Japan Has Resumed Whaling – Is This Wise, Considering the Possible Radioactive Contamination?

According to The Japan Times, three whaling ships departed port on Tuesday on a quest to obtain minke whales for “scientific research”:

Usually, the spring hunt is conducted off Ayukawa port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, but it has been switched to Kushiro, the base for autumn whaling, as Ayukawa port was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  The crew, including around 30 members from Ayukawa, will catch up to 60 minke whales by early June to study their ecology.

Whether these whales are truly studied for science or not, they are also destined for the dinner plate in many Japanese homes, and the question remains what this may mean in terms of possible radioactive contamination resulting from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Because the marine contamination, while severe, has had little time to move up the food chain, and because the whalers are most likely well north of the contaminated area, the chances are good that those whales are not seriously contaminated at this point.  But in a way, the whalers are playing a game of Russian roulette unless they are very careful about which animals they target.

Minkes are small baleen whales(Photo from Hope4Dolphins)

The small (up to 35 feet in length  and weighing about 20000 lbs) Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) feeds by side-lunging into schools of prey as well as by gulping large amounts of water.  Their diet is varied, from crustaceans (e.g., krill), plankton (e.g., copepods), to small schooling fish (e.g., anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish).  Some of these species are very likely to absorb radioactive particles immediately, others accumulate over time.

Minke whales of this stock :
In the North Pacific, their diet varies according to year, season,geographical area and prey availability. Moreover, prey species of minke whales also differs depending on the season. Japanese anchovy (Engraulis japonicus) is an important prey species during early summer (May to June).
On the other hand, in the coastal Japanese waters of the Okhotsk Sea, krill (Euphausia pacifica) are thought to be the dominant prey species. Minke whales consume various prey of pelagic zooplankton and pelagic schooling fishes and are adaptive to oceanic conditions and prey abundance in the North Pacific (Tamura 1998).

Populations of Minke whales near Japan (Courtesy Japan Foreign Ministry)

The whalers departed from Hokkaido, the large island at the top where Abashiri is located.  They may select Minkes from this region which, while not directly severely affected may have whales that migrated up along the southern coast and through the contaminated area.
This graphic shows where Minke whales may be feeding this time of year.

Notice that in April/May, young whales come into the Fukashima area (dashed lines).  The map below shows the location of the nuclear plant.

Likely marine conditions in Japan in April - notice that the warmer water coming up from the south collides with the colder northern water in the general vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. When warm water mixes with nutrient-rich colder water, ideal conditions for boosting the biological productivity are created. These 'fronts' tend to aggregate the small prey, and Minke whales would find rich feeding grounds of both krill and small fish.

How bad is the contamination?  According to the Wall Street Journal, Asia :

The water at the center of current efforts is in the basement of the No. 2 reactor building and totals some 25,000 tons, according to Tepco. The facility was first flooded by the March 11 tsunami. Operators then tried to cool the reactor by pumping in 168 tons of cold water a day.
The water is believed to have leaked into the nearby ocean, causing highly elevated levels outside the plant and resulting in radioactive readings detected in nearby fish. The water has been measured as having 13 million becquerels of iodine-131 per cubic centimeter, 300 million times the legal limit, and three million becquerels of cesium-137, which is 30 million times the limit.

(“The scientific research in the northwestern Pacific (JARPN: the Japanese research program under the special permit in the North Western Pacific) was initiated in 1994 for the purpose of collecting data on stock structures and feeding ecology of the minke whales in the area. Up to 100 whales can be taken annually. Each participating vessel is given a research license and the right to hunt a certain number of whales. The research is supervised by scientists from both the Government of Japan and the Scientific Committee of the IWC, and by an officially appointed inspector. The meat, blubber and other edible parts landed were certified by the health authorities before human consumptionLink).
I hope that the Japanese health inspectors include Geiger counters in their tool bags.
By the way, the inland waters around the Salish Sea (which extends from Puget Sound, Wa to British Columbia) are home to several well-known and frequently seen Minke whales.  Like the orcas, you may be able to come see them from the shores of the San Juan Islands.

