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 


Guest Blogger: Shreya Sanjeev


Killer whales and whale watching at San Juan Islands, Washington - What can we do to make it better?


Orcas, otherwise commonly known as killer whales (Orcinus orca) have constantly captured my imagination and curiosity. At the age of three, the movie Free Willy proved to be the first and perhaps the biggest engender to have allured me to their fascinating, yet mysterious world. Since then, I’ve always wanted to see them in the wild, in waters they seem to be the rulers of. Not just killer whales, but whales in general had completely engulfed my fascination and I always hoped for an encounter with these mysterious “giants of the deep” someday.

Humpback whale 'tail-in-the-air'.  Australia, 2013.


The first time I went whale watching was in Australia, to witness the baleen humpback whales migrating from their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean, to their northern breeding grounds in the warm tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef along the east coast and further on. Our boat had nearly 50-60 camera-toting tourists, eagerly waiting for the skipper of the vessel to report a whale sighting. And finally, we had a pair of humpbacks swimming in the direction of our boat, with heavy blows that grew louder by the minute. The Queensland guidelines for whale watching industries were very clear and well interpreted to maintain a distance of 100m from the whales and no more than three whale-watch vessels within 300m of them. It was for the very first time that I had ever seen whales in the wild, and is perhaps an experience I may never forget. However, the activity of whale watching is one that has always plagued my mind in terms of its ethical justification, and has time and a gain proven to be a controversial and debatable topic no less.


Humpback whale breaching within close proximity of whale watching boat.  Australia, 2013


There has been an enormous amount of scientific research that elaborates the effects of vessel noise and their proximity to marine mammals on their behaviour. Marine mammals, predominantly cetaceans use sound for echolocation and communication. Vessel noise interferes in their vocalisations, affecting their means of communication with one another and foraging for food. This type of encroachment, along with close proximity of boats wherein noise levels are significantly above ambient levels, compel these animals to change their behavioural patterns from foraging, resting or milling to continuous traveling to avoid an area, as well as, breaking large social groups to smaller isolated ones. Such effects of prolonged unwanted sound exposure can have significant ramifications on the life functions of the animals affected.


In August 2014, I paid a visit to the picturesque San Juan Islands of Washington as part of a land-based study to investigate the effects of heavy traf fi c vessels on the behavioural patterns of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs). SRKWs consist of three pods - J, K, and L pod, which are found in the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia primarily from late spring to early autumn. These whales are highl y dependent on sound for communicating with one another, as well as effectively foraging for chinook salmon-their primary food source in these waters.


Southern Resident killer whales.  San Juan Islands, 2014


Whale watching in the San Juan Islands essentially revolves around the high-seasonal sightings of Resident killer whales, along with transient killer whales, humpback whales, minke whales, Dall’s and harbour porpoises, Stellar sea lions, harbour seals, river otters and the iconic bald eagle. There is no doubt that killer whales are perhaps the most prominent of them all and tourists from all over the world scurry to these islands to view them in their natural habitats.


While scanning for killer whales from our field station and simultaneously tuning in to the VHF for updates on the residents’ whereabouts from commercial whale watch operators, we would listen to reports on whale watch boats around minke and humpback whales (usually when the SRKWs were not in the area). There were days during our study when it was astounding to note the presence of more than 9-10 whale watch operating boats on an individual minke whale or a pair of humpbacks, following them for nearly 12 hours on a given day! This seemed absolutely absurd and unacceptable. Such scenes would portray to be perfect examples of serious unsustainable whale watching, where these whales could not catch a break from noisy boats following them for hours on end. Additionally, there were instances during our field work where we observed extreme bad boat behaviour from both commercial and private boats.


Commercial whale watching boat with other private recreational boats around killer whales (picture taken from shore).  San Juan Islands, 2014


The local whale watching guidelines state that boats (both commercial and private) keep a distance of 200 yards parallel and 400 yards away from the whale’s path of travel. However, many a time we have been witness to boats launching their engines and speeding right in the direction of the whales, enclosing on them at extremely close proximities, motoring right above the whale’s path of travel and completely ignoring the presence of whales in the vicinity. These episodes were extremely appalling and upsetting not just to us biologists, but also other tourists who were watching these whales from land. This was when it occurred to me - is the whale watching industry ethical and sustainable? And if not, what steps can we take to improve it?


Land-based whale watching (picture taken from shore).  San Juan Islands, 2014.




From these experiences, I have come to understand that, while whale watching can be educational and a means of ‘connecting’ to these gentle giant creatures like many claim; it also has extremely detrimental effects on them and the environment they call home. Therefore, the question perhaps really is whether, the costs of whale watching outweigh the benefits or vice versa. While this sounds appalling and rather distressing, there are ways by which we, as whale admirers, scientists and responsible citizens can help minimise these impacts. Some that I would like to mention are:


•  Encourage yourself to land-based whale watching, especially in areas where whales travel close to shore. This is perhaps the most eco-friendly (no boat noise or fuel emissions) and economical (little or no cost on public areas) means of whale watching, and you have the whales cruise by right in front of you! What more could you ask for?


•  Do your research before selecting a whale watch operator: search the Internet thoroughly and study all the various whale watch companies that operate in the area. Choose responsible and governmentally recognised operators who often assist researchers and help educate the general public and their customers about cetaceans, their conservation and the marine environment as a whole.


Killer whale tail-slapping behaviour San Juan Islands, 2014
Killer whale tail-slapping behaviour.  San Juan Islands, 2014

•  Help facilitate scientific research: choose whale watch companies that not only carry out whale watching tours, but simultaneously fund and actively take part in conservation research projects.


•  Help reduce the carbon footprint: choose whale watch operators who employ smaller motor boats, than large commercial vessels. Smaller boats consume relatively less fuel and are considerably quieter than larger ones.


•  Take a step beyond: update and educate yourself with the local whale watching guidelines and ensure that the operator you are with is following them. As a customer and a responsible citizen, make an effort to correct bad boat behaviour; for this not only enriches your whale watch experience, but also helps facilitate respect and better behaviour around the whales. Remember, by doing this, you're not just being compassionate to the whales, but also your fellow companions aboard!


•  Prepare yourself for every scenario and don't get greedy: do not expect a sighting or fantastic aerial displays by whales, nor choose an operator who guarantees this. More often than not, it is these very operators who harass whales, which react to harassment with aerial displays such as breaching, tail slapping, prolonged diving, under water exhalations, avoidance behaviour and other protective movements from a female towards a calf. It is important to understand that these are wild animals, are masters of their own will and can change their course of plan depending on the presence or absence of their resources. Therefore, in cases where you do not encounter a whale, enjoy the other local wildlife around and most importantly, being out at sea!


Juvenile bald eagle.  This picture was taken while scanning for killer whales at our field station.  San Juan Islands, 2014.


In conclusion, if commercial whale watching operators understand that it is not necessary for them to get close to the whales beyond set guidelines or harass them in order to satisfy their customers, this may help change their efforts in transforming this recreational activity into a stronger, pro- active educational arena. Moreover, in the process of trying to “experience these animals in the wild”, it becomes crucial for us to understand that as a species, they all have a very complex society and therefore like any other creature, also deserve their space. Sustainable whale watching can ensure the long-term protection of whales, however, it is important to recognise that this does not become an exemplification of loving them to death! It provides an affirmation that adds weight to the aspect of understanding humans and the influence whale watching has on them as well. Forestell and Kaufman (1993) very aptly noted: “it is probably a misnomer to talk about management of whales. It is not the whales that need to be managed, but the humans who hang out with them”.



Indeed they are aptly called the "wolves of the sea".  San Juan Islands, 2014.  


So yes, we love these tuxedo-clad, wolves of the sea. But what’s key is that we show this appreciation with compassion and empathy.





Forestell, P.H., Kaufman, G.D. 1993. Resource managers and field researchers: Allies or adversaries? In D. Postle, and M. Simmons, Encounters with whales ’93, Wokshop Series No. 20. Townsville, Queensland: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.


Holt, M.M. 2008. Sound exposure and Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca): A review of current knowledge and data gaps. U.S. Dept. Commer., Noaa Tech. Memo. NMFS-NWFSC-89, 59 p.

























Why Study Boat Traffic?

Human impacts on wild species is not a new topic.  There have been numerous studies conducted around the world on how vessel movement and acoustic output may be impacting and even harming wild populations of near-shore cetaceans.  In fact my first study on this subject began in 1999 on San Juan Island, Washington State.  


Research, including studies I've worked on, have found short term behavioral changes to consist of: changes in surfacing, acoustic, and swimming behavior and changes in direction, group size, and coordination.  In addition to altering behavior, masking communication, or displacing animals, whale-watching tourism can also have more direct impacts. Whales have been injured or killed as a result of collisions with whale-watching vessels ( Parsons, 2012) .

Even we humans know that behavioral stress can add up leading to increased energy expenditure and overall reduced physical and immune system health bringing with it the onset of disease and lowered body function. 

For wild animals, stress over time can possibly lead to reduced reproduction and fitness of the population as a whole.  Our Southern Residents (fish-eating whales) haven’t had a new birth in the past two years.  According to cetologist Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research (CWR), this has only happened twice previously over the past 40 years (Personal communication with KB, August 2014).  CWR keeps a summer photo-identification census of all three resident pods (known as J, K and L pods) while they are foraging and mating within Haro Strait, Washington.  This year the count dropped to 78 whales as two whales (L-53 a reproductive 37 year old female, and L-100 a thirteen year old male died of unknown causes).  Data from CWR, 2014.


Whale watchers are required to be 200 yards away from endangered Southern Resident killer whales within their designated Critical Habitat of Washington State.


In 2005 this population was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  The designation was primarily due to their unique genetic isolation and the fact that they are not known to breed outside of their acoustic clan.  That means that each individual is vital to the longevity of this distinct species segment.  The population experienced about a 21% decline due to mortalities over six years leading up to the action. 


Wonder where the whales are?

See a blow, go slow!

Two additional pipe lines and an expanded Vancouver shipping terminal are sure to increase large ship traffic in the whales habitat. 


The National Marine Fisheries Service that oversees marine mammal populations and their recovery sighted three factors as probable causes for the populations decline and poor annual rate of increase (about 1% compared to 2.7% for Northern Resident killer whales).  These were: declining prey resources (salmon), increased toxic contaminant loads within the animals themselves, and vessel effects (NMFS 2006). 

Unfortunately for our Southern residents, boat traffic has been shown to alter foraging behavior and whales end up spending more time travelling and less time hunting when boats are present (Lusseau et al., Noren et al. 2009).  Not only are they on the move more often than not, but because of the interference from acoustic pollution (boat noise) animals are more likely to use more energy producing percussive displays and increasing the loudness of their calls to get each others attention (Foote et al. 2004).  

Very disturbing seeing whale watchers essentially herding four transient killer whales against the shoreline.  


The transients commenced "pacing" back and forth along the shore as the boats held their line.  


Think about it, you are a top marine predator with a penchant for wild salmon (also an endangered species).  Your food source is on the decline, but you will go to where there is the best chance of feeding you and your family no matter what, however you have tens of boats following you from about 9:30AM-9:30PM which causes you to use more energy moving around the fray (9% more for Southern Residents, Smith 2009) or causes a loss of cooperative hunting chances due to the masking of your calls to your pod members by boat noise..therefore you might lose some weight in the process which in turn releases unhealthy toxins (PCBs, DDTs, Dioxins, Furans) into your blood stream. Reproductive and immune system havoc may ensue and suddenly your population isn't doing so well.  Whew, I’m exhausted just typing out all those factors!


The hunt is on; all those little colorful specs above the kayaks in the foreground are whale oriented vessel traffic.


