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Orcas- Climate Change- Pipelines

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Opinion: Rachel Notley not winning hearts or minds in B.C.

“Mark my words, that pipeline will be built,” vows Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

A female resident orca whale breaches while swimming in Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island as seen from a federally permitted research vessel Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The federal government has released a recovery plan for an endangered population of killer whales likely to be in the path of increased oil tanker traffic off British Columbia's southern coast. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Elaine Thompson ORG XMIT: CPT109

Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 file photo
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley clearly does not understand that many British Columbians consider the Salish Sea and its Southern Resident killer whales as priceless and irreplaceable; a worth immeasurable in monetary terms. ELAINE THOMPSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vancouver Sun by Chris Genovali | July 23, 2017

“Mark my words, that pipeline will be built,” vows Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

With multiple lawsuits before the courts, including one by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and an anti-Trans Mountain provincial government taking power in British Columbia, Notley’s audacious guarantee seems intemperate at best. However, if Notley’s intention was to harden opposition in B.C. to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion, she certainly accomplished that.

Notley’s inflammatory “mark my words” throw down, coupled with her hectoring and lecturing that Kinder Morgan’s oilsands pipeline and supertanker mega-project is in the best interests of British Columbians, will never win hearts or minds in B.C.

What Notley clearly does not understand is that many British Columbians consider the Salish Sea and its Southern Resident killer whales as priceless and irreplaceable; a worth immeasurable in monetary terms.

With a dangerously small population hovering around 80 individuals, the Southern Resident killer whales are labouring under an existing suite of stressors, including a lack of food (i.e. Chinook salmon), chronic and acute vessel disturbance, and a high contaminant load.

The Trans Mountain pipeline will deliver 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen to Vancouver per day, all destined for offshore markets. Tanker traffic in the Salish Sea will increase by an estimated 700 per cent with more than 800 annual oil tanker trips to and from Burrard Inlet.

Raincoast biologists Adrianne Jarvela Rosenberger, Misty MacDuffee and Andrew Rosenberger, along with Ocean Wise research scientist Peter Ross, have just published a peer-reviewed paper in the scientific journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology examining how marine mammals are inherently vulnerable to oil spills. The authors developed a conceptual framework to evaluate the impacts of potential oil exposure on marine mammals and applied it to 21 species inhabiting coastal B.C. Oil spill vulnerability was determined by first examining the likelihood of each species being exposed to spilled oil, and then the consequent likelihood of population-level effects. Oil exposure pathways, ecology, and physiological characteristics were used to assign vulnerability rankings to each species.

The paper, Oil Spills and Marine Mammals in British Columbia, Canada: Development and Application of a Risk-Based Conceptual Framework, found that killer whale populations were deemed at highest risk due to small population sizes, complex social structure, long lives, slow reproductive turnover, and dietary specialization. The paper’s findings challenge the typical “indicator species” approach routinely used; it underscores the need to examine marine mammals at a species and population level for risk-based oil spill predictions.

Noise is another significant and increasing threat to the whales and their critical habitat. A recent publication by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Southern Resident killer whales: A science based review of recovery actions, states that underwater noise can interfere with the ability of Southern Residents to conduct their life functions. Such disruptions include decreased foraging success, displacement from their feeding habitats, displacement of their prey, and impaired hearing — either temporarily or permanently.

Kinder Morgan’s shipping route transects critical habitat that the federal government has identified as essential for the survival and recovery of these endangered killer whales. As interveners in the National Energy Board (NEB) review of Trans Mountain, Raincoast submitted extensive scientific evidence, including a population viability analysis for the Southern Residents, which was not contested by Kinder Morgan or by the federal government.

Raincoast’s evidence showed that even without oil spills, the additional noise from the increase in tanker traffic significantly escalates the risk of extinction to the already imperilled Southern Residents. As we pointed out to the NEB, acoustic disturbance due to vessel noise will make it more difficult for killer whales to communicate, navigate, mate, hunt and feed.

A key component of our written evidence to the NEB is a report by Cornell University’s world-renowned bioacoustician and marine mammal expert Dr. Christopher Clark, which focuses on acoustic impacts of the oil tanker traffic associated with the Trans Mountain project on Southern Resident killer whales. The report explains the importance of sound to killer whales’ critical life functions and how elevated noise from vessel traffic, including Trans Mountain, can hinder these.