The Date is Set – New Vessel Regulations Protecting Southern Resident Orcas Will Take Effect on May 16, 2011

This subject will be covered in more depth over the next few weeks, but this is a heads-up for anyone making plans to visit the region in the near future: even kayakers will be affected these regulations.
Endangered whales to be given wider berth (NOAA news release)

NOAA’s Fisheries Service issued new rules today (April 14th)  on vessel traffic, aimed at protecting Southern Resident killer whales in Washington’s Puget Sound. These charismatic marine mammals, popular with tourists, whale-watch operators and the general public, were added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005.
The Southern Resident population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s, and then declined to 79 in 2001. It has seen slow growth since then, and now stands at an estimated 86 killer whales, about half of which are sexually mature. Scientists have identified the major threats facing the population as a shortage of its preferred prey of Chinook salmon, disturbance from vessels, and water pollution.
The new rules prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting a whale or positioning the vessel in its path. This doubles the current approach distance of 100 yards. The rules go into effect May 16 and apply to all types of boats, including motor boats, sail boats and kayaks, in Washington’s inland waters.
Exemptions to the rules for safety include vessels actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels travelling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels.
The whales, which depend on their highly sophisticated natural sonar to navigate and find food, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels, including non-motorized ones, that approach too close or block their paths. The agency’s killer whale recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels.
When the regulations were originally proposed in July 2009, they included a half-mile wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September, where vessels were prohibited. Due to the extensive responses that were received during the public comment period, the final regulations do not include the no-go zone, and NOAA’s Fisheries Service will instead continue to gather information to consider the concept in future rulemaking.
See the Fisheries Northwest Region Website for more information on this action: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Whales-Dolphins-Porpoise/Killer-Whales/Recovery-Implement/Orca-Vessel-Regs.cfm
NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at http://www.noaa.gov or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/usnoaagov.

SeaWorld’s Idea of How to Make a Difference on Earth Day: New Show Debuts

SeaWorld’s new show “One Ocean” debuted in Orlando on Earth Day, promising to ‘educate and inspire’ people to go forth and conquer the Earth’s problems.  Whether this show succeeds in motivating  anyone to make the kind of changes we all need to in order to address the really significant problems that face the world will depend largely on whether or not SeaWorld is prepared to follow up it’s shows with real programs.  Somehow, though, it is doubtful that anyone leaves the park with anything more than a lighter wallet and a sense of having had a good time.

Inside SeaWorld:
“ This new show is what you love about our parks – thrilling entertainment that educates and inspires you to celebrate, connect and care for the world we share.
But even more important is the educational message the show imparts: we are all part of one world and have the power to make a difference. The message of caring and respect for the world we share is woven throughout the show – encouraging guests to make a difference through their own everyday actions.”

As far as the whales go, it is good to give them new tricks and to change up the monotony of their days in captivity.  And since the trainers are now kept out of the water, Tilikum (the orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau last year) has gone back to his job of spraying tourists in this multimedia extravaganza – a relief from his dismal year of isolation in a tiny pool.
Yet the irony of having the whales line up facing the huge screens as video plays of the wild ocean might cause SeaWorld’s message to backfire – after all, what sense does it make to have humans in goofy wetsuits dance alongside captive whales who are trained to twirl and spit to loud music, at the same time they are showing that the whales don’t belong there at all?
In an all new low, this “educational and inspirational show” forces the orcas to beach themselves on a ledge and kiss each other:

Some Earth Day Videos, and a Reminder that We Share the Planet with Ocean Life

Southern Resident orcas are struggling to survive (photo by Dave Ellifrit)

Orcas, like humans, are distributed over much of the planet, but unlike us their numbers are dwindling.
Please keep the oceans in mind as you think about Earth Day, and remember that we are dependent upon the oceans for our survival too.
First a reminder of the state of things (as true now as it was 30 years ago):

The second a reminder of how very precious it all is:

Finally,this one is from Jack Johnson, reminding us that we’re all just human. But we keep trying – so whatever you can think up to do to help on Earth Day, or any day, do it.
The planet is counting on you.


(From Orca Network):

Orca Network and the Langley Chamber of Commerce are sponsoring the eighth annual Welcome the Whales Day in Langley to honor and celebrate the arrival of resident gray whales to Whidbey Island. New this year we offer “Welcome the Whales” flags for sale for your home, garden or business, featuring an illustration by Freeland artist Mary Jo Oxrieder of our favorite whale “Patch.” Buy and hang your flag (or wear it in the parade) to help us Welcome the Whales to Whidbey!