Now no study is pointing the finger at a single cause for decline.  We know that these animals are quite “urban” in their persistence of a very humanized (Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria) locale, however, if I were to instantly relieve a stressor and potential impact, then boat numbers and length of time spent following the whales would be it.  Some days we’ve had 38 boats on only four animals (female with her three offspring)..some days I’ve counted 36 boats on only two whales (female/calf pair).  If anyone has tuned into the Lime Kiln hydrophone at then you know how loud shipping and vessel traffic can be.  We can turn off the sound..the whales unfortunately cannot.

Volunteer Shreya Sanjeev and I tracking from our land-based theodolite station.  Using our 30X magnification scope, we are able to plot positions, speeds and distances of both boats and whales in real time.


Our time spent in the San Juan Islands has highlighted large shipping traffic in relation to whale movement, however, we were in a great vantage point to review just how well the commercial and private whale watch operators were adhering to the 200 yard no-boat zone and other marine mammal observation guidelines.  According to NMFS (2014) the minimum population estimate for Southern residents is 85 animals.  As I've stated above, this years numbers are down to 78 whales.  


Naked Whale Research is trying to do our part in determining impacts and figuring out how to help this critically endangered marine species.  Not only are killer whales an amazingly intelligent, and stunningly beautiful species to view in their natural habitat, but as an apex (top) predator, they are also perfect bio-indicators of the health of our oceans and coastal resources.  


I've asked both of our volunteers on this project to include their thoughts in some upcoming guest blogger columns. Continue to follow us to find out how you can help wild killer whales.


Until next time..keep watching the waters!


Research in the San Juans

Last year I collaborated on a paper that addressed the question of how large shipping traffic and acoustic output might be impacting endangered Resident (fish-eating) killer whale pods.  See: Rob Williams, Christine Erbe, Erin Ashe, Amber Beerman, Jodi Smith.  2013.  Severity of killer whale behavioral responses to ship noise: A dose–response study, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Available online 24 December 2013, ISSN 0025-326X,

Outbound tanker with J pod in Haro Strait, WA.


In the process we discovered that there was virtually no data for comparison on Southern Residents (J, K and L pods) and all the data used was on the British Columbia population of Northern Resident whales.


Luckily we had our trusty newly donated theodolite surveyors scope from TopCon and a couple of marine science ladies interested in obtaining more field work experience.  So we trekked up to San Juan Island, Washington State, where I lived for 13 years and had previously conducted six field seasons on vessel effects and killer whales for a month long pilot project.  


Our Set up includes a theodolite operator, laptop operator and scan sampler on data sheets.

TopCon theodolite DT-205


Our Volunteers Cené Bryant and Shreya Sanjeev.

Hard at work.


In their own words:


Cené Bryant-I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Humboldt State University in 2013. I am an active Board Member of Naked Whale Research. I have spent the last year volunteering for various projects that have allowed me to gain practical experience in photo identification of gray and killer whales. I have pursued further studies in bioacoustics and am a trained passive acoustic monitor of marine mammals. I am thrilled to be a part of the current field project as it gives me a chance to put my skills to work while learning new skills and making new connections in the marine mammal research field.



Shreya Sanjeev- Killer whales have always captured my fascination and curiosity. When I was a kid, the movie Free Willy acted as a trigger and allured me towards these magnificent animals and their distinguished appearance. The first time I laid eyes on a killer whale (in real) was at Sea World, San Diego. The moment I saw them within the confinements of concrete tanks, I realised they were not meant to be there. I was certain that I wanted a career in the field of marine biology, and I was particularly drawn to studying cetacean behaviour and how this can be applied towards their conservation. This soon led me to complete my Masters in Marine Biology at James Cook University, Australia in 2013. Soon after, I worked as a research assistant on a project in India where, we assessed cetacean diversity and occupancy along the southeast coast of the country.  I am particularly interested in studying cetacean behaviour with respect to anthropogenic activities and how this knowledge can be used to enforce vital steps towards their conservation. 


Our study subject:

J, K and L pods


We've seen a variety of marine species so far; from bald eagles to minke and humpback whales, harbor porpoise and even a little Pacific white-sided dolphin that was following one of the L pod males all up the westside of San Juan Island one day.  

My first day here this little fellow tore into my seaweed snacks!  

Killer whales aren't the only ones here to fish!


We've been collecting data each day, mainly from our land based station, however, we've had several opportunities to get out on friends boats to collect photo-id and acoustic recordings of these pods.  It is likely that we'll have to return next year for more data collection in order to have a more robust sample size for analysis.  

Not a bad office though, I must say.

We've a few more weeks to go, so stay tuned for more..

Whale sightings and whale donors

What an amazing few months it's been!  There's been lots of killer whale activity off the NorCal coast.  People are even seeing animals from the shoreline.  K and L pods were spotted April 28th off southern Humboldt, Co.  Our colleague Jeff Jacobsen with NaWhaRe researcher and board member Cene Bryant, got to go out and collect both photo-ID and acoustic data.  A week ago Friday I followed a report from the Point Arena Cove and spotted three killer whales (1 adult male, 1 adult female/calf pair) two miles southeast of the Mendocino Headlands.  Of course gray whales are still! being seen off the shorelines and the weather has been very condusive to spotting.

K21, photographed April 28, 2014 False Cape, Humboldt, Co.


Last Thursday I gave a presentation at the Gualala Arts Center on the history of killer whales and how public opinion has really evolved from fear and loathing to love and conservation of this magnetic species.  The audience offered lots of great questions, comments and follow-up afterwards.  I really enjoy these chances to answer questions and inform folks on the amazing research we have going on.    


SUPPORT WHALE RESEARCH THROUGH THE ARTS!  This past Memorial weekend Naked Whale Research was able to do some fundraising at Handley Cellars in Philo, CA. Artists from all over the coast donated between 30-100% of the art sells proceeds to the NaWhaRe NorCal hydrophone array project.  We received over $800 in donations kicking off our first fundraising event for this amazing project.  A few pieces that did not sell, are still being offered at discounted prices on our website.  Please visit to inquire


Several weeks ago a fisheries observer sent in a photo of a transient (marine mammal eating) individual CA94 who has only been seen 3X on the California coast and his pod mates have NEVER been photo-identified.  

CA94, AKA "Twisty" photographed off Punta Gorda May 14, 2014


Our 2014 sighting database already has 30 reports since January that spans between Morro Bay and Eureka.  Keep looking out, maybe the next sighting discovery will be your addition.



Yesterday (Jan 18th) we had a sighting report of 6-8 killer whales off the Pt. Arena Lighthouse heading slowly north about 1 mile offshore just after 1PM.  This coming on the heels of a killer whale sighting from the 17th off Gerstle Cove (Salt Pt.) at 11AM.  


It's a great time of year (especially given the clear weather) to get out and spot for killer whales.  You'll likely notice or hear the explosive sound of their "blow" as the animals surface to inhale.  Next you'll see the sleek black dorsal fin (up to six feet in males) rise out slowly and if they lift high enough and the seas are calm you'll see their white patches which are notably along their eyes and chin.


This time last year K pod was cruising between Pt. Reyes and Fort Bragg.  Again NOAA has satellite tagged another Endangered Southern Resident killer whale, however, the animal they tagged, though from L pod, seems to hang out mostly with the J pod.  J pod is our most urban whale family and resides within Puget Sound and Washington State throughout the year, whereas K and L pods move offshore and often head down the coast as far south as Monterey Bay. K and L pods are the two families that Naked Whale Research is most interested in tracking along the coast, in addition to lessor known transient and offshore groups.


My Orca Conservancy colleague, Shari Tarantino and I had the opportunity to head out sailing along the coast from San Francisco to Monterey Bay last week in search of killer whales.  We departed early on Tuesday on the 65ft sailing research vessel "Derek M. Baylis".  The Baylis was specifically designed by the Tom Wylie Design Group as a fast and eco-friendly research vessel for science and education.  The skipper and crew were fantastic and we met a wonderful group of folks from the Topcon Corporation who actually chartered the boat for a day out on Wednesday.  The ship is easy to navigate and maneuver and as we can stay right on the vessel this allows for more time out on the water.  She's also been used by others in our field, notably Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and John Calambokidis of The Cascadia Research Collective; both from Washington State.  


Though we weren't able to encounter any killer whales, we did see six grey whales and a half dozen porpoising (fast travelling) sea lions, some sea otters and many many marine birds.  It was a fantastic trip and we would be eager to sail again with this group.  For more information on how you can charter this beautiful vessel, please check out their website.


Here's some photographic highlights from our trip.  Enjoy!


Yar but my she was yar.  Photo: S. Tarantino

Loitering.  Photo: J. Smith



Cruising with the crew.  Our legendary Skipper "Commodore" Thompkins (pictured right) is 83 years young!

Photo: S. Tarantino


Monterey Bay "locals".  Both photos: S. Tarantino



The runabout that the Commodore scrambled to get us the night before our 4AM departure.  Photo: S. Tarantino


A sailor in a past life perhaps?  Photo: S. Tarantino

A Brand New Year

As we concluded the first year's operations by Naked Whale Research on the Mendocino Coast, we took a look back on all the highlights and people who have welcomed us to the NorCal coast and aided wild killer whale research in the process.


The year started out with a bang in January and February as we tracked the K pod along their winter travel route from Washington State down to Pt. Reyes.  With a vessel assist from the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (Fort Bragg), NaWhaRe was able to get out and collect photo-identification on over half of the members of K pod.  


Thanks to Mitch McFarland, we had our first written introduction to the community in his 'Lighthouse Peddler' article.  Following that we were asked in for informative monthly interviews with Peggy Berryhill on KGUA 88.3.  


The public was welcomed to several presentations throughout the year beginning with the Whale & Jazz Festival at the Gualala Arts Center, the Garcia Grange in Manchester and at St. Orres for the Gualala Rotary club. 


We also began a relationship with the Point Arena Lighthouse and provided information during their "Family Free Fridays" as well as sponsoring and providing refreshments at their golf fundraising tournament and Christmas shopping event.  


Our Killer whale Behavioral ID Guide was completed with eleven original illustrations by wildlife artists Katherine Zecca, which is now available for purchase via our website and in the Pt. Arena Lighthouse gift store.


Thanks in part to a grant from Patagonia (San Francisco) we were able to send out volunteers to collect data on the 100 yard distance guideline for whale watching.  Data collected provided a basis for our tri-fold, waterproof boater brochure to be out in print early 2014.  Local organizations and businesses were invited to provide their logo for a 250 count printing, free of charge.  


We made numerous trips along the coast, speaking with water-goers and putting up posters asking for killer whale sightings to be reported to us.  2013 ended with some great Christmas Eve sightings spotted by several lucky spout spotters in the Sea Ranch area as noted below:


12/24-1030 250 - 300 CA Sea Lions porpoising AWAY from  7 - 10 orcas - including one male with a VERY high dorsal fin, North end of Sea Ranch 

12/24-1200PM 1.5 miles North of Sea Ranch Lodge (PHOTOS FROM THIS ENCOUNTER POSTED TO FACEBOOK)

12/24-1:30-2:30PM Killer whales off Navigators and South end of Sea Ranch 

12/24-2:05PM Killer whales 1.5 miles north of Sail Rock. 

12/24-NO TIME GIVEN, Orcas along the very south end [Sea Ranch] early afternoon and later in Gualala.


Tracking winter habits of J, K and L killer whale pods and investigating lessor known pods along the NorCal coast remains to be our foremost goals for 2014. With your help, we also have projects in the works that will bring people closer into the world of whales, such as our hydrophone array project.  We would like to see a handful of communities sponsor their specific hydrophone "node".  The first could be realized at the Point Arena Lighthouse. To learn more about our project and how you can help bring this to life please check out our website page at:!hydrophone-array/c1kb9



We look forward to this new year of discovery and working with our citizen scientists.  January 2014 has several opportunities for interested parties to get involved and learn more about the killer whales that share our home waters. Coming up first on Saturday January 18th will be a lecture on killer whale acoustics at the Point Arena Lighthouse beginning at 4PM.  Details found here:

Tune into Peggy's Place later on this month and I hope to see some of you at the Soroptimist meeting on January 21st in Anchor Bay.