Contrary to the claims by Notley and other pipeline proponents, the approval of the Trans Mountain expansion was not based on scientific facts or evidence. Rather, the official sanction of Trans Mountain was a political calculation, one that happens to hold grave consequences for the Salish Sea and its most iconic species.

Chris Genovali is executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

See article here…….



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What Antarctic killer whales can teach humans about climate change

The giant mammals are extremely vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem, making their health a good barometer for the state of the environment.

The Atlantic by Mona Gable / Apr 10, 2017

They stood on the top bridge of the cruise ship National Geographic Explorer, peering through binoculars at the vast icy Weddell Sea. It was a summer afternoon in February in Antarctica, the air a balmy 32-or-so degrees Fahrenheit, and John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, biologists with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, had spotted killer whales in the distance.

The only question was, were these the Type B2’s, with their gorgeous gray-and-white coloring and their culinary fondness for Gentoo penguins—one of only three kinds of killer whales found in the Antarctic Peninsula? Or another type of killer whale unique to these cold deep waters? From miles away it was hard to tell. The rest of us spectators on the ship, far from our native habitats of Texas, England, and Kenya, gazed out at the ice floes and the foggy horizon splashed with blue, wondering too.

The scientists were on board thanks to a grant from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund. The fund aspires to protect the ocean’s last pristine areas through research, conservation, education, and community-development projects in the company’s far-flung destinations.

For Durban and Fearnbach, who are based in sunny La Jolla, California, the fund has buoyed their research in Antarctica. While they also study orca and humpback whale populations in the Pacific Northwest, the North Atlantic and Alaska, on these trips they’ve been able to observe killer whales in perhaps the most inaccessible place on the planet. Since 2011, the scientists have made several voyages a year to the frozen continent on the Explorer, using the ice-cutting, refurbished Norwegian ferry to follow the whales.

On the trip in early February, the scientists were joined by 148 passengers and a flock of naturalists. For those paying hefty sums to see Antarctica, the 10-day voyage was like a floating science classroom. In the lounge, naturalists lectured on such pertinent topics as “Know Your Penguins,” “What Does Ice Tell Us About Climate Change?” and a Belgian expedition’s epic discovery of the Gerlache Strait.

Durban and Fearnbach gave several talks about their work in Antarctica, and how the health of killer whales is a barometer of the continent’s rapidly changing environment. Their research has been especially revelatory. Until as little as 20 years ago, scientists used to believe that Antarctic killer whales were all alike. But Durban, his colleague Bob Pitman and others took small skin samples of whales, analyzed their DNA, and ended up discovering that there are five distinct types, each with its own prey preferences, hunting techniques, and habitats. Durban and his colleagues are proposing that they may be separate species. This means that each type of killer whale will adapt to climate change in different ways—some likely better than others—largely depending on their food supply.

The enormous Type A’s, which are a striking black and white, feed on minke whales and perhaps elephant seals. The B2’s, which are the smallest and most plentiful, typically frequent the Gerlache Strait, munching on gentoo and chinstrap penguins and probably fish. The B1s, which are a dazzling gray and white, dine on seals. When they hunt, the clever whales band together and literally make waves to wash seals off ice floes. “They are my favorite animals,” said Durban during their talk.

Four juvenile, Type B2 killer whales in close pursuit of a Gentoo penguin
(John Durban / NOAA / Holly Fearnbach / SR3)

It’s not exactly easy to spot killer whales in the Antarctic seas, where the horizon can be an endless expanse of whites and grays and mesmerizing teal-blue ice sculptures. The creatures are mostly underwater, and race through the seas at a brisk 55 miles per hour. When Durban and Fearnbach do spy them, or get a tip from the sharp-eyed crew on the bridge that whales are in sight, the scientists chase after them in a Zodiac—a small, black rubber motorboat—taking photographs and collecting data. The photos help them identify individual whales and keep close track of their health from year to year. They can also pinpoint where in the vast Antarctic waters the whales are most likely to be, and how stable the various populations are. Although they already know a lot, they want to learn more about what the insatiable animals eat. That will tell them if the warming environment is threatening their food sources.