Welcome the gray whales back as they migrate through our region this spring at this fun event. Find out about the gray whales that call this area home too! (Photo courtesy Orca Network)

Take part in hands-on educational displays, costume-making, and kid’s activities at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall (3rd and Anthes St.), beginning at 10 am. Staging for the “critter parade” begins at 1 pm in the CMA Church parking lot at Cascade and 6th St. The parade begins at 1:30, down the hill on Cascade and First Streets, ending at the Langley Waterfront Park a celebration on the beach with a blessing by Windwalker Taibi, and watching for Gray whales in Saratoga Passage.
From 3 – 5 pm presentations will be held back at the Methodist church, where Orca Network will give an update on our local Gray whales and share photos and stories about the “friendly” Grays of San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja.
Michael Bennett - "His enthusiasm and respect for the wonderful places on our planet are infectious, and he is happiest when sharing them." (Courtesy Small Planet)

We are pleased to welcome Michael Bennett, Small Planet Adventures owner, as a guest speaker this year.  Over the past 20 years Michael has piloted boats for many National Geographic magazine and film expeditions. An ardent diver and skilled Captain, Michael teamed with world-renowned photographer Flip Nicklin in Patagonia, Panama, Brazil, Hawaii, Sri Lanka, Canada and Costa Rica to document whales, dolphins and other exotics. Prior to launching Small Planet, Michael was an Expedition Cruise Ship Captain, steering vessels through nearly every corner of the globe. He then went on to launch one of the first successful luxury yacht cruising companies. A fervent advocate for whales, Michael is past president of the Whale Watch Operators Association, and has helped develop the guidelines for responsible whale watching presently in use today. He was also one of the captains who drove Springer the orphaned Orca from the US back to her home in Canada. His enthusiasm and respect for the wonderful places and experiences on our planet is infectious, and he is happiest when he is sharing them.
Michael’s new book, “Devil Dolphins of Silver Lagoon and Other Stories” is a fun romp through his adventurous life. From the sailing whales of Patagonia to the neurotic attack dolphins of Brazil, a behind-the-scenes view of the making of many of Flip Nicklin’s National Geographic Magazine stories of the last few decades (and other assorted craziness). If you appreciate the beautiful photos of whales and dolphins that appear in your books and calenders, then you’ll appreciate these engaging, often hilarious, tales of what went into the making of some of them. Michael’s book will be available for sale and he will be signing copies throughout the afternoon.
Welcome the Whales Day wraps up Whidbey Island’s “Earth & Ocean Week”, which began April 16th with the Bayview Earth Day celebration and the Earth and Ocean Art show at the Bayview Cash Store hub, which runs through this weeked.
For more information, go to: www.orcanetwork.org/news/events.html and www.visitlangley.com or contact Orca Network at 360-678-3451 or info@orcanetwork.org; or the Langley Chamber of Commerce at 360-221-6765.

Susan Berta & Howard Garrett
Orca  Network

Name the Captive Baby Orca Contest

Orca "Wikie" and her new calf at Marineland, Antibes, France (AP)

Marineland in Antibes, France, is looking for suggestions for naming the month old calf born to 10 year old Wikie.  This female calf is the result of artificial insemination by one of SeaWorld’s males, probably Ulises, and although she is the first calf born to a very young mother she seems to be doing well.  Wikie’s own mother, Shakan, was an excellent mother and successfully raised calves before succumbing to an eye infection and dying in 2009 in her early 20’s – and usually the young females learn parenting skills from their mothers, much like we do.  Born and raised in captivity, Wikie is able to help the calf in that environment (as opposed to wild-caught orcas who have had very limited success in rearing offspring in captivity).
To suggest a name, just go to their facebook page, you will have to “like” them then you can comment. It is in french but all you have to do is hit the comment icon as usual and enter your suggestions, make sure you are on the entry that says Grand Jeu : Proposez un prénom pour le bébé orque de Wikie .  My french is rusty, but from what I can decipher, you have until April 26th to make your suggestions. Another peaceful protest-
Mine are:
Bebe d’enfant (baby from a child, since her mother was impregnated when she was way too young, in the wild orcas are not known to have calves this young).
Bonne Chance (good luck)
Conscience de soi (self aware – maybe saying this name will remind people that these animals are self aware and shouldn’t be kept in captivity)
Gold Mine (that is what she is to the industry)

Today Is World-wide ‘Inspire Japan’ Day: Eco-toursim Is Profitable

Today (4/16/11) people world-wide are offering inspiration to the people of Japan (see below). In the spirit of the day’s event, I found this engaging video on eco-tourism to share. 
Maybe as Japan rebuilds and recovers, it can re-invent it’s relationship with the natural realm – and the world can support them by conscientious tourism of their beautiful country.

Today’s event:

Japan has provided inspiration for many generations of designers, and now it’s our turn to INSPIRE JAPAN. Over 100 PechaKucha cities are coming together TODAY to hold 20×20 events around the world to help raise money for reconstruction efforts in Japan.