As always, we appreciate all the support and encouragement for our research.  We could not do this without you!

Happy New Year!


Recent Sightings


We've had a wave of killer whale sightings in the area last week and I'd like to send out word to encourage all citizen scientists and visitors to get out and help us spot spouts while the weather is good. 

Please note that with video or photographs of the dorsal (top) fin and side saddle (grey patch) we are able to identify individual animals.  This data allows us to piece together movement patterns and population dynamics of family pods. Some of these animals may be part of Endangered Washington State L and K pods wintering off California.  If you recall we tracked the K pod down off Little River earlier this year (Jan/Feb).  So send in your photos and encounters and we'll let you know the life history of your spotted animals!


Recent area sightings:

11/25-1030AM 3 killer whales, Lincoln City, OR heading South (100 yards offshore)

11/25-1350PM 3 killer whales, Cape Perpetua, OR heading South

11/25-0745AM 8-10 killer whales, Schooners Gulch (just south of Pt. Arena), CA heading South, (1-200 yards offshore)

11/26-1200PM 8-10 killer whales, Mendocino Headlands, CA heading Southwest (1000-1200 yards offshore)

11/27-1200PM 3 killer whales, Mendocino buoy, CA, heading South


I'd also like to invite any interested parties to participate in helping further Naked Whale Research's scientific endeavors on rare and endangered near-shore killer whales.  As the end of the year takes us into the "giving season" here are several ways one might aide our research:


Donation of Time-

Treasurer/Secretary Officer

Board of Directors Membership

Host a research day cruise (WE HAVE FUNDING FOR FUEL-BUT NO BOAT!)

Help put up sightings posters along the coast

Spread the word and invite us to speak at your next event


Donation of Equipment-

C-Dory or similar type research vessel

Laser Range finder (X2)

Garmin Handheld GPS (X1)

Mustang Survival Suit (X2)


Thank you so much!  


West coast Whales & Dolphins

Greetings all,

We were able to head out of Noyo Harbor early yesterday morning with our biologist colleague Jeff Jacobsen and one of our Board of Directors, Cene Bryant.  Those of you in the area are probably aware of what nice conditions we had on the Pacific yesterday so we were very hopeful of seeing animals.


At 0746 we set out on Jeff's rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) nicknamed "Scarlet" and quickly came across a single blue whale (Balaenoptera musclus) ~7.6 nm offshore.  Blue whales are the largest creatures on the planet (ranging from 88-100 feet long) and quite endangered with the North Pacific population number only ~2-3000 individuals.  This western stock feeds in southwest Alaska and migrates to warmer climes in the winter.  Back in Feb/March of this year on the NOAA trip off the Atlantic was the first time I had seen a blue whale and yesterday was my first for seeing one off the Pacific!



As we were scanning for the blue to resurface I spotted some inverted tail-flukes waving at me 1/2 mile away.  Upon reaching the animal we discovered it to be a humpback whale (Megaptera noveangliea).   There are four global populations of humpbacks and though smaller than blue whales, they are still considerably large ranging as long as 42 feet in length.


Individual humpbacks are identified by the underside patterns and the "scalloping" edge of their tail flukes.  This particular humpback circled our boat and made some close passbys..likely following prey that had congregated beneath us.  

As we worked our way south, we spotted yet another blue whale.  This one seemed to be larger than the first and I guess to be about 85 feet long.  


Working our way back in to shore, we found ourselves surrounded by Pacific White-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens).  These "Lags" were very friendly and began to bow-ride and ride our stern wake.  The water was so smooth that many of my photos were of animals looking up at me from underwater.

Before we knew it there were at least 30 animals swimming in smaller groups around our boat!




Lags are often found in large groups and there have even been reports of thousands of these animals together.  Their small falcate dorsal fin and color pattern make them striking to view however they can sometimes be confused with Dall's porpoise.  


As we kept heading in we discovered another small pod of Lags.  As they neared, we found that there were some odd colored animals mixed in.  These weren't Lags at all, but Northern Right Whale dolphins (Lissodelphis borealis)!  This is a first for me, so you can imagine how excited I was to see these black "finless" animals surface and ride our bow.  


Lissos are very fast swimmers (16-22 mph bursts) and are often found in mixed species aggregations such as when we spotted them.  They are distributed across the North Pacific from Mexico to Alaska and over to Russia and Japan.  There is an estimated population of 21,000 animals off Washington, Oregon and California alone with a total North Pacific estimate of 68,000!


Their scientific name lissos is Greek for "smooth" and borealis for "northern".  


Overall the day and water conditions for sighting species was excellent. We ended up seeing 2 blue whales, 2 humpbacks and many more Pacific white-sided dolphins with 8-10 Northern right whale dolphins mixed in.  We also saw many species of marine birds, California sea lions and what appeared to be a young Northern fur seal lounging on the water.  

We are currently gearing up for some near-shore transient killer whale work this winter, so if you see any killer whale activity please send us your reports and aid our west coast killer whale research. 

Thank you so much to Jeff and Cene for a wonderful time out on the water!!

Until next time,


Jeff Jacobsen, Biologist


Cene Bryant, Naked Whale Research Board of Directors

Jodi Smith, Executive Director Naked Whale Research

All photos this blog (c) NaWhaRe


Leg 3--Final Countdown

Greetings all, 

Well we are now officially counting down with one week to go on our east coast NOAA AMAPPS cetacean survey.  The Gordon Gunter has served us well and I have certainly learned a lot seeing all these species.    

I wanted to share with you some of the more fascinating marine animals we've seen on this leg thus far.


First up is the Rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis).  This is a very different looking dolphin reminiscent of prehistoric marine mammals.  

Stenos are similar in color and size to the bottle-nosed dolphin, however their dorsal fin is pronounced with a triangular shape as they have a very distinct "flat" head.  In fact their scientific name Steno means "narrow" in Greek.


Rough-toothed are pretty social animals and tend to bow ride boats, so we were able to get a good look at them.  What's known of their diet is limited to stranded animals with stomach contents containing various types of fishes.  


Fortunately, populations are healthy and not considered to be threatened by human interaction.


We've also been seeing plenty of Risso's dolphins and bottlenosed and lots and lots of pilot whales.  Recently this week we had an interesting encounter with a large (100+) group of pilot whales.


Pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) is a large dark grey to black dolphin with a distinct bulbous head leading some to nickname the animal "pot-head."  Pilot whales are found nearly world wide and are known for beaching and stranding themselves particularly in the southern hemisphere waters of New Zealand.  Pilot whales feast on squid and small fish and are quite social animals.  Research suggests that their social family structure is most similar to that of Resident fish-eating killer whales.  

Logging or resting pilot whales, typical of what we see out on the Atlantic.


Unfortunately pilot whales have long been hunted in the Faroe Island fishery drives and in other parts of the world including Norway, Iceland and North Atlantic.  On the day we saw these animals we drove past 30 groups of silently resting animals.  The water was very glassy and calm and it was quite the surreal scene to see all these peaceful floating animals.  



Our pilot whale encounter was pretty amazing, just for the shear numbers of animals, however, even more amazing was the finding of hammerhead sharks mixed in!


Though there are 9 different types of hammerheads, the most obvious is noted for it's distinctly shaped head which is flat and extends laterally on both sides giving it a "hammer" shape.  The purposes of this physical evolution is to allow the shark to get a 360 view of both top and bottom at all times and also provides "lift" in maneuverability.  

A. Smooth hammerhead, B. scalloped hammerhead, C. great hammerhead, D. bonnethead. (c) George Burgess


Hammerheads are schooling fish, unlike most sharks, and become solitary predators at night.  As we noted in our observations we saw several large groups of ~10-15 animals at the surface very near both pilot whales and bottlenosed dolphins.  Groups of over 100 animals are common and as noted on our aerial survey upwards of 1000 have been seen congregating and likely hunting large tuna or mahi fish.  


Schooling hammerheads.

To learn more about these and other interesting sharks check out this link:



Well I suppose this will be my last blog update for the east coast, unless we see any other different species in the next few days. I'll be getting back to the Pacific next week and beginning our NorCal killer whale small boat survey, so be sure and look for those field updates as well.  


Thanks for reading!  I'll be in touch.



Leg Two Begins

Oh what a fine time it's been getting back out on the water.  Our boat was down for repairs and it seems like every time we were starting back up to head out a new problem would surface and our departure would be delayed.  Rather than getting out last Monday, we were stuck in repair-land and ended up staying at the NOAA docks four extra days..


Today however the sun is shining and the breeze is calm.  We had several dolphin sightings this morning and I was able to see a large group of Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba).  Wild striped dolphins are a first for me, so I'm rather excited that they decided to come over to our bow and show some incredible acrobatics.  Closely related to the Atlantic Spotted and Common dolphins, the striped dolphin occupies several oceans as well as the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico. These animals subsist on fish, krill, octopus and squid and can dive as deep as 700 meters searching for food!


Though they have been hunted over the years (at least since the 1940's) in Japanese dolphin drives the're population numbers are of "Least Concern" under the IUCN conservation status and not considered threatened or endangered.  


Striped dolphins.  Joao Quaresma photography.


For a short clip of the striped dolphin follow this link here:


Next I spotted a Dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima).  These odd guys are kinda shy so I felt pretty grateful to see one just logging (resting) at the surface.  Though I have seen these whales before, it has often been after they are long dead and stranded.  So I was thrilled to see a live one!  The Dwarf sperm whale is one of the smallest species of whale achieving only ~2.7 meters in length.  Though called a sperm whale (due to it's similar "junk casing" melon, they more resemble a shark with their blunt rostrum (nose) and false gill demarcation line along their jaw.  What is very unique about these animals is that they actually have an ink sack from which it expels a dark substance when it's frightened or threatened.  Except for it's larger dorsal fin, it is often hard to distinguish from it's close relative the Pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps).



So the above illustration is what a Kogia looks like, however the following two photos actually resemble closely what I saw in the field.  




The last species I observed and a rarely seen species is a beaked whale. I'm 80% confident that what I saw was a Cuviers beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) as it had a distinctly short beak, rounded head and was light to tan in color with no scaring.  

There are 21 species of the Ziphiidae type beaked whale and these guys can be quite elusive.  The one I saw surfaced about 6 or 7 times then dove, so I feel rather fortunate to have had that moment to get a good look.  Beaked whales are deep divers (up to 3300 ft!) and therefore very sensitive to military sonar testing.  In fact strandings due to this type of human impact have occurred en masse in military frequented parts of the world.  

Another distinctive characteristic of this species is that the males usually have an erupted tooth that is exposed on either side of it's jaw line.  The animal I saw however, was either a juvenile male or more likely an adult female similar to the animal pictured below.  

Cuvier's beaked whale. Source: Natacha Aguilar, University of La Laguna, taken under permit from the Canary Islands Government.


Though beaked whales often have the same trouble as most marine mammals with pollution, plastic bags, and exposure to human sound sources, this particular species is considered of Least Concern rather than endangered on the IUCN list.  


I wonder how many other species I'll be able to cross off my "Must See" list??  







Back on the water

Well after nearly a week down for steering repairs, we are back on the water!  I can't tell you how all of us were starting to get the "dull-drums" in Norfolk port.  Field biologists, are like wild born animals; we go a bit crazy in captivity and are not too well adjusted at times outside of our "natural" environment.    