There’s abundant enthusiasm for their research on the ship. Passengers and naturalists have contributed thousands of photographs of killer whales to the scientists. Counting their own photographs snapped from the Zodiac and from the Explorer’s decks and bow, they’ve amassed nearly 80,000 images of the little-observed animals.

In the past six years, they’ve gained tremendous insights into the enigmatic cetaceans. Using tiny satellite tags affixed to whales that relay their movements, Durban and Fearnbach were the first to document Antarctic whales making a speedy, 5,000-mile trip to the warmer waters of the subtropics and back, apparently to shed their algae-encrusted skin. They recorded the deepest dives—more than 2,000 feet—of any killer whales in the world. They’ve seen feeding behaviors few scientists have: a killer whale dangling an elephant seal in its mouth, another type of killer whale pursuing pretty Adélie penguins.

In early February, the researchers had already been out for two weeks traversing the Southern Ocean and Weddell Sea, where Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance famously got trapped in ice in 1915, trying to fathom more about the role of killer whales in the continent’s rapidly warming environment.  With news of the ever-widening crack in the nearby Larsen C ice shelf, their quest seemed especially relevant.

Larsen C, a mass of ice the size of Vermont and New Hampshire, is melting because of warming from climate change. Because killer whales need sea ice to survive, this means their habitat is changing in profound ways. Durban and Fearnbach were eager to answer some vital questions. How healthy were the Antarctic whales? What were they feeding on? How much prey were they eating? Were the researchers seeing animals they’d photographed in previous years? Or had some whales vanished, perhaps died?

These questions matter because killer whales are easily affected by changes in their environment, and heavily shape it, too. Killer whales live as long as humans do, but produce very few calves; each one’s survival is critical. As the continent’s top predator, they’re especially vulnerable to changes in the food chain, like contaminants, or overfishing of krill, a pink, shrimp-like crustacean that humpback whales and other species devour. “In order for them to be healthy, the ecosystem needs to be healthy,” said Durban.

They also eat a ton, so they exert a huge influence on Antarctica’s spectacular array of marine life, including Weddell seals, minke whales, and several species of penguins. As the climate changes, the researchers are trying to understand how killer whales are affecting prey populations.

That afternoon when they spied the roaming whales, they dashed inside and approached Captain Oliver Kruess. Did they have time to go out in a Zodiac and take photographs? The ship was on a strict schedule, set to be at Mikkelson Harbor, which was hours away on the east side of the Peninsula, by morning. There was some negotiating among the scientists, the captain, and the ship’s expedition leader, Lucho Verdesoto Yumiseba, who was in charge of the daily itinerary. The researchers were told they had 45 minutes. Kruess, who saw the whales go, gave them some handy navigation advice. “It was a great example of the support we get on the ship,” said Durban. “We almost didn’t have time.”

They scrambled into a Zodiac with their colleague, Leigh Hickmott, and shot out from the starboard side toward the whales. A gaggle of passengers in orange hooded parkas lined the decks and bow in the freezing air, taking photos. Soon after they launched, they made a thrilling discovery. The seven whales were not B2’s, but the even more elusive Type B1’s. During two expeditions in the previous weeks, they had not seen them once. “They are probably the hardest killer whales to find in the world,” said Durban. “They live in the pack ice, so it’s hard to go where they live. They can do 150 miles a day.”

The hexacopter allows researchers to collect aerial images of the animals.
(Courtesy of Leigh Hickmott)

While the Zodiac idled, they launched an unmanned hexacopter into the sky.  The high-tech drone, which is outfitted with a tiny camera, resembled a toy. Fearnbach, her head under a “lucky” towel that’s been with them all over the world, looked at a computer monitor, guiding Durban as he flew the hexacopter 100 feet above the whales, taking pictures. The drone carries an altimeter to record height, so they can scale photographs with startling precision to measure the whales. “We can tell a change in their fatness down to the level of a centimeter,” Durban said. “For a large whale that might weigh dozens of tons, that’s amazing resolution.”

In 2014, they were the first to use an unmanned drone in photogrammetry—the art of measuring animals from aerial images—on any kind of whale. Researchers have long used photographs to identify whales using natural markings; scars on their dorsal fins, the colors of their saddle patches. But the drone has considerably upped their game, enabling them to track individuals’ body condition and growth over time, and get better population estimates.

