Notes from the Field

Notes from the Field

Russian Extremities

Off Far East Russia in the cold Sea of Okhotsk, lies a finger of land. This small island is known as Sakhalin Island.


Sahkalin Island overhead.  Photo: JC Smith


Only 600 km long by 100 km wide, it exists on the same latitude as Alaska's Aleutian Islands and is the summer feeding grounds of the Western Grey Whale population (WGW); a population once thought to be extinct. Now with increasing numbers of around 218 (2014) individuals, the population is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC). 


WGW through the lens of a theodolite instrument.  Photo: JC Smith



Sea of Okhotsk.  Photo: JC Smith


The Sea of Okhotsk is the ninth largest body of water and one of the most productive seas. Enormous amounts of salmon, flatfish, crab, shrimp and krill accumulate near-shore every summer.  The WGW feed on the abundant krill after their long migration from their winter breeding grounds and migratory corridors that are thought to be off Southern China.  The WGW population is distinct from the Eastern Grey Whale (EWE) population as the EWE has recovered from the whaling days enough so to be delisted from the Endangered Species list.  


Copepods aka gray whale food.  Photo: JC Smith


In combination with the EGW feeding area, Sakhalin is well known for their oil and gas reserves offshore.  There are two maintained platform rigs located 14km and 16km off the shoreline and numerous seismic surveys take place throughout the summer months by major oil investment companies, both local and international.  Researchers (including the author) come to Sakhalin Island to monitor the grey whale population from both land and water based platforms.  Since 1996 the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company have undertaken yearly studies including theodolite tracking for energetics and behavioral and acoustic monitoring during seismic operations. 


Oil platform rig and seismic vessel off the coast of Sahkalin Island.  Photo: JC Smith


However mother nature does not make it so easy to do so.  The extreme changes in weather seem to take place every few days - one day you are reaching for your sun screen and mozzie spray while other days you are layering long johns and pulling out hand warmers.  During the last week we had six straight days of unmovable fog.  It cleared in time to see zero grey whales passing by. 


Theodolite station platform on the beach.  Photo: JC Smith


On the days when the weather cooperates, you can see the grey whale's barnacle encrusted heads, pectoral fins and fluke tips sticking out as they roll in the surf, just yards from the sandy beaches.  You might even see killer whales passing silently close to shore on the hunt for harbor seals.  Behind our station reindeer, fox and even bear may be slipping past unnoticed.  That is what makes Sakhalin Island such a special place; never knowing what may emerge from the depths of the environment or what weather may blow in. 

With thanks to Christy Harrington for her contributions to this blog note.

JC Smith 

Guest Blogger: Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez

The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are currently facing several major threats, including noise pollution and disturbance from vessel traffic and shipping. These can make essential killer whale habitats very noisy, especially in areas very heavily trafficked by large ships (which may come through once every hour, on average, in busy shipping lanes). The Salish Sea is one of those areas. It includes the south-western portion of British Columbia, Canada and the north-western portion of Washington State, and it is made up of the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait, and Puget Sound. The Salish Sea is among the busiest shipping routes in the world, with approximately 11,000 large vessels transiting through the area each year[MM1] . Shipping traffic in the area is also projected to grow dramatically in the next decade, in large part due to major fossil fuel export projects. In addition to large freighters, tankers, and cargo ships, other vessels such as cruise ships, ferries, fishing vessels, commercial vessels, and pleasure craft also use those waters for various purposes.