After being off the water, unfortunately, a few folks lost their sea legs and were violently ill from seasickness the past few days.  Today however, everyone is in good spirits as the winds have died down and our sunrise was magnificently joined by a pod of bottlenosed dolphins.


The bottlenose is very familiar to most folks, since the 1960's "Flipper" television show aired.  

Tursiops truncatus the bottlenosed dolphin.  Unless otherwise noted all photos Wikipedia.


So overall it was a dolphin-filled day, however we were lucky enough to get some close glimpses of a couple of fin whale as the dolphins we were tracking were often associated or seen following the whales.  


The Fin whale is the second longest animal in the world and has a very sleek or "razerback" shape.  They are baleen whales that feed on small schooling fish, squid, and other crustaceans including krill.  They were largely hunted in the 20th Century and are considered Endangered.

Here's a nice aerial view of a fin whale from Wikipedia.  You can see the sleek design of the animal along with the distinguished white right jaw line.


More typically what is seen of a fin whale; a long back and a small dorsal.


Divided into seven populations and ranges, the North Atlantic fin whale numbers range between 40-51,000 individuals. Off the Pacific, their numbers are considerably lower with a 2005 estimate of only 2500 off Washington-Oregon-California. 


It seems now another squall has come into the area.  The weather really keeps you on your toes out here.  Sometimes we are so focused on scanning the water, that we look up just in time to steer clear of a rainstorm (or drive through it as the case may be.)   Time to batten down the hatches! 


Week One

Welcome to the end of a fantastic start to our NOAA AMAPPS cruise on the Gordon Gunter.  As previously blogged I've switched coasts for a two-month cetacean survey on the Atlantic.  This past week has had some breath-taking views and amazing marine mammal sightings.  We've seen critters from the smallest jellyfish to large adult sperm whales.  

Female and calf sperm whales.  All photos and graphics this blog from Wikipedia.


I must admit that so far seeing the calf sperm whale has been the highlight.  This little ~30ft animal surprised us with a close port (left) side passby as we were scanning the seas.  My colleague could barely get the words out to tell me to get my face out of the big-eyes and look straight down to see the calf looking up and swimming out from underneath our vessel.  

The Sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales growing up to 67feet in length and weighing a mere 63 tons.  One might reference the white whale nemesis in Moby Dick for a visual.  Sperm whales are also the deepest diving whales (up to 9800ft) and we soon noted that the calf was entertaining itself and looking at us strange creatures while waiting for mom to come up for air after her long dive.  The sperm whale head is large, and blunt, and contains a brain roughly 5X the size of the human brain.  It's large head casing also contains a waxy substance called "spermaceti."

The spermaceti found in the "junk case"  focuses the Sperm whales sound production and echolocation.  

The liquid spermaceti was also a prime factor in whalers hunting the animal during the 18th century as it was used as a lamp oil fluid and lubricant.  The ambergris from sperm whales, has also been used as a fixative agent in perfumes. Though I'm not sure how much perfume would sell if folks were told that it had whale vomit (ambergris) in it!  Hunted during the whaling era, the sperm whale species conservation status is considered vulnerable today.  


The Clymene dolphin is another nice find we've had this week.  The Clymene is related to the Spinner dolphin and is endemic to the Atlantic Ocean.  Feeding on small fish and squid, very little is known on this animal and it's numbers are undetermined (all the more reason for us to be out here!)  


I find it interesting that Clymene in Greek and later Roman mythology was an Oceanid, one of the 3000 daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys (also two names of famous marine conservation nonprofits.)  

Take a look at the Clymene's cute little black "mustache", one of it's unique identifying factors.


As the week rolls on the seas have gotten a bit rougher.  One day we had beautiful flat calm conditions and the next we had a lot of white caps on some pretty large rollers.  I'm not sure how long the winds will blow, but I do recall seeing a crewman whistling the other day.  As you may or may not know sailors are a superstitious lot.  There are many "no-no's" on board and whistling in the wind is one of them.  As bad luck would have it, this morning at 3AM the ship lost it's steering so we are currently headed back into port at Norfolk, VA. 

For a laugh or maybe some cautions before your next sea adventure take a look at this list of taboos while at sea:


Until next time, 

Happy Spotting, 


NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

Greetings from the east coast!  I'm back over here working in the Atlantic for my second NOAA project of the year.  This time I'm positioned on the NOAA ship Gordon Gunter.  

The Gordon Gunter was launched in May of 1989 and calls Pascagoula, MI it's home port.  The ship is 224 feet in length and 43 feet wide.  It has a cruising speed of 9.5 knots and can berth up to 35 people, including 15 scientists.


We are out here conducting cetacean surveys on the AMAPPS project, similar to the aerial survey I was on back in February.  Right now there are 14 scientists, part of us conducting visual surveys with "big eye" scopes from the fly bridge and bridge wings while the rest of the biologists listen in with acoustic monitoring using a towed hydrophone array.


We got underway from Norfolk, Virginia this morning and began scanning around 2PM.  The weather was partly sunny, clear, with some haze on the horizon.  We saw some bottlenosed dolphins as we departed the channel and began practicing on the big eyes.  Big eyes are very expensive long-range scopes with a powerful magnification.  There are two scopes on each of the fly bridge and bridge wings for us observers.  We scan for 30 minutes and then rotate.  These scopes have reticle lines in them so we can tell how far and how close animals are from the ship or track line.  They also have directional bearing degrees that we use to orientate to the animals spotted. 



The Gordon Gunter at the NOAA docks, Norfolk, VA



We started off the day seeing bottlenosed dolphins mill and forage, then large numbers of cow-nosed rays.  I've seen these rays before and they still remind me of brown fall leaves floating at the waters surface.  Can you see why they are called "cow-nosed?"




Cownosed ray



However the highlight of today was seeing many leatherback sea turtles.  The leatherback is the largest of all living sea turtles and considered critically endangered.  They are a fast moving marine reptile and one of the deepest divers with individual's recording to have dove 4,200 feet!  The animals we saw today were at the surface and often raised their head up to look our way as we passed.  Dive times are between 3-8  minutes though 30-70 minute dives occur. 


The Atlantic population range as far north as the North Sea and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope.  Feeding on jellyfish (which we also saw today), leatherback sea turtles can live to the ripe ole age of 80. 



The leatherback sea turtle and it's travelling ecosystem.


Well I'm on first watch in the morning, so I'll be headed to bed soon.

Until next time,

Happy spotting!


Recent Sightings

Greetings on this Full Moon weekend!  Our friends from 5Star Charters ( in Gold Beach, Oregon called in a belated killer whale sighting from their halibut fishing trip this past Thursday (6/20/13).  The details from their encounter is as follows:

Date: 6/20/13
Time: 1200PM
Location: 4nm W Gold Beach, OR
Number of Animals: 6-8, females with at least two calves
Behavior/Direction: non-directional milling with percussive surface behavior
Peter Finch of Grants Pass, OR was able to snap off a few photos during the encounter and passed them on to us below.

Juvenile killer whale performing the "cartwheel" behavior.  Photo Credit: Peter Finch


Note the juvenile whale to the right of the photo flipping it's tale stock up and an over.  This behavior is called a "cart-wheel" and is often seen in young whales during their social time such as after an afternoon snack.  Full bellies seems to illicit some very energetic and acrobatic behavior in these animals. 

Three killer whales from a larger pod, travelling off Oregon.  Photo Credit: Peter Finch


Unfortunately we are not able to identify any of the animals in the pictures, though the surfacing whale to the far left looks like an adult female.  We do look for a nice profile shot of the whale as it surfaces, showing it's dorsal (top) fin and saddle patch (grey area) in order to ID known individuals.     
Thank you 5Star Charters for continuing to aid Naked Whale Research's west coast killer whale research!
Now before I sign off, here's a list of some other sighting events from this month:
June 11th- 2 females, Columbia River (9-10AM)
June 12th-2 (male T075A, female T075), Canon Beach, OR
June 13th-2 killer whales (1 male), near I-5 bridge  over Columbia (4PM)
June 14th-1 male near mouth of Columbia (2:20PM)
June 16th-3 or 4 killer whales, 4 miles from Heceta Head Lighthouse (1PM)
June 19th-3 killer whales, Patricks Point
June 20th-2 killer whales, Kibesillah Rock (12mi N Fort Bragg) (1230)

The Passing of Matriarchs

Recently the K and L pod Resident killer whale pods joined up with J pod in their summer foraging habitat off San Juan Islands, Washington State and lower Vancouver Island, Canada.  As the animals return from their winter forays (often as we saw this past January and February coming down to visit California) they are identified and counted by The Center for Whale Research.  CWR has led summer research field censuses of these resident pods for 40 years now and have the most extensive data set on the whales genealogy.  


After a head count this past week CWR announced the missing: "L2 has been missing since late last year, and L26 was last seen looking emaciated in March by Northwest Fisheries Science Center. L26 was not seen June 5 and 6 when most of L pod, including her matriline, were surveyed by CWR. Both post-reproductrive females, L26 was born approximately 1956, and L2 was born about 1960." 


It's an empty feeling when you learn that a wild animal you've worked with and spent time with has passed on.  Back in 1997 I spent 30 days with L26 and her family in Dyes Inlet, WA.  There, 19 members remained "stuck" within this small inlet and though she is not the first to pass on from after this encounter, she is one of the matriarchs from that select group that I fondly recall out of the five mothers and their offspring.  Now with the passing of L26, all but two of the mothers are now dead.  For more on that encounter please see the Kitsap Sun entry HERE.


As we've come to understand, Resident (fish-eating) killer whales are a matriarchal society led by their mother.  Even grown males and females do not disperse, but rather stay with their mother's family pod for their entire lifespan.  Though females stop reproducing at 30-40 years, they can live on into their nineties.  One might ask what is the reasoning behind having such long-lived females around?  Well, there is recent evidence to suggest that having long-lived post-reproductive females or "grandmothers" around has benefits to the population's longevity.  Having mom around affects their offspring's likelihood of death, especially if they are a male over 30 years old.  A son's risk of disappearing can jump to almost 14-fold if they are over 30 and have recently lost their mother (Foster et al. 2012).


In the summer of 1999, I spent a great deal of time tracking the matriarch J10 and her family from a land-based theodolite station.  With my 30X bird's eye view I was able to see how she led her two grown daughters, their offspring and her adult son through the area each morning.  J10 was not what I would call an "affectionate" whale towards her offspring.  In fact when J10's daughter (J20) died suddenly leaving J32, a four year old female calf orphaned, I thought she might step in and help raise her granddaughter.  Instead, J10's adult son, J18, initiated the care-giving behavior and taught J32 how to hunt and fish all summer.  Whenever our research boats wanted a closer look at the health of the youngster, "uncle" J18 would quickly reposition himself between our boat and his ward.  Then on an uncharacteristically calm winters day in Febuary of 2000 I had a rare opportunity to get out and do a head count of J pod.  I remember seeing J18 alone, on the outskirts of the pod.  I scanned and couldn't find J10.  As the pod was very spread out, I didn't think much of it.  As summer rolled around and CWR did their official census, both J10 and J18 were missing.  J18 was only 23.  I often wonder about that last encounter, and how long it was that he hung around after his mom died.  I'm thankful that it appeared he has taught some life lessons (ones that he probably learned from his mother) to J32, as she is alive and well today.


Understanding the social dynamics of such a long-lived and tightly knit species is one of the driving forces behind my research with Naked Whale Research.  I can't help but think that in spending time studying how these marine mammal societies function and live on a daily basis adds so much more depth to my own cultural understanding--alas only time will tell if either society can reap any benefits from this learning experience.  