With a grant from the LEX-NG Fund, they first flew the hexacopter in Antarctica in early 2016. Over their three voyages, they’ve taken more than 4,600 aerial images.

“We used to do this kind of work but from a helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft,” said Durban. “We’d be several hundreds of feet up so the pictures weren’t as good. It has increased the quality of what we do.”

The hexacopter, which is about as light as a toaster and adaptable enough to fly in remote areas, also allows them to collect more data without disturbing the whales. The highly social animals don’t seem to notice it’s there.

From that fresh perspective, they’ve seen some startling behaviors in Antarctic waters. Grandmothers giving food to their grandchildren. Sick whales unable to dive, lingering at the surface. Whales swimming close enough to touch.

On their first day out the week before, they were floating in the Weddell Sea when they spied something they’d never seen. A group of 25 killer whales—Type B2’s—were rubbing their bellies on icebergs to clean their skin. Because of the freezing waters, Type B whales develop diatoms, a kind of algae that turns their skin yellow. “It was remarkable,” said Fearnbach.

One night, as passengers chatted and sipped cocktails in the lounge, Durban and Fearnbach did a slide presentation. The two met studying killer whales in Alaska in 2005, when she joined his research team. They’re both now 40 and married. He’s tall and barrel-chested with a short reddish beard, while she’s petite with long light-brown hair. As they spoke, the $20,000 hexacopter—nicknamed “Chimo” for a white killer whale captured in 1960s—sat propped prominently on a table. “I can guarantee you haven’t seen killer whales like you saw today,” said Durban, showing an aerial photo of the mercurial B1s.

Remarkably, little is known about Antarctic killer whales, although they are more plentiful here than anywhere in the world. Over many cruises in the early 1980s, Japanese ship surveys estimated the population at 25,000. But that’s hardly precise. Their research vessels, with good reason, failed to count whales in the treacherous pack ice. Durban and Fearnbach hope to improve the accuracy of the count, by getting abundance estimates in smaller areas in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Each hexacopter flight brings new information. Killer whales usually travel in pods of 50, and remain with their family groups their entire lives. By tracking them over time, the scientists hope to discover how climate change is affecting their health. How adaptable is each species to the shifting ice conditions? Some females they’d seen one afternoon were skinny and sick, a worrisome sign. In the lounge, Durban showed a photo of a B1 female and her calf. “One of the shocking things for us—this whale is very very thin,” he said of the mother. “It’s skin and bones. It doesn’t have much blubber.”

The hexacopter hovering above a humpback whale in Antarctica
(Courtesy of Leigh Hickmott)

Later, Durban said, “Normally that type of whale is very fat. Immediately when we got in the boat, they were behaving like they were looking for food. They weren’t as energetic as normal. That one female was in terrible shape and couldn’t dive with the rest of the group.”

Females care for and feed males and their offspring first, so mothers are typically the last to eat. It’s possible the one female was ill, and couldn’t travel to find more food. Or it could signal a problem in the food supply. On previous trips in Antarctica that season, they’d seen other females in poor condition. “To me the bottom line is we’ve got to do more of this,” said Durban. “We’ve got to look at how widespread that is in the bigger population. Not just one group. We can’t take it for granted they’re healthy. We know we’ve got an ecosystem that has significant changes.”

With science funding threatened—including programs to mitigate climate change—Durban isn’t sure how their research will fare. The White House wants to slash 17 percent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget, the agency for which he works. “We’re not in a great position,” he said.

In past few years they’ve had to get creative. “We’ve become very good at collaborating, seeking diverse funding sources. That’s a model we’re going to have to continue.”

As far as the world’s largest predator goes, they have a ton of questions. It’s still unclear what the primary prey species is for Type B2 killer whales. Their previous research has shown the animals frequently dive as deep as 700 meters, deeper even than gifted swimmers like penguins. But what are they eating down there? If the Antarctic Peninsula continues to warm and the ice continues to melt, how will killer whales survive these changes? Already, one of their food sources—Adélie penguins—has declined in several areas around the peninsula. At Palmer Station, one of three U.S. scientific bases in Antarctica, the Adélie population has been decimated.

