Whale of a Puget Sound problem lures UW researchers

August 28, 2001

As the federal government inches toward listing Puget Sound's orca whales for protection under the Endangered Species Act, University of Washington researchers have launched a multiyear effort to determine the cause of the marine mammals' plummeting population.

Every morning since June, researchers led by doctoral student Stefanie Hawks-Johnson have joined hundreds of people who board commercial whale-watching boats in Washington and British Columbia in hopes of spotting the black-and-white whales.

Working aboard the Saint Nicholas, a tour boat operated by the Mosquito Fleet out of the Everett Marina, the researchers are collecting data about the orcas' behavior. They are using such novel tools as a small radio-controlled catamaran that can approach within 100 yards of the whales and a fish finder that can show what the animals are feeding on up to a quarter of a mile beneath the ocean surface.

Scientists believe that the whales are declining because of a drop in salmon runs and increasing contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's) that are accumulating in their blubber. Since 1996, the size of the southern resident community - the name for Puget Sound's orcas - has tumbled from 97 to 78 animals in the three pods or groups of whales that inhabit local waters.

Most of the animals being lost are young whales of reproductive age. Some people have speculated that the growing number of commercial whale-watching boats also may be effecting the orcas and their behavior. "The orcas are getting hit with a triple whammy," explained Hawks-Johnson. "We believe that there simply are not enough salmon for them and we think the whales may be going after a different kind of prey, bottom fish.

That calls for a greater energy requirement by having to dive deeper to forage. And bottom fish are likely to be more toxic than salmon with pollutants such as PCBs." The typical orca can eat between 100 and 300 pounds of food a day, and oil-rich salmon are the favorite food of the Puget Sound whales. When the whales can't get enough food, they are forced to draw on their reserves of blubber, which have become loaded with PCBs.

These chemicals, she said, have multiple deleterious effects. The orcas' immune systems are not able to fight off infections, their neurological functions do not operate normally and their reproductive systems are affected. There hasn't been a surviving calf born in L pod since 1996.

Hawks-Johnson, who earned an undergraduate degree in oceanography from the UW in 1991, has a long-standing interest in orcas and marine environmental education. She worked as a naturalist aboard the Mosquito Fleet for four years and formed Marine Mammal Connection in 1996 to educate school children and the public about Puget Sound environmental issues.

She is working with James Ha, a UW research associate professor of psychology who specializes in animal behavior, and David Bain, an affiliate assistant professor of psychology, who has been studying orcas for 20 years.

Hawks-Johnson's research is the first step in a larger, long-term effort of following the orcas out to sea in winter and monitoring them around the clock with infrared cameras and hydrophones mounted aboard a solar-powered catamaran. Two of the Puget Sound pods, K and L, winter offshore and their behavior and location are a mystery. The third pod, J, remains in Puget Sound year round.

"Perhaps the most serious problem is what is happening offshore in the winter," said Bain. "The pods are exposed to different things offshore. We'd like to test an infrared camera in the future because we don't have a clue where the whales go at night." "We feel the lack of knowledge," added Ha. "We are going to have to use clever ways to get data on what is going on 600 feet below the sea surface because we need to provide information to the federal government and the whale community. It is very important for us to learn where they are and what they are up to. Right now, no one knows."

But before the research can move offshore, Hawks-Johnson will be collecting critical data in Puget Sound. The small catamaran, 2½ feet wide and 6 feet long, and the fish finder are key research tools. The catamaran, which is called the Auto Boat, was built by a group of people including Michael Dougherty, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student who used a prototype of it to do acoustical tracking of sperm whales off Norway.

The Auto Boat is equipped with a laptop computer that collects data from the fish finder, which is suspended under the vessel, and a global positioning system. The fish finder can provide a 1200-foot slice of the ocean, showing what the orcas are feeding on. Hawks-Johnson wants to view these vertical images to see if the orcas are changing their eating habits and feeding off the bottom of the sound.

In addition, Hawks-Johnson and her assistants, UW undergraduate psychology and zoology students, will use a laptop to collect behavioral data on individual whales and a camcorder to record multiple orcas when they come into view. "You can't look at a pod and record all of the individual behaviors," she explained. "But you can do it from video. "Orcas are fascinating to me because they are so family oriented like humans. Their bonds and social structure are so strong and there is a real emotional connection between individuals. "Most people, if they look a cetacean (marine mammals such as whales, porpoises and dolphins) in the eye, come away from the experience looking at the world differently. It is not like a dog peering at you. It is another creature looking at you and trying to figure you out," said Hawks-Johnson.

Her first such encounter came in 1991 near Australia's Great Barrier Reef with a bottlenose dolphin. "I was on a Zodiac and a dolphin popped its head up just one or two feet away and looked right in my eyes for what seemed like 30 seconds. Then it went down. There was inquisitiveness seeking to find out 'who are you?'" she said.

"Being with the whales day after day and watching them interact is so unbelievably amazing. I can't adequately explain the experience in words. Regardless of our research findings, if we want these 78 animals to survive, all of us in the greater Puget Sound area have to look at what we are doing in our daily life that may be affecting the whales. If not, a conservative estimate is that they will be gone in 33 to 121 years."
Her research is partially funded by a grant from the American Cetacean Society. It is also being supported by the Mosquito Fleet, which is letting her use the Saint Nicholas as a research platform during its whale-watching cruises, and Interphase and West Marine Supply, two private companies, which have donated research equipment. Two individuals, Scott Duncan and Jonathon King, assisted Dougherty in the construction of the Auto Boat.

For more information, contact Hawks-Johnson at 206-459-1398 (cell), 425-831-6860 or sahawks@aol.com; Ha at 206-543-2420 or jcha@u.washington.edu. Ha will be out of town until Sept. 6.

University of Washington

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