Happy Spotting,


Ways to Support Research





Macy’s helps local charity raise funds and awareness for important cause


Manchester, CA – (June 01, 2013) - Macy’s will partner with Naked Whale Research to invite customers to participate in Macy’s eighth annual national “Shop For A Cause” charity shopping event on August 24, 2013. Customers can purchase shopping passes from Naked Whale Research now.  Macy’s “Shop For A Cause” is a unique one-day-only shopping event created to support local charities’ fundraising efforts, which has helped raised more than $46 million for charities across the country since 2006.


“Over the past eight years, Macy’s annual ‘Shop For A Cause’ has raised more than $46 million for local and national charities, providing our associates and customers an opportunity to give back to those organizations that touch their hearts each and every day,” said Martine Reardon, Macy’s chief marketing officer.  “Giving back is a key component of Macy’s culture. We are honored to offer our customers an easy and convenient way to make a positive difference in their communities and in the lives of others, while enjoying great savings at Macy’s.”


Macy’s has provided Naked Whale Research with shopping passes to sell for $5 each. Naked Whale Research will keep 100 percent of every shopping pass it sells. The more Naked Whale Research sells, the more money it will raise!


By purchasing a shopping pass from Naked Whale Research customers support dedicated research on rare and endangered killer whales off the Northern California coast while enjoying a day of spectacular discounts, entertainment and special events at Macy’s. Pass holders will receive special discounts on most regular, sale and clearance purchases all day, but some exclusions apply.


“This is a wonderful opportunity to make you shopping dollar go the extra mile.” –Jodi Smith, Executive Director of Naked Whale Research.


For more information about Macy’s “Shop For A Cause,” visit To purchase a shopping pass from Naked Whale Research call (707) 267-8587 or visit their website at

Blue Whale Dig

Bright and early yesterday morning several of us from Naked Whale Research met Sheila Semens of the California Coastal Conservancy in Fort Bragg and made our way over to the secret blue whale dig site.


As you may recall the massive 73ft long blue whale washed ashore south of Fort Bragg on October 19, 2009.  It's dimise was due to a ship strike.  Evidence of the human impact was still obvious in propellor marks cut into the animals skeleton.  Rather than letting the opportunity go to waste, Fort Bragg residents and Humboldt State University coordinators went to work in an effort to preserve the giant beast.     


So what will happen to the skeleton?  The Fort Bragg City Council has decided to use "$20,000 of general fund revenue to move and repurpose a building on the former Georgia-Pacific mill site as part of the Noyo Center for Science and Education. The council also directed staff to continue toward building a structure to house 73 feet of blue whale bones that will be unearthed soon."


 Sure hope they get ready soon!


The following is a photo collage from yesterday's work.  There were two pits and the team successfully got through the smaller pit, working from 9AM-4PM.  We hope to complete this work by Thursday of this week.  


For a larger photo tour, please visit our Picasa online web album found here.


Digging up a blue whale that has been buried for 3.5 years!


Fun Facts About Blue Whales



What’s the biggest animal that ever lived? 
Yes, blue whales are the largest animal that ever lived – larger than the largest dinosaur!

Biggest blue whale ever recorded was ~110 feet (33m). Our whale is pretty big – she’s 73 feet long.
- A blue whale’s tail is as wide as a soccer net (a professional soccer net, not a school one). That’s about 25 ft (8m). 
- A blue whale’s flipper (which is analagous to a human’s hand) is as long as you are tall. 
- Blowhole (which is like your nose, it’s just on top of their head so it’s easy for them to breathe in water).

When they exhale, the blow can reach 30 feet tall (and smells terrible).
- Arteries are about 9 inches in diameter (approx the same diameter as a dinner plate). 
- Heart is as big as a small car (VW beetle for example). 
- Blue whale mouths are huge, too – they can swallow a volume of water larger than themselves.

Their throat stretches down to their navel.

Tongue is the size of an elephant.

- A baby blue whale is about the size of 2 minivans.


What do blue whales eat? Are they vegetarians? Do they eat other whales? Do they eat fish?
The largest animal in the world feeds almost exclusively on one of the smallest – krill (euphasiids).

What are krill?

They are small, shrimplike invertebrates, on average only 1 or 2 centimeters long.

This means that blue whales are about 1250 times larger than their food.

They eat 4 – 6 tons of krill a day (about as much as an elephant, the largest land animal, weighs).

How do they do this?

They are filter feeders. They basically eat what’s stuck between their teeth (actually, keratin bristles called BALEEN). 
They have a giant mouth – extends all the way to their belly button. They also have these big pleats, so their mouth

can expand.  They open their mouth, swallow a volume of water bigger than themselves (imagine swallowing yourself),

then push all the water back out through their baleen (what they have instead of teeth).

The baleen is like a comb, and the krill get stuck inside their mouths – they end up with a big mouthfull of food.  

Swarms of krill can stretch for hundreds of square km of ocean. The swarms of krill aren’t always right at the surface,

and whales will sometimes feed deep beneath the surface. They can dive as deep as 300 m, and can stay down for

30 minutes at a time.

Where do they live?

Whales have huge ranges, and are found in every ocean in the world. There are several distinct populations of blue

whales – northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere, Atlantic and Pacific. They travel thousands of km every year.

They feed in the northern oceans, and build up their fat reserves.

Tell me about the babies!

Moms have one baby at a time, and give birth about every 2 or 3 years. Whales start calving between age 6 and 10.

Babies are 8m long when born, and weigh about 4 tonses, about size of 2 It’s It’s important that the moms have good

fat reserves, because these babies are hungry – they drink 50-100 gallons of milk per day, which is 50-100 jugs of milk.

They grow really rapidly – gain 8 pounds an hour â€“ 200 pounds a day – that’s about a Dad a day! 
Blue whales are thought to live to 100, but we don’t actually know how long they live.


What is a blue whale? What are they most closely related to? Who are their evolutionary cousins?

Answer – Hippo
But that’s a land animal! Whales are mammals that have adapted to a life in the ocean, but their ancestors lived on land.

When did whales return to the ocean – during the early Eocene, about 53 – 54 million years ago.

How can we tell that the ancestors of whales lived on land?

Breathe air (no gills)
Fin bones resemble land mammals’ jointed hands except that whales are missing their middle finger. 
Spine is shaped more like a running terrestrial animal than like a fish – moves up and down rather than side to side
They have tiny pelvic bones â€“ much reduced, and a tiny femur, too (which is just a tiny little ball).  Lots of individual

variation in whales for the number of metacarpals, non-cervical vertebrae. That means that when we were digging up

the whale, we didn’t know exactly how many bones we were looking for. 
Circulatory and respiratory systems are similar Their lungs are adapted for diving – trachea extends all the way to the

center of their lungs – our cartilaginous windpipe only extends as far as the branching. 
All whales have multi-chambered stomachs, inherited from their ungulate ancestors, but of no use in the ocean,

including blue whales. Baleen whale stomachs have 3 chambers – forestomach (often contains rocks, to help the

muscular walls grind up fish bones and crustacean exoskeletons), main stomach, and pyloric stomach. 
Whales need to sleep – but they only put one side of their brain to sleep at a time, like birds do 

Population, Conservation, Distribution

Where are blue whales found? How many are there?

They are found in every ocean of the world, and there used to be hundreds of thousands of them.

People have been hunting whales for their oil, blubber, baleen, and meat since prehistory.

Blue whales were quick enough to outrun most whalers until about 1868, when the steam engine, explosive harpoons,

and air compressors (what were they used for? To inflate dead whales, so they could tow them back to port to be

‘rendered’) were introduced. 

What did people use whale products for?

The blubber was rendered for use in lighting, fine soapmaking, and machine lubrication. "Whalebone",

the keratin plates baleen whales use to strain food out of the ocean, was prized for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and

carriage springs; applications where plastic or steel would now be used.
Blue whales were hunted in great numbers from then on, reducing their numbers from 350,000 to 1 or 2 thousand. 
In 1966, the International Whaling Commission banned hunting of blue whales, and today their numbers are

estimated at 4,500.

Blue whales are on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.
Today, scientists estimate there are about 4500 blue whales left on the planet, so their numbers are increasing slowly.




HI All, 

The latest in killer whale sightings show small groups (3-4 animals) off Trinidad (5/6/13), and off lower Oregon recently.  These are likely transients and in some cases observers are seeing attacks on migrating grey whales and their calves!  We've also received some great ID photos from observers and I feel fairly confident in saying that some of these whales may indeed be ones we've seen off the Sea Ranch, Schooner Gulch areas.  


I'm also excited to report that Naked Whale Research has just been okay'd to receive funding from SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for transient photo-id work this year.  So now more than ever real-time sightings information will be very helpful to us.  

Lastly, I'll be giving a presentation this evening on the background of NaWhaRe and a brief overview of the whale ecotypes that we study here.  This is a free event at the Manchester Garcia Grange at 6:30PM.  This will be followed by the regular monthly board meeting of the Grange.  I hope to see some, if not all of you there!


Recent sightings


We've had several reports this past week from the Oregon areas of Lincoln and Gold Beach.  This time of year the grey whales with their calves will be near shore, utilizing the shallow coves to rest with their offspring on their long journey back up to Alaska.  As you may know grey whale calves are also high up on the prey list for transient (mammal eating) killer whales.  
Additionally yesterday morning we received a report off California.  At 6PM on May 6th, three killer whales were spotted 20 miles North of Eureka, two miles off the coastline.  They were seen heading towards Trinidad Head and the spotter was able to snap some photos of them. I  could clearly sex an adult male and adult female with a small calf.  They actually resembled the three animals I saw earlier this year off the Schooner Gulch pullout area at around 5PM.  
I suspect we have several local transient groups that travel between Sea Ranch and the southern portion of Oregon.  I really need folks to try and get photos for us in order to match up these individuals to known catalogs, or help us make a completely new discovery!  
Now that the fog has lifted--Happy Spotting!

Sun, Fog, Whale work

Hello all, 


Can you believe it's been upwards of 80 degrees here on the Mendocino coast?  Now that the winds have died down a bit, the fog has rolled in.  That's field work for you; logistics, animals and weather--three things that I usually have zero control over.    LOL


Recently I've been working on pulling together volunteers for our May project: Federal Marine Mammal Guidelines and Boater Survey. Our lead Krista Smith (no relation) is ready to hit the ground running and I am so very thankful that she has stepped up to take this on!   If you're out at the Cove or at various marine areas for the month of May I hope you'll volunteer to be part of our project on assessing the publics knowledge of marine mammal viewing guidelines.  The process is very easy.  One of our groovy volunteers will approach you and kindly ask for a few moments of your time to answer 13 questions.  The outcome will be of course a slick waterproof tri-fold brochure that boaters can take with them in order to reference what to do when they come across the various pods in the area.  I'm hoping Katherine Zecca who is illustrating our Killer Whale Behavior ID Guide will also complete the artwork for our brochure.    


I've also been putting together a killer whale PowerPoint presentation for the Whale & Jazz Festival at the Gualala Arts Center next week.  Unfortunately this is closed to the public and just for the kiddos from local schools.  However, on May 21st I'll give a public presentation at the Garcia Grange in Manchester before the regular grange meeting.  Stay tuned for that!


For now there are no whale sightings to report, so I shall leave you with my interview for Peggy Berryhill at KGUA.



Wind, Waves, and Whales!

Yesterday at 9:40AM our friend Mike from Sea Ranch called in to report seeing 5 to 7 killer whales ~250 yards off the beach.  They were slowly heading NW.  I headed out and arrived at the pullout near Schooner's Gulch at 10:12AM and scanned for two hours.  The waves were 9ft every 9 seconds when I arrived but the winds picked up to 20-30 knots by 11:30 AM and increased the white caps.  My visibility also became increasingly awful as the sun glared down from above closing my ability to see blows further than 300 yards.  