On the last day of the expedition, the scientists headed out in the glittering waters and ice towers just outside Paradise Bay, and disappeared. Hours later, they appeared in the gray early evening off the bow near a pod of Type B2’s. A sea of dark fins knifed through the black water, eliciting gasps, as passengers on the bridge counted them aloud. Later, securely back onboard, Durban and Fearnbach announced the final tally. There were 40 in the pod, a reassuringly healthy number.

Editor’s Note: The images included in this story were collected during research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

See article here…….




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Centre for Whale Research Friday Harbour, Washington

The Center for Whale Research is dedicated to the study and conservation of the Southern Resident killer whale (Orca) population in the Pacific Northwest.

42 years of WHALE RESEARCH


For over four decades, the Center for Whale Research has been conducting annual photo-ID (photo-identification) studies of Southern Resident killer whales – one of the most magnificent and beloved animal populations in the world. Our long-term research has generated unprecedented baseline information on the whales’ population dynamics, health, demography, social structure, and individual life histories. Thanks to the Center’s research, more detail is known about the endangered Southern Resident killer whales than any other group of marine mammals in the world.  As a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization, our mission is to facilitate the recovery of this beloved population of Orcas through non-invasive scientific study, public awareness and education, and conservation action.

Please help this committed group of orca lovers!

Please visit the site here …………

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Oil tankers threaten endangered orcas, two tribes say in lawsuit against U.S. Coast Guard

Already-endangered killer whales in the waters west of Seattle face heightened risk from an increased traffic of tankers that will carry oil from Kinder Morgan’s $5.4 billion Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, two Native American organizations claim in a federal lawsuit.


Mark Malleson/The Center for Whale Research via AP An orca whale pokes her head upward while swimming in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands, Wash.

 Andrew Harris, Bloomberg News | April 27, 2017 – National Post.com

The U.S. Coast Guard failed to ensure the black-and-white whales known as orcas won’t be decimated by increased shipping traffic or oil spills as it’s required to do under the Endangered Species Act, according to the tribes’ complaint filed Tuesday in Seattle.

“Exporting oil will trigger a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers transiting the waters of the Salish Sea,” the tribes said. That sea is comprised of the waterways surrounding the Vancouver Island archipelago, including the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. “These approximately 400 tankers will carry approximately 300,000,000 barrels (over 12.5 billion gallons) of oil through these waters every year.”


An orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.  Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

The tribes are seeking a court order compelling the Coast Guard to meet its obligations under the act to implement “traffic separation schemes” that will minimize jeopardy to the whales and to their habitat within a set time frame.

Filing the suit are Tulalip Tribes and the Suquamish Tribe — once led by Chief Seattle — for whom orcas are “interwoven” into harvesting, cultural and spiritual practices, according to the complaint.

Kinder Morgan isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, which targets the U.S. Coast Guard. Richard Wheatley, a company spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to request for comment. Justice Department spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, said the suit is being reviewed and declined to comment further.

The project won regulatory approval in British Columbia in January — after getting the go-ahead from Canada’s federal government. Kinder seeks to begin work on the expansion, which will more than double the existing line’s capacity and extend its reach, later this year.

Native American tribes and organizations are also pursuing federal lawsuits challenging TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline path in Montana and the Energy Transfer Partners-led Dakota Access pipeline project in North Dakota.

See article here……….

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Tributes are flowing for the worlds oldest killer whale granny

Tributes are flowing for the world’s oldest known killer whale, known as Granny, who was presumed dead by scientists as 2017 ticked over.

Pickle.nine by Dannielle Maguire   January 4, 2017

Thought to have been born in 1911 – a year before the Titanic sank – Granny has not been seen with her pod since October.

Known as a devoted grandmother by researchers, this absence has led them to believe she has since passed away.

                                                                         She is pictured here with her son, Ruffles, in 2010.

Granny, who was known to biologists as J2, was the star of a BBC documentary about whales and menopause, teaching scientists a thing or two about the power of supportive familes in ensuring survival.

Killer whales are among only three species of mammals which experience menopause, with the others being short-finned pilot whales and humans.

Hailing from the North Pacific Ocean close to Canada, Granny was a popular personality of the water.

“She leaps clear out of the ocean to delighted gasps from everyone on my boat,” BBC journalist Victoria Gill wrote in August.

