think that it is just premature to tag this fragile population of orcas at this point, particularly since research has been funded to improve the tagging process over the next three years:

Improving Attachments of Remotely-deployed Dorsal Fin-mounted Tags: Tissue Structure, Hydrodynamics, In Situ Performance, and Tagged-animal Follow-up
Lead PI: Dr. Russell Andrews, Alaska SeaLife Center
The researchers have recently developed small satellite-linked telemetry tags that are anchored to the dorsal fin with small attachment darts. They propose to improve upon their existing tagging methodology to achieve longer, less variable attachment durations by carefully examining the factors that affect attachment success. The researchers will design an improved barnacle-style shape for remote-deployment by assessing the hydrodynamic properties of the current tag shape and determine new candidates that may reduce the drag force.
Number of Years: 3
Requested Funds: $735,000
* Belle Quant Engineering
* Cartesian Flow Solutions, Inc.
* Cascadia Research Collective
* NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

For more information and to express your opinion to the permitting office, please contact either: Permits, Conservation and Education Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705, Silver Spring, MD 20910; phone (301) 713-2289; fax (301) 713-0376; or
Northwest Region, NMFS, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, BIN C15700, Bldg.1, Seattle, WA 98115-0700; phone (206) 526-6150; fax (206) 526-6426.
Written comments on this application should be submitted to the
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division, at the address
listed above. Comments may also be submitted by facsimile to (301) 713-
0376, or by e-mail to NMFS.Pr1Comments@noaa.gov.
Please include File No. 781-1824 in the subject line of the e-mail comment.

Should Satellite Tags Be Attached To The Endangered Southern Resident Orcas? Part One: The Tags

Researchers at NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have applied for a general permit to apply up to 20 suction cup and six dart type tags, per year for several years, to select individuals of the Southern Resident orca population. These tags will provide information on the basic habits and distribution of the whales, and the researchers are eager to hear your opinion as to whether you think the amount of information gained will offset the effects the tagging effort may have on the animals.

In my opinion the available technology is still too crude and the application too broad to risk any detriment to this fragile society of whales, but as we examine the issue I hope you will make your own decision and express it to NOAA during the comment period (by December 23rd).

The following information is taken directly from the National Marine Fisheries Service Assurance of Animal Care and Use Form:

IACUC Use Only
IACUC Number:A/NW 2010- 6

Satellite tag in dorsal fin of an orca (NOAA)
X-ray of tag in deceased orca’s dorsal fin (NOAA)

“Figure 4. A: Current configuration of the dart used for larger odontocetes and mysticetes with two rows of backward facing petals. B: X-ray image showing a dart (with one row of petals only) in a killer whale dorsal fin (collected from a stranded individual unrelated to any tagging activities) after dart penetration.

Note the backward facing petals are tight against the dart shaft, indicating that they were compressed upon entry into the fin which will minimize tissue damage upon entry. C: X-ray image of the same dart in B, after 11.4 kg of outward pull was exerted on the dart shaft. Note the petals have splayed outward from the dart shaft as they cut through tissue and moved into the holding position as designed (note the tips of two other darts visible in this x-ray). D: X-ray image of the same dart after 22.7 kg of outward pull. The petals have more fully splayed outward from the dart shaft and are now presenting a flat surface nearly perpendicular to the axis of outward force.”

“Limpet” tag (NOAA)

“Based on follow-up observations of more than 40 tagged individuals, in most cases the release appears to be a result of tissue breakdown immediately adjacent to the dart penetration site. This tissue breakdown is most likely associated with a foreign body response to the dart but the process may be accelerated by the additional tension put on the tissue adjacent to the darts by drag forces acting on the tag body.”

Wounds from tag (Marine Stewardship)

There is also the possibility of vascular disruption if a dart intersects with an artery in the dorsal fin. This could lead to a lessening or loss of blood flow distal from the tag site. Most cetacean fins have ample cross-current circulation, so it is thought that this type of disruption would not result in a complete loss of blood flow to the distal areas of the dorsal fin. Only one animal from our re-sighting history has shown any type of tissue loss distal to the tag site. However, no other individuals with similar sized dorsal fins have been sighted post-tagging showing anything other than small white scars and/or small depression or raised area.”

Orcas are highly tactile (Photo by Dave Ellifrit)

“It is also possible that the tag might be dislodged by a conspecific–we have seen suction cup tags pulled off with one species–or by the tagged animal rubbing on other animals or against an inanimate object. However, we have seen no behaviors or evidence to suggest this occurrence with LIMPET tags.

Because the dart tags penetrate the skin, connective tissue and/or blubber, and remain attached for up to several months, a risk of infection is a potential long-term effect. It should be noted however that odontocetes inhabiting warmer tropical waters are regularly bitten by cookie-cutter sharks, which create wounds up to several cm deep and 5-10 cm in diameter, and thus the injury associated with tag attachment may not be particularly unusual for these species. The findings by Hanson et al. (2008) indicate that no major long-term impacts have been associated with attachment of dart-style tags and no tagging-related mortalities have ever been documented.

If, during the course of follow up studies, an unusual wound or healing process is noted, the information will be brought to the attention of a vet.” (Good luck with that one…).

In contrast, the suction type tags are relatively non-invasive, but remain in place for just a few hours, yielding less information:

The suction cup tags are less invasive (Photo by Ari Friedlaender, Duke University).
Example of a suction cup tag (data logging).

For more information and to make comments:

SUMMARY: Notice is hereby given that the Northwest Fisheries Science
Center (NWFSC, Dr. M. Bradley Hanson, Principal Investigator), 2725
Montlake Blvd. East, Seattle, Washington 98112-2097, has applied for an
amendment to Scientific Research Permit No. 781-1824-01.

DATES: Written, telefaxed, or e-mail comments must be received on or
before December 9, 2010.

ADDRESSES: The application and related documents are available for
review by selecting ”Records Open for Public Comment” from the
Features box on the Applications and Permits for Protected Species home
page, https://apps.nmfs.noaa.gov, and then selecting File No. 781-1824
from the list of available applications.
These documents are also available upon written request or by
appointment in the following office(s):
Permits, Conservation and Education Division, Office of Protected
Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705, Silver Spring, MD
20910; phone (301) 713-2289; fax (301) 713-0376; and
Northwest Region, NMFS, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, BIN C15700, Bldg.
1, Seattle, WA 98115-0700; phone (206) 526-6150; fax (206) 526-6426.
Written comments on this application should be submitted to the
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division, at the address
listed above. Comments may also be submitted by facsimile to (301) 713-
0376, or by e-mail to NMFS.Pr1Comments@noaa.gov. Please include File
No. 781-1824 in the subject line of the e-mail comment.

Playing with mom! (Photo by Ken Balcomb)

Next: The pros and cons.

Another Bouncing Baby Whale For The Southern Resident Orcas!

New calf L 117

This calf was first seen December 6th, traveling with three adult females: 49 year old Tanya (L-5), 33 year old Ino (L-54), and 17 year old Ballena ( L-90), and it is uncertain at this point which one is the calf’s mother since all the members of the whale’s family help out with the calves.

The older animals have a vital role in assuring the viability of the population – whether the oldest female actually gave birth to the calf or not, her participation in the rearing of the calf will help increase the odds that the baby will survive.