Our summer research site on San Juan Island, overlooking Haro Strait.  Photo by E. Martinez


The ecologically rich waters of the Salish Sea are a critical habitat for the SRKW community, being their summer feeding grounds. Marine mammals, such as the SRKWs, can be threatened by increasing levels of large vessel traffic, especially by the noise pollution that large vessels produce. Sound is the primary sense of killer whales, and they rely on it for communicating, navigating, and foraging/hunting for food. Acoustic disturbance and the 'masking' effect of anthropogenic (man-made) sound on cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) is a major concern. ‘Masking’ is the term used when other noise(s) block or 'mask' the sounds on which cetacean species rely. Propellers, for example, produce some of the loudest continuous sounds in our oceans, with large ships capable of producing sounds levels over 170 dB, travelling a great distance (sound travels almost 4.4 times faster and 100 times further underwater than in air[MM2] ). Even fast power boat propellers can be heard from long distances. To illustrate, a power boat with a 160 dB source level will be heard as a 135 dB noise at ~20 metres away and as a 70 dB noise at 14 kilometres away. This is enough to ‘mask’ killer whale calls and interfere with their ability to navigate, communicate, and locate prey. If you are interested in finding out how noisy the Haro Strait can be, listen live to the Lime Kiln hydrophone ( By having it playing in the background, it will give you an insight as to what the SRKW have to deal with on a daily basis. When one vessel, let alone several, navigates in the Haro Strait, the sound picked up by the hydrophone can be really unpleasant and make it harder to hear the SRKW calls when the killer whales are around.


Several studies have demonstrated effects of noise from large ships on a variety of cetacean species. Until recently, however, none of these studies had yet examined the responses of both the SRKWs and Northern Resident killer whales (NRKW) to presence and activities of large ships. NaWhaRe, in collaboration with other scientists studying the Northern Resident killer whales, is currently conducting research on San Juan Island to help assess the likely effect of large ship traffic (cargo vessels, cruise ships, and ocean-going tugs) on SRKW’s behaviour. Such information would improve the conservation and management of these endangered populations.


To answer these questions, researcher are collecting data on SRKW’s dive time, swimming speed, where the killer whales are travelling and at what rate from a land-based station of the West side of San Juan Island. In order to track the SRKW’s movement, the research team uses a theodolite, a surveyor’s instrument. It can be used to observe and measure distance, direction, and position of objects out at sea such as killer whales and vessels. The theodolite is usually placed at a high vantage point overlooking the survey area. In our case, the survey site is a hill ~ 300 ft above water, just south of Lime Kiln State Park, which is the perfect location to look for SRKWs and large ships travelling through Haro Strait. From this position, the horizontal and vertical angles measured from the theodolite allows us to calculate the SRKW and large ships’ positions with extreme accuracy. Knowing our exact GPS location and height, we can then use simple trigonometry to calculate distance (vertical angle) and direction (horizontal angle). Those geometry classes finally come handy! While the team is unable to follow the SRKWs up close on a research boat, which is always exciting, land-based observations allow us to collect data remotely on both the SRKWs and large ships without changing the animals’ behaviour or movement. We can see them, but they cannot see or hear us, which is exactly what we need for this study.


I am very grateful to Jodi Smith for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study during the month of July and get the chance to be around the SRKWs and in a beautiful part of the world. It is a real change from my PhD field days in New Zealand, when I used to track the movement of the smallest marine dolphin in the world, the endemic and endangered Hector’s dolphin.


You can find more information about the importance of this study here.






Guest Blogger: Dr. David Bain

Who is that masked whale?


Every once in a while, a killer whale shows up, and we don’t know where it came from.  Fifty years ago, nobody even would have wondered.  Killer whales were considered a global species.  From time to time, killer whales that seemed different would be found and be described as new species, but as recently as the early 1980’s, such proposals were not taken seriously by most taxonomists.


However, as work in the Pacific Northwest continued, it became apparent that residents and transients were distinct populations.  By the late 1980’s, a few sightings of a third type that was rarely seen, but appeared different, had accumulated.  In the 1990’s, genetic studies confirmed that residents and transients were genetically distinct, and had been so for a long time.  Northern and Southern Residents were different as well, but their split was far more recent.


The recognition that Southern Residents were different than other killer whales led to a proposal to list them under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS declined, indicating that there were not sufficient data to justify the listing.  Environmental groups filed suit, leading NMFS to initiate a global study of killer whales.  While information gained from these global studies contributed nothing to how to recover Southern Residents, it did lead NMFS to inform the court that they would acknowledge that Southern Residents are listable, and then they proceeded to list them as Endangered.