We also had a report from further north yesterday at 11AM of 4 or more killer whales off the Westport-Union Landing State Beach.  I guess the park ranger had seen killer whales there two weeks ago as well.  I'm wondering if this isn't the same animals that were seen 4 miles offshore Noyo Harbor on April 6th?


I'm hoping for some calmer seas here soon as the Grey whales begin their northern migration with calves and pinniped (seal and sea lions) venture nearshore for their pupping season.  Maybe all this Spring activitiy will bring in more transients!




Good to be Back!

Well I've taken a week or so to get caught up from my six weeks away working for NOAA on the East coast.  The variety of species that I was fortunate enough to see really fueled me up for our summer research here on the Pacific coast.  

On to the updates!  

K25's satellite tag transmitter battery has finally seem to run down and the last location report we have was from April 2nd.  Here's NOAA's report: 


Since the morning of 28 March when K25 was near the Point Grenville area the whales moved north to the head of the Quinault Canyon. By 29 March the whales had turned south and were on the continental shelf break to the west of Gray's Harbor. The whales continued south and were southwest of the Astoria Canyon on 30 March. The whales then traveled to the east near the entrance of the Columbia River and by 31 March they were near the entrance of Grays Harbor. The whales again turned south and were in the Astoria Canyon on 1 April. The whales then turned east and then north traveling just offshore of the entrance to the Columbia River and were just northwest of Cape Disappointment on the morning of 2 April.


K25 and family final location transmission on April 2nd near Cape Disappointment.  


Since being back I've had a chance to give a radio interview on our GIS Killer Whale Mapping project on Easter for Radio New Zealand.  Here's a link to that:


This past weekend (Saturday the 6th) we had a report of 8 killer whales ~4 miles off Noyo Harbor.  It appears that the whales were splashing about and non-directional milling, so likely foraging on something (along with the fishermen that saw them).


Right now we are gearing up for our summer project surveying boaters and officials on the federal 100 yard distance guideline in preparation to create our tri-fold brochure handout.  Though this isn't whale research, it is part of Naked Whale Research's conservation and education mission on the threats to killer whales along the west coast.  If you would like to help out on this endeavour please contact me at or 707-267-8587.  


Lastly, I'm in the middle of preparation for my April 30th presentation for the Gualala Whale & Jazz festival at the Arts Center.  This is a kids only show, but I do hope to get out and start making some presentations in other communities as well (whale).  :D  



WA Coast Hotspot

Hi all, I just wanted to update folks on several satellite tagged killer whale hits recently.  In addition to tagging K25, NOAA was able to lauch their vessel and tag another young Southern Resident male killer whale (L88) when both K and L pods were spotted travelling together.  However no information has been received from L88 after March 10th and the tag has likely dislodged itself from the whale due to poor placement.  


K25's tag is still transmitting and here is a recent map shot of his data:


As you can see K25 and likely family are still working the offshore Washington coastline.  


We've also had an update with the two 'Offshore' type killer whales tagged by Cascadia Research Collective.  These whales were tagged January 5th this year off Southern California and first detected acoustically via a hydrophone array (much like I'd like to see off our area).  The two animals crossed offshore of the K pod as K25 and family were nearshore in Mendocino County waters.  The whales were resighted again after their travels up into the Queen Charlotte Islands within Canadian waters and ID'd as males O215 and O358.


Though O215 and O358 are not travelling together all of the time, they are still working the same territories.  It's likely that some winter run is pulling enough food in to keep several ecotypes if not all three working the coastal areas.  

NOAA-East Coast

So four and 1/2 weeks into my aerial survey adventure and I've already seen a number of species that I've never encountered before.  So far we've seen baleen and roqual whales such as Fin, Humpback, Right and Minke whales.  We've seen toothed dolphins such as Rissos and Roughtoothed.  Some on our team have even seen a few varieties of turtle and shark.  The highlight for me has been seeing a blue whale (the largest animal on the planet!) 

The weather has been fairly good, although some gusty days have kept us grounded, we seem to be making headway on our track lines and moving further south.  We've relocated several times now from New Jersey to Virginia, and now we are newly arrived in North Carolina.  Our crew and pilots have seen new members come and go, but we are all still enjoying the work.    

I am still waiting to see killer whales over here, but I won't hold my breath on that!  :)

Happy spout spotting!




K and L pods cont..

According to NOAA, the tag on L88 stopped transmitting this weekend- NWFSC had a good look at L88 on Saturday and the tag had changed position slightly and unlike K25's tag which has stayed on since late December, has likely fallen out early. In the past eight days the team were able to collect thousands of ID photos, 23 prey samples, and 21 fecal samples from K and L-pods.


K and L pod off OR


Update from Brad Hanson (NMFS): A Northwest Fisheries Science Center cruise has intercepted K-pod off southern Oregon, after leaving Newport yesterday late afternoon. Along with K-pod they found most of L-pod, and were able to photo-identify most of the whales.  They also deployed a satellite tag on L88 to track movements of L-pod. They are going to stay with the whales to try to continue to collect fecal and prey samples and get a better idea of what they are doing on the outer coast. Earlier this evening both Ks and Ls were north of Coos Bay, Oregon, heading north. The map shows movements of both K25 (since about 6 AM this morning) and L88.


Here's an animation of K25's movements last month.  



K25 returns north (again)

It looks like K pod retraced their January pattern this past week and traveled down to Pt. Reyes, then turned around and headed north again.  Yesterday they were south of Shelter Bay.  I didn't hear of any sightings or photos being taken off of our local area.  




As you can see they actually made it out further offshore from the Pt. Arena Lighthouse.  


There are of course other pods being sighted in our local waters.  Recently Tom Reid emailed me and sent in his photos of the large pod that went by on Jan 21st this year.  Some of us caught them near Fish Rocks in the afternoon heading south, and Naked Whale Research had them nearly 4 miles offshore Gualala around 3:45PM.  The early reports from a local Pt. Arena crabber were of a pod of about 50 animals heading south.  Tom has given us permission to share his photos and encounter with this mystery group for our blog:  


"On the late morning of Jan 21 the Pier Attendant  Jason Ives came over to my usual area in the cove parking lot to let me know that there was something unique going on a mile or two off the pier... a crazy group of (?) making their way SOUTH... after I got them locked in using my Canon 12X36 IS II binocs, I figured that if I went down to Saunders Reef I could maybe get a better shot @ them...   well, they never showed up @ Saunders... on a hunch, heading back to Point A  I stopped  @ Whisky Shoals bluffs and looked out... yup, there they were, but going NORTH, looking for food, I suppose.
Anyway I took about 10 - 15 shots using my Canon 5D Mk II ,   using a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens w/  a 1.4X II Extender    tripod mounted, shooting RAW files...   that's just about the reach I have w/ my equipment, and I'm telling you what I was using so you could get an Idea what I am capable of, distance wise...
They must have passed by the Arena Buoy going south @ approx. 1 - 2PM, then sighted going north off Whisky Shoals @ approx. 3PM when these photos were taken. "



I am unable to make any positive IDs off these photos, however I've counted about 24 individual animals which is the average size of our Resident fish eating pods (like K and L) from Washington State.  Soon after this report there was a large pod of Offshore type killer whales of of Southern California.  As a researcher this type of information just fuels the desire and curiosity to want to know more about who is in our area.  Big thanks to Tom for sharing his encounter and photos.  Up until now, all we had of this group were "blows" on the horizon.  

K pod

Yesterdays morning report had K25 heading back north, having passed us by.  Once again they went down to Pt. Reyes and turned back north around 9:30AM.  Last time they did this it was Jan 11 and it took them less than two days to get back up.  In fact on the morning of the 13th at 0709 they were directly off our Irish Beach location.  




Like two ships passing

Yesterday's K25 tag location had them just south of Shelter Cove at 10AM.  Our researcher friend from Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State has been passing on NOAA's information on K25's satellite tag location data and had the following update today regarding another tagged whale, this time an "offshore" type: The tagged offshore killer whale and K25, a southern resident killer whale tagged by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in December, passed each other probably by less than 10 kilometers yesterday. This map shows the offshore killer whale transiting from offshore in the south to offshore in the north and K25 passing from north to south inshore. Although their tracklines overlap just south of Cape Mendocino, California, a comparison of the timing of the tracks suggest they were not in the exact same area at the same time.


Unconfirmed sightings

K25 Tag location from February 12 showed the whales traveling between Crescent City and Eureka, CA, likely foraging off Mad River.


K25, Eureka, California


Previously: I may be updating this later mind you, but wanted to write this while I had the report still fresh in my mind.  Our friend Mike of SeaRanch has been watching grey whales most of the day but about a half hour ago at 0945 saw 5-7 blows ~1 mile SW of SeaRanch.  He's pretty sure that these are two large to be a lessor dolphin species, so that leaves our beloved killer whales.  Hope some of you can get out today before the winds kick up and spot some large black dorsal fins!  




K pod visit take 2?

So yesterday, as I was flying into LAX for the beginning of my six week long NOAA contract, our Washington State colleague, Ken Balcomb phoned me.  He had a morning tag hit on K25 north of Cape Mendocino heading south fast.  Go figure.  In 2011, L pod was also travelling our coastline and were spotted of both Monterey and San Francisco Bays during Febuary 9th and 10th.  I'm wondering if K pod picked up their L relatives off the southern Vancover Island and marched back our way?  I put the word out as soon as I got it, however, I've yet to hear any updates.  I encourage everyone to venture out and see what you see this week.  I would hit up the known salmon run spots.  My guess is they were waiting for the winter Chinook.  And if you miss them this time, you know they have to come back north eventually!  


Happy spotting!

Coast to Coast

Though being an independent whale researcher has it's ups and downs with finding steady contract work and the endless (and tedious) application for grants, it does allow me to travel and investigate species that I normally wouldn't be able to see here off the Mendocino coast.  


This weekend I will once again fly to the east coast to commence a six week long project with NOAA-the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  We'll be flying 600 feet above the coastline conducting aerial surveys for cetaceans (whales and dolphins).  I'm pretty excited by this opportunity since I've always wanted to participate in aerial surveys.  We'll begin off New Jersey and work our way down to the Florida Keys in a DeHavilland Twin Otter airplane with two pilots and six scientists.  



NOAA Twin Otter


"In support of NOAA or NOAA-related missions, this platform has conducted low-level slow speed aerial surveys of marine mammals, aerial video surveys of coastal erosion, various remote sensing missions, atmospheric air chemistry sampling, and atmospheric eddy flux and concentration gradient assessments."

And you thought they were just for sightseeing!

As we'll be staying in coastal hotels along the way, I hope to still have internet connection.  I hope too that folks still keep their eyes open on this coast.  Our most recent update with K25 has the pod once again off the Oregon coast working their way south from the Columbia River. 



There's also been some action with Offshores off the Dana Point, CA area.  I'm beginning to wonder if that wasn't the same large group that came through here?  Maybe NaWhaRe should think about aerial surveys on this coast!

Until next time, 

Happy spotting!

Passing time

In order to extend the life of K25's satellite tag, NOAA has preprogrammed his tag to only report on certain days at certain times.  This past Thursday's report had K pod heading south along the outer Oregon coast and were 50km north of Newport.  



There was also a report of at least a subpod of L's making their way around Naniamo, British Columbia this week.  Now remember these are only the Southern Resident pods sightings, there are still plenty of transient and offshore killer whales to be discovered frequenting our coastlines.  


So what do researchers do while waiting for whale updates?  We write grants.  To me grantwriting is like taking sour medicine; I know it's good for me, I just don't like doing it!  Having said that, our grant writing paid off as this week we were notified as being a 2013 Patagonia San Francisco grant recipient.  Thank you PSF!  This $1000 will go directly towards our Boater Education project and help us create waterproof, trifold brochures educating whale watchers on the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the 100 yard distance guideline for safely viewing rare and endangered marine mammals.   If you are interested in learning about our different projects, please go to our website ( and click on our "Projects" tab.    