PechaKucha Night was devised in Tokyo in February 2003 as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.
It has turned into a massive celebration, with events happening in hundreds of cities around the world, inspiring creatives worldwide. Drawing its name from the Japanese term for the sound of “chit chat”, it rests on a presentation format that is based on a simple idea: 20 images x 20 seconds. It’s a format that makes presentations concise, and keeps things moving at a rapid pace.
Starting simultaneously in Tokyo and Christchurch, the events will move westward, city by city, creating a 24-hour non-stop wave of creative energy to let the people of Japan know the rest of the world is with them.
Visit the global PechaKucha site to find out more!

Learn About Orcas as You Watch from Shore: The Center for Whale Research Launches a New Program

If you are planning to come to Washington state’s San Juan Island this summer, you will be among the first to enjoy a new, free, educational about orcas, and chances are that you will see these beautiful whales from the shoreline.

Lime Kiln State Park and Center for Whale Research Partnership

Senior Research Scientist Ken Balcomb

“The Center for Whale Research is proud to announce a unique partnership with Lime Kiln Point State Park. Local park management has accepted our proposal to operate a park-wide outreach and education program. The focus will be on killer whales and environmental stewardship.  Additionally, basic interpretive information about the park’s main historical attractions will continue to be provided.”
“The frequent and regular sightings from this unobtrusive land-based viewpoint inspire many park visitors to better appreciate the environment around them.  The unprecedented history of the Center for Whale Research coupled with the park as a platform for education will create a unique and meaningful experience for park visitors.  The goal is to inform the public and inspire action to assure a healthy environment for the killer whales and the Salish Sea on which they depend.”
For more information on this program, and to learn more about the Center’s 35 years of research on this population of orcas, you can go to this link:  The Center for Whale Research

Japan’s Swim-With-Dolphins Programs: A Paradox

(Photo from Tamagide)

While researching the possible effects of nuclear contamination on coastal bottlenose dolphins in Japan, I happened to stumble across websites that promote eco-tours to swim with wild dolphins offshore of Tokyo, and also a program to swim with a captive Risso’s dolphin in Taiji.  At first glance this seems paradoxical, given Japan’s reputation for viewing dolphins as food, and Taiji’s documented cruelty (savejapandolphins.org).
Yet in many ways that is not so different from our own country – we have only to look back forty years or so to find an era when whales were killed for dog food and plant fertilizer, orcas were shot or driven away with underwater explosives by fishermen who saw them as pests, and all marine mammals were considered fair game.  At the same time we watched episodes of ‘Flipper’ on TV, and the navy started to use dolphins in underwater work.  And now, even with public sentiment against it, we allow government officials to kill the sea lions that lurk near dams and eat “our” salmon. We allow for native “subsistence” whale hunts with modern equipment.
Nope, the Japanese are not so different from us, really.
What is different is what we have learned from observing dolphins and whales in the wild, either through field research or  whale watching excursions (as well as other eco-tours), and Japan is just beginning to encourage these interactions. When there is more profit in tourism than in selling the meat, dolphins  and whales will enjoy more protection worldwide.
Location of swim-with-dolphins (wild) in Japan.

Here is a sampling of the Japan tours (they take place in a region that is safe from long term radiation contamination – more on that soon) followed by a video of the Taiji experience:
Diving with dolphins in the Izu Islands “There are around 150 dolphins living in the area,” Taguchi explains on the choppy boat ride to Mikura. “Most of them we can recognize by scars or the shapes of their fins.” My guide, as it turns out, is both an animal lover and a passionate conservationist with an informative blog and educational children’s book to his credit. He became hooked on Mikura’s dolphins after a diving trip in the 1990s with the late Jack Moyer, a leading American marine ecologist and former resident of Miyake who pioneered efforts to protect the fragile ecosystems of the Izu Islands.”
Swim with Wild Dolphins in Japan “Mikura’s dolphins are the species of Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins but they are different from the bottlenose dolphins that are widely known in some points.(For example, they are smaller than bottlenose dolphins and their beak is relatively longer and more slender.)
About 200 dolphins inhabit around Mikura island.
And 160 dolphins are identified.
They generally live in groups.
You might see three kinds of groups of dolphins.
1.Group of mothers and children. In this group, young females often join them.
2.Group of young males.
3.Group of adult males.
But the each groups are loose and could have dolphins of the other groups in it.”
The Taiji experience borders on Fellini-esque (Fellini made films that were bizarre, in a normal way)-


swim with whale by daysinjapan
“The dolphin is usually kept in an enclosure by the Taiji whale museum/aquarium. However, for two times a day in the summer, they enlarge the enclosure to include a beach area, allowing tourists to get into the water and swim alongside the big dolphin.”