But sadly, this may have been among one of the old girl’s last appearances.

As news broke of her death, fans of the sea-dwelling centenarian took to Twitter to say their goodbyes.

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2016 Has been the deadliest year for orca whales

Orca enthusiasts gathered on the shores of Seattle’s Akli Beach Tuesday evening to hold a candlelight vigil for those lost over the past year.

By Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest.com Writer   | December 28, 2016


2016 has been the deadliest year for orcas in the Northwest in nearly two decades. (Capt. Michael Colahan – Island Adventures and Pangea Pictures)

That’s because 2016 has been the deadliest year for Southern Resident killer whales in two decades.

Related: Food scarcity could threaten NW orcas

Three Seattle vigils were held Tuesday to pay tribute to those lost and also to send a message to protect the surviving orca.

“This population of animals cannot afford to lose any more of their breeding females if we hope to see them in future years,” said vigil organizer Rachel Carbary.

“We could not save J34, J28, J54, L95, J14, or J55,” she said listing off the titles of the whales who died over the past year. “Let’s work together to save the rest.”

Southern resident orca

According to KIRO 7, not all of the six whales that passed away in 2016 have been found. Those who have been recovered died from various causes, including disease, blunt force trauma and starvation. The most recent death occurred last week. An orca washed up on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia.

There are only 79 Southern Resident orca left in the region. KIRO 7 reports that their diet consists of primarily Chinook salmon – a population that has decreased by half since the 1980s.

Orca advocates are urging state lawmakers to take steps to protect salmon and killer-whale populations, including removing dams on the lower Snake River where many fish spawn.

See article here…….

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Initial Necropsy Results: Southern Resident Killer Whale J34

Initial examination indicates that the animal appears to have blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury.


An approximately 18 year old male killer whale, identified as J34 was found dead near Sechelt, B.C. on December 20th, 2016. J34 was a Southern Resident killer whale, a population listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in Canada. A necropsy was performed to determine the cause of the animal’s death.

Initial examination indicates that the animal appears to have blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury. A CAT scan will be conducted on the skull to determine if there are any fractures. Additional information from tissue and blood analysis can take 2-8 weeks. DFO is investigating what may have caused the blunt trauma to the animal. Anyone with information please call our Observe Record Report line at 1-800-465-4336.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like to acknowledge the Sechelt First Nation, whose efforts and collaboration were central to locating the animal and facilitating a successful necropsy. We would also like to thank the BC Ministry of Agriculture (and in particular, Dr. Stephen Raverty, Veterinary Pathologist who performed the necropsy exam), Vancouver Aquarium staff, as well as numerous dedicated DFO staff and biologists.

The results of J34’s necropsy will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales from a population health perspective. This data allows us to look at trends, pathogens, or other indicators that may affect their survival.

This page will be updated as new information comes in.

See official site here….

The following are news articles.





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Face to Face with Killer Whales

An unexpected Orca encounter in the Galapagos turns into a 40 minute high-adrenaline photo session!!!


Face-to-Face with Killer Whales

By Ron Watkins          Article and photo credit Underwater Photography Guide

A Killer Welcome to the Galapagos

Besides my love of teaching others underwater photography, my favorite part of leading Bluewater Photo Workshops is that I get to travel to the best dive locations in the world and share new adventures with others.  Every trip I enjoy making new friends, but on my last trip, our diverse group of 15 divers from Taiwan, England, New Zealand, Ukraine, Germany and the US got to experience something so rare and special that it will forever bond us together. On the third morning of our June 2016 Galapagos trip we awoke to the majestic sight of the rising sun over the towering Darwin’s Arch.  Darwin Island, along with Wolf Island, are two of the main draws of this special 10 day diving and land tour through the Galapagos archipelago that Bluewater Photo had organized.  It was a dream trip for all of us and nearly everyone’s first visit to the Ecuadorian treasure and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site.