These genetic and photographic studies indicated that there were numerous kinds of killer whales, and most significantly, that whales that were similar in appearance were similar genetically, in contrast to other whales in the same area that were morphologically distinct.  That is, morphological variation was between species that were reproductively but not geographically isolated, it was not within population variation.


Transients were only found in the Pacific, and appeared to have split off from other known killer whales earlier than any other type.  That allowed them time to split into many species or subspecies.  The familiar transients seen in Bigg’s studies that ranged from California to Southeast Alaska became known as West Coast Transients. 


Another branch on the transient lineage is known as AT1s.  They’re found in Prince William Sound, but appear to be on an irreversible road to extinction, as no reproductive age or juvenile females remain.  They are similar in appearance to WCTs, but eat fish in addition to marine mammals, and are genetically distinct. 


Farther west in Alaska are Gulf of Alaska Transients, which differ in appearance, vocal behavior, and slightly in genetics, but they eat marine mammals. 


Far to the south, there is at least one more branch of the transient family.  Known as Eastern Tropical Pacific Transients, they have saddles that are very inconspicuous.  There are likely to be other species and subspecies of transients, as little is known about killer whales on the Pacific Coast of South America.


Since the killer whale that stranded in California had a harbor seal in its stomach, it was likely a transient.  Although well within West Coast Transient territory, the rounded dorsal fin was inconsistent with that population.  The next closest population would be ETP transients, but the saddle was wrong for them.  The dorsal fin was wrong for AT1s, but both the saddle and dorsal fin are appropriate for Gulf of Alaska Transients.


The little known killer whales from BC became known as offshores.  Like GoA transients, they have saddles and dorsal fins similar in shape to the stranded whale.  The stranding location is well within their range.  However, it appears that offshores are a dwarf killer whale.  As in the North Atlantic, where some killer whales are the same size as our residents, there is also a dwarf form, many of which were taken into captivity from Iceland.  Likewise, the Antarctic has a dwarf form, which was described as a new species using data from Soviet whaling.  The large size of the stranded whale made it unlikely it was an offshore.  Further, offshores feed on sharks and turtles, and as a result, it looks like the tips of their teeth are taken off with a power sander, and their teeth have open pulp captivities, in contrast to the stranded whale whose teeth were in decent condition.

So how will we know for sure what type of killer whale stranded?  Genetic testing will reveal the answer.  Preliminary results suggest it is, in fact, part of the Gulf of Alaska transient population.  More extensive sequencing will be needed to confirm this result.


By the way, the Southern Hemisphere has its share of killer whales, too.  Species A is similar to our transients.  Species B and C have pronounced dorsal capes, with C being the dwarf form.  North Pacific killer whales only have a vestige of this cape—a fine line running from the saddle to the eye patch.  Species D seems to have the head of a pilot whale but the fins and a color pattern more appropriate for killer whales.  There is also a killer whale closely related to offshores.  There may be other killer whales yet to be described as parts of the world have been poorly studied.


We don’t yet know enough about GoA Transients to say whether the stranded whale was outside of its normal range, or if some of them join migrating baleen whales to take advantage of vulnerable calves.  We have seen individuals out of range before, with Luna the Southern Resident in the Northern Resident range, and Springer the Northern Resident in Southern Resident habitat before she was returned home.  The ability to recognize out of range killer whales was an important element of the decision to list Lolita as an Endangered Southern Resident.  While the circumstances of her capture made it likely she was a Southern Resident, it was important to rule out the possibility that she was a whale from another population that was just passing through, and to prove we would have been aware of it if that had happened.

New Year, New Babies, and New Research!

Greetings All,

Since the passing of J32 last year, we've had an upswing in the Southern Resident population numbers now totaling 80 individuals.