January was a good month for us in so many ways.  Three donations came in from the Elk Grove, CA area and we also received a $50 contribution check from a local Sea Ranch community member.  The generosity and support from the Mendocino/Sonoma areas is greatly appreciated.  If you would like to make an online tax deductible charitable contribution to us, please find the PayPal and Network for Good details listed on our website under our "Donate" tab.  Additionally you may make out a check to Naked Whale Research and post it to our local address at 14880 Navarro Way, Manchester, CA 95459.  

There are also several other options for folks to continue to help us raise funds for our research and education programs.  One of my favorites is daily searching using or even shopping online through one of the many stores on  Each search donates one cent to NaWhaRe and a percentage of your purchases bought through GoodShop will also benefit us.  This doesn't even cost you anything extra!    


Yes January 2013 was wonderful for Naked Whale Research: seeing K pod, meeting new friends and establishing a home base for our research center, really kick started the New Year.  Can't wait to keep riding this wave!

Petition to Del!st Southern Residents

On August 2, 2012, NOAA received a petition to delist the Southern Resident killer whales under the Endangered Species Act.  SRKWs were listed as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) under the ESA in 2005.  They've had their five year review in 2010 and have not met all the criteria for delisting.  In the past year the population numbers have dropped from 89 to 83 animals.  As you know, two of the pods are reported to visit the California coasts during winter to forage on spawning Chinook salmon.  Recent news has been centered on a petition by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of California farmers to remove the killer whales from the ESA in an effort to loosen water restictions imposed on farmers due to the need for Chinook salmon, which these whales (in addition to humans and other endangered marine birds and mammals) prey upon.  Here is some back ground from NOAA and Naked Whale Research's official comment on the petition.  

If you would like to add your comment please follow the link here and do so by 9PM tonight!!submitComment;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0241-0001


Here is the actual petition and NOAAs PR blurb on the process:

Nov. 26, 2012


Contact: Brian Gorman, 206-526-6613

NOAA Fisheries Begins ESA Status Review on Puget Sound Killer Whales

Action results from California petition to delist

NOAA Fisheries will begin a review of the status of a population of killer whales that is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. This review is prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation to remove existing protection for these whales.

NOAA said the petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues such as how closely related this small population is to other populations, and meets the agency's standard for accepting a petition to review.

During the status review, the agency will seek public input and gather all relevant information to determine if NOAA should propose to remove this distinct population of killer whales from the federal species-protection list. The agency cautioned that acceptance of this petition does not suggest that a proposal to delist will follow.

These fish-eating marine mammals, sometimes called orcas and officially known as Southern Resident killer whales, were listed as endangered in 2005, when there were 89 of them in the population.

Southern Resident killer whales spend time in Washington's Puget Sound and nearby waters. They generally leave for the open ocean in the winter. Scientists say that there are now 86 killer whales in the population. The petition asserts that the Southern Resident killer whales are actually part of a much larger population and are, therefore, not in danger of extinction.

NOAA Fisheries has a year from receiving the petition to make a decision on whether delisting is warranted. Any formal proposal to delist would be followed by a public comment and public hearings before a final decision about official listing could be made.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed its petition in August 2012, on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and two California farms, Empresas Del Bosque and Coburn Ranch.



Recent genome studies including the highly parallel sequencing system (Morin et al. 2010) have allowed researchers to map the entire mitochondria genome for killer whales worldwide.  What they are finding is that killer whale genetic make up is slow to change over time, which makes it difficult to detect differentiation, though it happens nonetheless.  

In addition to likely genetic isolation as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS), forty years of research on Southern Resident killer whales (like other Northern Hemisphere populations) have been found to be a distinct group based on social organisation, dietary preference, and behavior.  In particular is the scientific data regarding dietary specialization in which Resident type killer whales prey only on fish, in this case salmonids.  Recent evidence from a review of Southern Hemisphere killer whale populations are likely to conclude the distinct nature of their groups as well (de Bruyn et al 2013).  
Though the petition singles out Southern Resident killer whales, there are of course other endangered marine bird and  mammal species that also prey upon California spawning salmon.  These populations far outnumber the 83 individual whales that currently make up the Southern Residents, are not as long lived (some Southern Residents are approximated to live into their eighties and nineties), nor as well known and followed by coastal observers and researchers.  This petition is clearly not based on the weight of evidence for Southern Residents being a DPS and is attacking a well known megafauna that is "eye-catching" for media based politics and platforming.
Delisting the Southern Resident killer whales will not help reduce the water restrictions for California farmers, but it will remove a valuable umbrella species from Federal protection and in doing so harm all coastal populations way of life in both intrinsic value and relevant biological data collected on shared resources by both whales and humans.
Jodi Smith, Executive Director 
Naked Whale Research

On Standby

This week's update on Southern Resident killer whale K25 shows that the pod dipped back into Washington State waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  However, they are not normally seen around the San Juan Islands or Puget Sound until spring and early summer which coincides with returning spawning Fraser River salmon.  And so yesterdays satellite tag update shows the pod heading back south along the outer Washington Coast.  My guess is that they'll head back down to the Columbia River to forage on salmon there.  


Tagged K25's movements over the past 24 hours.


Now that we have a brief moment between encounters I thought I would add a few helpful tips and photos on what to look for in order to distinguish killer whales from other marine mammals.  The killer whale has a short, quick spout that is bushier than a grey whales or other larger baleen whales found along the coast.  The grey whale blows are much taller and sometimes have a heart shape to them upon initial expulsion.  The resident fishing eating killer whale pods are also going to be travelling in larger groups and possibly closer to the shoreline, so if you happen to hear them blow, the sound is often likened to a gunshot or rifle explosion.  

Killer whales also have a tall black dorsal (back) fin which no other whale carries.  Their fins often glint in the sunlight, even from far away.  If closer to shore, you will no doubt see their white eye patch and colorations as they lift themselves higher out of the water.  





Stefan Jacobs photos of distant killer whales and their blows.  What you will likely see here.


In order to ID the animals we really need photos or video of the dorsal fin and grey area beneath it called the "saddle patch".  This allows us to cross reference images with known photos from our database taken of the individuals.  From a single photo we can sex and approximate age of the animal.  We can tell what type of killer whale it is (resident, transient, or offshore), and of course tell who it is, as all known whales are given an alpha-numerical ID.  With a yearly annual photo-ID census we can establish social structure of the pod (family), as well as mortality (death) and fecundity (birth) rates of endangered killer whale populations.  In addition to photographic research, video and observation allows us to conduct prey studies and behavioral biology of animals too.  If  we are fortunate enough to follow animals in a research vessel we can also drop an underwater microphone or "hydrophone" and listen in on their communications.  All pods have a distinct dialect or language and this can also help us ID the group to species level.  Our whale research is much more detailed and in-depth than merely "whale watching" but it all begins with a single spout spotter--and that spotter could be you!  


Whale Crossing!

After a few days of quiet we had an early call from the Pt. Arena Harbor Master hearing some crab and fishing vessel chatter on the VHF of a large pod of killer whales.  Around 9AM a confirmed report of two adult killer whales were spotted around 2 miles west of the Lighthouse.


At noon, I was in Gualala and received a call from our colleague Ken Balcomb reporting second hand of a large pod of 30-50 killer whales between 1/4 to a 1/2 mile off Pt. Arena and south bound.  Naked Whale Research quickly went into action calling and emailing our local networked "phone tree" for landbased observers and photographers to be on the lookout.  


We had the good fortune to run into Sus and Harmony from the Arts Center who introduced us to some wonderful waterfront folks that were kind enough to allow us to use there back deck for our make shift field site.  Another friend, Nancy, brought her high powered spotting scope and soon we saw what looked like grey whales being attacked by killer whales.  There were fierce blows, splashing, tails in the air and a tight group of greys.  I thought I saw two different killer whale dorsals and was hopeful of witnessing a predation event, however the animals were too far away to confirm this.  We did not see any more dorsals and after 20 minutes or so the grey whales continued on their way with a lot less disturbance to be seen.


With thanks from Jeanne Jackson's sighting network we had reports coming in from Fish Rocks around 2:45 and 3:00PM.  We ended up staying in the Gualala area and spotted the large group of blows 3-4 miles offshore. The animals had kicked up their speed as well to about 7 knots.  This pod seemed to be headed SW and we left the vista point at 4PM.  No IDs were made due to our landlocked position.  I couldn't confirm the number of animals, but it was a large group of between 10-20 individuals.


I do believe now is a good time for NaWhaRe to have a boat!



Spotting whales

Our update today has K pod near the Oregon boarder.  My initial thought as I saw them pass by this weekend was that not all 19 animals were there. My colleague seeing them today seems to feel that the entire pod is now together.  SO, who are these animals hanging out down here?  5-7 animals seems like a transient killer whale group. 


Transient killer whales off California.  Note the sharp dorsal fin and solid grey "saddle patch". Photo by Stefan Jacobs.  


The Resident with it's rounded dorsal fin is what K pod are.  The Transient whale with it's sharply pointed dorsal are likely to be seen in this area in smaller numbers.  Residents are primarily fish eaters and Transients hunt larger marine mammals.



We had a couple of reports yesterday late afternoon of killer whales off the Pt. Arena Lighthouse.  At the same time we had a call in of a pod 3 miles off the Anchor Bay area.  We scanned until sunset, but alas no fins!  With all the grey whale blows heading by, I do want to stress that folks really take note of the size and color of the animal they are seeing.  


You can tell killer whales mainly by the tall, black dorsal fin and the white, oval eye patches.  I have seen a few grey whale calves fluke up (lifting their tail high up as they dive) and I know this can look like some sort of fin, so be aware.  The other indicator is the size and height of the blow.  From afar these grey whale plumes are very tall and can have a heart shape to them when they first exhale.  Killer whale plumes are going to be shorter and bushier.  


Additionally we saw upwards of 20 harbor porpoise out from Irish Beach yesterday, so there must be some food in the area.  Harbor porpoise are dark in color and have a short triangular fin.  These will be much smaller than their killer whale cousins.  


Watch this video  on surfacing Harbor Porpoise then watch our video of K pod below.  


Can you tell the difference?


Southern Resident K pod off Mendocino coast January 10, 2013








More Sightings Today and Q&A

We've had lots of reports coming in today, beginning with a satellite tag hit of K25 and family in our area off Irish Beach around 7AM.  Unfortunately that report was too late for us, so we decided to keep scanning and eventually headed north up the coastline in hopes of catching up with them.


We caught up to the whales (presumably K pod) just before noon at Mendocino Headlands.   Animals were grouped up tight and travelling about 3-4knots northbound.  After snapping a few distant photos, we raced on ahead to Pt. Cabrillo where we once again caught up to them.  They seemed to have moved to about 1/2 mile offshore, still tightly grouped up and northbound.  We watched them pass and left the area at 1230.


In the meantime a call came in of an earlier sighting off of Sea Ranch at 1130 of 5-7 killer whales heading north fast.  At noon, we also had a report of a large group of whales heading south from Rockport.  


We drove on up to the next lookout point at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg.  After nearly two hours I caught sight of a single male dorsal fin very far offshore heading NW at 1400 (2PM).  In addition, T. Shumaker Tweeted us a sighting of 7 killer whales SW of Pine Beach at 1230 and one directly W at 1PM.  

A late report came in by K. Smith of killer whales off Saunders Reef at 4:45PM they seemed to be non-directional.

This is the last I've heard on sightings for today.  

I'd like to thank all those who have been sending in reports and getting the word out.  I've had some questions regarding terminology and I'd like to answer those now.  