The first newborn (J50) showed up with 43 year old female J16 around Christmas time.  J16 has had five other calves according to the Center for Whale Research who studies the groups summer habits in Washington State, however there is some question as to if this is really J16’s calf or possibly another pod members such as J36, now sixteen years old and more likely the age of reproductive females for the pods.


The second calf, J51, was born early February somewhere in the Straight of Juan de Fuca to 36-year-old J19. 


Recently NOAA scientists went offshore following a satellite tagged pod member and discovered a third new calf.  The calf (L121) born to mom L94 was spotted off Westport, Washington (pictured below.)  L pod, is one of three pods that comprise the Southern Resident killer whales. It increases L pod’s population to 35. J pod, to which the other two calves were born, numbers 26, and K pod numbers 19.


L121 Photo by Candace Emmons of NOAA


NOAA and other researchers have determined three main causes for decline of this population:

1. Decline in the whales’ primary prey, Chinook salmon;

2. Disturbance from private and commercial whale watching vessels; 

3. Exposure to high levels of toxicants (e.g. PCB, PBDE and DDT), which are stored in the whales’ fat.


As you know Naked Whale Research specializes in the winter/spring studies of the two pods, K and L, that often travel as far south as Monterey Bay.  Year round, however, we receive lots of reports from lessor known transient and offshore type killer whales. 


This past week, we’ve had some interesting reports of 5-6 animals off The Sea Ranch and a possible attack on a gray whale yesterday off Westport.  Our work is dependent on public support and willingness to call in and report sightings in real-time to us.  We are also eager to deploy an underwater microphone or hydrophone off the Point Arena Lighthouse this year giving us a heads up as to when vocalizing marine mammals are around.  The public will also be able to tune in to the underwater sounds of Mendocino county via internet connection.   


If you would like to learn more about the whales, our research or how you can get involved as a volunteer please visit our website to sign up to our email list at

We'll also be in the area to give some interesting presentations.  Take a look at our dates and see if you are able to attend one or two:

Friday March 20-Mendocino Whale Festival (Lecture)
Fort Bragg Library
Sunday March 22-Wind & Whale Festival (Booth)
Point Arena Lighthouse
Thursday March 26-KGUA 88.3FM Peggy's Place (On air talk)
Thursday April 9th-Whale & Jazz Festival (Presentation)
Gualala Arts Center
Sunday April 19th-Speaker Series (Lecture)
Fort Ross

RIP J32 "Rhapsody"

Earlier in September I resubmitted the following encounter to potential donors and funders online in an effort to trigger an emotional connection that really only seeing these magestic creatures in real life can instill.  At the end of the story I asked the reader two questions: Will J32 die at a young age like her mom and uncle?  Will you help us save her extended family? We now know the answer to the first question.  Biologists and whale researchers have ways of addressing the second question, but we cannot do it alone.  Naked Whale Research was established specifically to tackle the question of critical habitat and foraging needs of endangered Southern Resident killer whales during their winter travels to Northern California.  We have much of the tracking equipment and man power necessary to collect valuable data.  There are yet a few vital pieces needed though in order to maximize our time with the animals when they are in the area.  One is a good sea-going vessel, the other is volunteers to take on the role of raising funds and finding consistent streams of revenue by becoming a Board of Director member.  If after reading my piece you feel able to help our plight in some way, please contact us via our website email:!contact/c8gg 

Thank you for caring.  



San Juan Island, Summer 1999

I watched them from afar all summer long.  The not-so-old grandma J10, born around 1962, who always led her family northbound along the shoreline, was followed on the outside edge by her adult son J18.  Next swam her eldest daughter J20 with her young calf J32.  I liked J32 from the start, primarily because her dorsal was rather distinct like that of a shark; wide and pointy.  This was atypical of these resident fishing-eating whales and I attributed a sort of spunkiness to her look.  Lastly swam J10’s youngest daughter J22 with the ADD type newborn known as J34.  J34 was a hyperactive whale and it was lucky for him that his mother was so patient when he was splashing around and constantly breaching alongside her as they all traveled near shore.