In terms of what to call K pod, I personally use the term "killer whale" as opposed to "orca".  I also use "whales" a lot, which can be confusing considering the grey whale migration and the number of baleen whales that are in the area.  To clarify, the killer whale is the largest of the dolphin family.  I use killer whale which harkens the days of old when Basque whalers used to go out hunting baleen whales with the "killer of whale."  Orca, is latin for "a type of whale".  See the article in this month's Lighthouse Peddler for more on this story found here:


To me orca is a bit generic.  I do understand the p.c. reasons for using it and I respect people who choose to use that term.  These are true top marine predators and I feel that using killer whale moves away from the seaquarium "sea panda" icon that we see so much and more towards the wild animals that I study.  


Now as for using whale, all dolphins and porpoise are considered whales, but not all whales are dolphins.  Confused yet?  They fall under the order of mammals called Cetacea (which is why I prefer to be called a Cetologist and not Marine Biologist.)  The order is divided into sub-order Mysticeti (baleen whales) and Odontoceti (toothed whales).  The later includes ten families, one of which is Delphinidae, under which Orcinus orca, or killer whale falls into.

In terms of what the whales are doing down here.  It would appear that in nearly 40 years of research, K and L pod have been confirmed off California around 15 times.  The last time was in Feb. 2011 off both Monterey and San Francisco, as they headed back north.  This type of killer whale are specialized fish eaters, primarily salmon spp.  They are not migrating to calving grounds like the grey whales, they are following sources of prey, i.e. fish.  We do not know exactly how often or what their pattern of movement is down here, but again that is the whole point of Naked Whale Research's existence: to discover answers to these questions.  This is the first time K or L pods have been satellite tagged and so that's given us a heads up to their whereabouts, but really it's land-based spotters that are and will be the biggest aide to our research.  So anything I can do to help get the word out and answer questions to inform locals that these magnificent animals are indeed in their backyard is priority one.  We do see them return to their summer territory around each June/July, but between December and that time, where do they go?, and what do they feed on, who are they mixing with? In addition to tackling these questions, we (NaWhaRe) also would like to investigate these mystery whale sightings that seem to pop up year round off the Mendocino coast.  


Please tune into KGUA tomorrow morning at 9AM, as I will be on the air with Peggy Berryhill answering more questions on this past weeks sightings.     

Mystery whales abound

Seeing fins everywhere today!

This morning has K pod heading back north from Bodega Head to Jenner.  It would appear that the animals made it down to Point Reyes and then turned back around.  

As well, we've had two reports; the first at 0930, of killer whales 2-3 miles off the Pt. Arena Cove buoy and then a second report of more fins a bit south of Pt. Arena at 10AM.  Could these be last weeks Sea Ranch mystery whales?  

IS this L pod?  Or are they another exotic group of transients or offshore killer whales?  

WE are in need of photos to confirm and hopefully in the next few days, with the weather getting nicer someone will send us a clue!

Keep looking out there!


K pod arrives!

Yesterday Naked Whale Reseach finally caught up to the K pod off the Mendocino coast.  As you may know, 21 year old adult male K25 has been fixed with a satellite tag.  This found the Endangered Southern Resident pod to be leaving their Washington state (or resident) waters and making it's way down the Oregon coast towards California over the past week.    

The limited view of killer whales as they passed by.  Pretty hard to get saddle patch ID photos in water this rough.  


Once we found that K's had entered Californian waters, NaWhaRe went into action notifying all the land based connections we've made over the past several months.  According to tag data, K pod was travelling about 100 miles each 24 hours and seemed to be going pretty slowly averaging 3-4 knots.  

Working with the Fort Bragg California Department of Fish & Wildlife (formerly Dept. of Fish & Game), NaWhaRe organized to get out on the water with Lt. Dennis McKiver in order to collect photo-IDs.  Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research relayed sighting information to us from land as the whales passed off Noyo Harbor. 

Lt. Dennis McKiver of Fort Bragg DFG.  


The seas were rough with high 11-15ft swells and a white water chop building by the hour which made it very difficult to spot any whales.  The last of the satellite information came in at 1045, but was of no use to us at that point.  We decided to head further south towards Albion and Littler River areas.  Ken was driving along the shoreline hoping to help us out and if anyone followed our Twitter posts we were eagerly awaiting some real-time data to point us in the right direction.  

19 year old K26 was one of the male killer whales we spotted yesterday.


Finally making it to Littler River where Ken had met up with a west side homeowner and friend, they steered us in from our original position of 3 miles offshore to the 1 mile where K pod had bunched up and were travelling in tight family groups.  We had a few quick pass-bys to take photos and identified 12 individual animals from the normal 20 animals that comprises the pod.  

Satellite tagged K25 is only the second Endangered Southern Resident animal to be tagged.  The first was J26 who stayed near Washington State waters.


We left the whales near Navarro River at 1400 (2PM) and pounded our way back through the waters up to Fort Bragg for the following two hours.  

We are still looking for L pod or the rest of K pod, as well, the animals will pass by on their way northbound to arrive by June or July.  We encourage all to follow our Twitter and Blog posts for the most up to date information.  Please continue looking and when in doubt-snap a photo!  


Southern Residents head South!

Happy New Year!  

What a great year 2013 looks to be.  Naked Whale Research is starting the year off with a front page feature article in the Lighthouse Peddler:

Thank you so very much to Mitch and Madeline.  We really enjoyed chatting about our work with you both.  

As a continuation of last years NOAA tagging project, we understand that young adult male K25 was tagged in Puget Sound on December 29th with a satellite-linked tag.  NOAA is hoping that this will help aide their efforts in understanding where the whales go in the winter time.  This tagging process is highly critisized due to the often unsightly open wounds it creates as the animals work to rid themselves of the alien protuberance.  (Hmmm note to self this makes for a good science fiction plot line.)  I myself have very mixed opinions on this invasive technology.  Of course I'm an advocate for pulling together a good old fashioned land-based sighting network that educates the community and gets them involved in conservation science.  

Today we did receive a report from the tag, which showed K25 around 25 miles south of Newport, Oregon.  

That's nearly 500 statute miles from our location via US-101.  :)  I've posted OrcaWatchers photo of K25, who was lovingly given the adoption name: Scoter


K25's mom, a young forty year old we call K13 is still living along with his other three siblings ranging in age from 26-11.  An interesting note on his family. K25's eldest sister, K20 was first thought to be a male and was noted as such in the Behavioral Biology of Killer Whales (Kirkevold & Lockwood, 1986).  K20 had her first calf in 2004..opps!

The new website is just about finished and we are still awaiting good news from Patagonia regarding our grant for the boater education trifold publication.  

Finally, Phase II of our GIS killer whale tracking map project is up on the website and ready to receive donations for completion.  The minimum goal for funding is $1000, so spread the word and the love on this project.  We have until March 28th.  Remember also, that NaWhaRe will not be funded a cent unless we reach the minimum goal.

Until next time, 

Keep your eyes on the water!

Gray whales in the Backyard

Two of the five gray whales that were travelling inshore the other day off Irish Beach.

Looking up from the Surf Perch that is my office I couldn't help but notice the large white, misty heartshaped plumes piping up from the water.  It has been some time since I've seen whales so close and was almost too speechless to call out "Whales!"  Just 2-300 yards offshore were several gray whales. One, with a white mottled head was leading a group of four, and further behind was a solo animal of about 40ft in length.  

These large baleen whales make their annual southward migration from Arctic waters to sunny California and Baja by late December.  The migration is led by the drive to mate and give birth in warmer climes.  By late February or March the animals head north again, hugging the shoreline with 15ft long, 1000 pound newborn calves hoping to avoid predators such as shark and killer whale.  

Gray whales are a little different than other baleen whales as they are known to bottom feed and gouge deep trenches into the shorelines feeding on invertibrates and benthic amphipods such as ghost shrimp.  This as opposed to "gulp" feeding in mid-water column has given them the nickname of "Mudsucker" by researchers.  In addition, most grays are right-lipped so to speak and prefer to feed using the right side of the mouth.  A study of their face reveals the preferred use side with no barnacles, visible wear in the baleen plates and numerous white scars.  Along with mottled markings and scarring, gray whales carry barnacle colonies along their body and four species of whale-lice that are indigenous to the gray whale alone.  Though not as acrobatic as their humpback relatives, gray whales are known to spyhop and take a look around often.     

Previously in their history, the grey whale was nearly lost to extinction due to commercial whaling.  Being so close to shore made them an easy target for the whaling trade.  With animals averaging 35 tons and 45 feet in length, this was a hard and dirty job.  As with any wild animal being hunted, grays had a bad temper when threatened and were often referred to as "Devilfish."  Nowadays delisted as Endangered and recovering to healthy population numbers, they seem to be more open to human contact and even going so far as to rub boats and "introduce" their newborns to curious onlookers in the lagoons of Baja.  As for me, I'm happy to observe them from afar.  The thought of whale-lice does not appeal what-so-ever.  :)      

Until next time--keep looking out there!



Winter's new wildlife friends.

Spent most of the day updating the website and reflecting on how busy this past year has been for us. Rainy days are good for that if nothing else.  Our new home is located on the very very edge of the California coast line, roughly three hours from San Francisco (a.k.a. The City).  The view is 180 degrees of Pacific ocean and a prime area for viewing killer whales and other lesser cetaceans and pinnipeds in between the kelp beds.

Shortly before moving in we announced to the donor world of "crowdfunding" our project: GIS Killer whale Mapping--it was an exciting success.  After only a month of advertising we collected twice as many funds as the goal we set for ourselves to complete the project.  That was a good thing considering the awesome swag we were able to send back out to donors.  Don't worry, if you missed this opportunity, there will be more..  Our team was able to put together a working online mock up of the map and poster just in time for the American Cetacean Society November conference.  Our Board co-chair, Bill Powers, and our volunteer Secretary, Angelica Rosa, did a fabulous job representing NaWhaRe down in San Diego.  We will also conduct a future presentation of our project in an upcoming ACS San Francisco chapter meeting next year.  Recently we've been thinking of advancing the mapping project with another round of crowdfunding.  Stay tuned for more updates on that after the new year.

In updating the website, I'm looking to put on more information about J, K and L pods.  Ideas and suggestions are certainly welcome.  It's always fun to bring a more personable aspect to the whales and share with the public the uniqueness of each pod member.  It's busy and sometimes hard to keep updating all the social media sites we are on, but well worth it.  I enjoy any feedback you may have to help me along.

Taking a break from the computer this afternoon, I've seen a small group of harbor porpoise (nothing like the 60+ animals we had on Tuesday) around 700 meters offshore. They were about five in two groups, three in one and two in another.  Their surfacings are quick to disappear behind the 4 meter waves today.  

The little harbor porpoise feeds on small schooling fish such as herring and prefer waters no deeper than 660ft.  Harbor Porpoise live in groups of 2-5 individuals, of course good feeding can (like today) attract between 50 and several hundred animals.  A quiet, shy species, they only live until about 10 years of age.  In calmer waters, you'll probably hear their exhale in short puffs giving rise to the nickname "Puffing Porpoise."

Closer near shore I saw two California sea lions 60 meters apart from each other.  Their dark elongated profile and tiny heads bobbing up and down before they submerge remind me of dogs swimming along the waters surface.  California sea lions are very playful and intelligent creatures ranging all along the Pacific west coast.  Males are quite large weighing between 440-860lbs and up to 8 ft in length.  I'm pretty sure what I saw today were two males, possibly drawn to the good bait fish or anchovies that the porpoise and birds were feeding on.    

The heavy rain is good for fish and salmon and all those that prey upon them.  I'm looking forwards to a wet winter and spotting new wildlife friends out the back door.

Until next time--keep looking out there!





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