I enjoyed the often flat calmness of the hillside overlooking Haro Strait.  The clear skies would lighten the mirrored waters as the sun rose from the east behind me.  Listening to the explosive “Whoosh” sound of the killer whale breaths and checking individual IDs from my powerful scope held a Zen-like peacefulness for me.  Each morning they arrived in the same formation.  


As a sub-group of the J pod and one I would track on a regular basis, I felt close to this group.  I admired the way J10 would swim ahead only to wait for her family to catch up.  Often she did this while floating at the surface, termed “logging” by researchers, and turn back lifting her head slightly up from the water.  J10 was what I would call an aloof whale.  If she didn’t want to be bothered she would ditch you and your vessel, leaving no trail to follow.  Once while trying to get her photo-ID picture, we had trouble lining up the vessel.  She was constantly switching sides on us each time we approached to take the photo.  Then suddenly she breached on the port side within a few feet of our vessel, dove and then reappeared far up ahead.  We had just been told off by a killer whale matriarch.


When all the pods returned the following spring and the Center for Whale Research announced its official whale count of the season, J32’s mom was not among those listed.  As these resident pods do not separate from each other and both males and females stay with their maternal family for life, she was deemed deceased.


We all wondered what would happen to the newly orphaned four-year-old whale, J32.  Having been weaned of mother’s milk at two-years old, we knew she could feed herself, but there were so many other lessons to be learned; could she in fact survive?  Our best guess was that grandma or auntie would adopt her as their own.  That summer I again tracked the whales from the hillside.  We saw J32 return without her mother and to our surprise it was uncle J18 who took on the role of caregiver.  In the mornings J10 would go by and then J18 with his new sidekick J32, would follow behind.  For months J32 shadowed her uncle’s every move.  When he would lunge, she would lunge.  He showed her how to circle and corral fish.  When they would somehow swim ahead of J10, it was the pair that would look back after her and wait until she caught up to regain the lead position.


I was intrigued of their relationship and only came to admire them more as I was out in a boat one day.  We wanted to check on J32 and see that she was indeed a robust and healthy calf, so we motored the boat in close to her for observation.  Immediately J18 repositioned himself in-between us and his young ward.  He shuffled her on up ahead and outside of our range.  This was indeed a whale with a purpose.


That winter, in early February I was with a friend on one of his rare winter whale watching trips.  My study had been over for months, but like a true junky, I could never pass up a free boat ride with the possibility of seeing whales.  The day was clear and the water flat calm as we headed far south into Haro Strait.  The J pod was spread out over miles.  I remember seeing J18 alone, about 200 yards away.  We did not see his mom, J10.


It has often been the case that when an elder female whale dies, their closest adult son passes on sometimes within six months of each other.  No one knows for sure why this happens; we do know that these are highly social and stable animals in constant contact with each other for the duration of their lives.  Older whales, grandmothers though no longer reproductive still hold a purpose in this whale culture. and continue to lead their family through the perils of an environment fraught with human impacts.


Before spring arrived, I was watching Canadian TV.  The Vancouver news ran a clip of a large adult male killer whale that had washed ashore.  The camera panned the length of the whale’s body and upon seeing the distinctly identifying grey saddle patch, tears came to my eyes.  J18 was dead at only 23 years of age.


Ever the survivor, little J32 returned that summer with the rest of J pod, having lost three of her closest relatives in less than two years.  I’m grateful that J18 stepped in when he did.  Maybe he taught her some valuable lifelong survival skills.  Today J32 is still going strong.  She continues to hang out with her aunt J22 and cousins, the surviving members of her family.


J32, San Juan Island (2009).  You may see this photo of J32 on our early sightings posters and cards as she was my favorite. Photo: Stefan Jacobs


These whales are known to live into their 80′s and 90′s.  However they have been slowly declining leading to their ENDANGERED status in 2005.   This year the endangered population fell down to 77 whales; losing a 37 year old female, a 13 year old male, a newborn calf and now an 18 year old female.   RIP J32 


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