As everyone was sipping their first cup of coffee and doing last minute camera prep in anticipation of the 6:30 AM dive briefing, we all heard a scream of “ORCAS” and rushed to the bow of the Galapagos Master with cameras in hand.  We first saw one, then 2, then 5 fins surface as we zoomed in on this rare sighting of a transient pod of orcas (Orcinus orca) in the Galapagos.  They swam around the bow of the boat and then headed towards the arch.  The crew readied two pangas and we raced towards them to get some better photo opportunites, but shortly after our departure the orcas disappeared.  Just 2 weeks prior, on the second of four Bluewater Galapagos trips in 2016, they had also seen Orcas in the distance but were unable to get very close to them, so we all felt very fortunate to have at least seen them.


An Orca surfaces in front of the 51’ lava structure called Darwin’s Arch as we look on from bow of the Galapagos Master


The transient pod of orcas patrol the coast of Darwin Island on a potential hunt

Return Visit by the Pod

The orcas made another brief appearance escorting us to our dive site, but then again disappeared.  After diving in the strong current at Darwin’s Arch with lots of schooling fish but only a few hammerhead sharks, we returned to the boat to have breakfast and relax during a short surface interval.  The dive master told us that because of the killer whales are in the area, the larger sharks, sea lions, turtles and rays are probably seeking shelter in protected areas or are avoiding the exposed area of the arch.  As we were about to sit down to breakfast, another cry of “ORCAS” rang out and we all scrambled back to the pangas with cameras in hand.

We watched and photographed the pod from the pangas for several minutes and then observed the large male surface in the distance with what appeared to be a large sea turtle in its mouth and thrash about before diving down.  We discussed whether it was just a play toy or a meal, but after we observed an oily slick near where the orca had surfaced, we guessed it was the latter.  Despite having up to 4” teeth and often being referred to as killer whales, these marine mammals are actually the largest of the oceanic dolphin family.  They may have gotten their deceptively dangerous name from a mistranslation of their Spanish name “asesina de ballenas”, which literally means “killer of whales” because they often feast on whales.  But after witnessing the raw power of these animals, it was evident that they are at the top of the food chain in the ocean.


The power of these apex predators is evident in this high speed surface.


The large male orca surfaces with a mature female close to the panga.

The orcas then closed in on our boats and proceeded to engage in what appeared to be social activity.  We spent several minutes photographing them surface a few feet from the boat and jump out of the water, followed by two magnificent tail slaps that got a roar of excitement from everyone.  At this point, I decided I was going in the water to photograph the orcas and after a brief negotiation with the dive masters, our panga headed back to the main ship so we could quickly gather our gear.  I removed my strobes, grabbed my mask, snorkel and fins and advised the others to do the same.  We were quickly back in the panga and racing out to where the orcas were still entertaining the other boats.


A female orca entertains us with an incredible gravity defying vertical rise followed by a loud tail slap.

Entering the Water with Orcas

After a brief discussion of whether it was safe or not to enter the water, I quietly slipped in alone as the others looked on in disbelief from the security of the panga. The pod of 5 orcas was a short distance in front of me and slowly approached my position.  I took a test shot, looked at the histograms and made a few minor camera adjustments.  I then looked up to see the large male quickly closing in on me as if to protect the other three females and calf from this strange creature and make sure that I was not a threat.  He came within 8-10 feet of me and slowly changed course to pass just below as I turned around and started swimming with him until I could no longer keep up.  With a rush of adrenaline, I popped up and swam toward the boat and quickly handed up my camera.  Immediately, the group started quizzing me about if they were aggressive and what it was like, but with my eyes wide-open and evident state of euphoria, I think they already knew the answer.  As I explained to them the thrill of the interaction, I hit the display on my camera and quickly showed them a few images I had captured, which elicited screams of excitement as they grabbed their fins and masks.  Evidently, the fear of a photographer missing a rare photo opportunity is much greater than the fear of getting in the water with the ocean’s most powerful predator.


The large male with a 3-4’ tall dorsal fin closes in and then swims below.


The 8-9’ long calf swims below the larger female and surfaces for air.
A solo female orca splits from the pod to get a closer look.

On the second pass I was slowly joined by a few of the others, and eventually everyone in the boat joined in the fun.  After seeing us repeatedly swim with the pod and hearing our screams (of joy), the other boat raced back to the main ship and returned for a swim with the orcas.  Over a period of 40 minutes, the playful pod of killer whales interacted with us in the water while we took pictures and video, but they eventually grew tired and moved on.  The following day, while surfacing from a dive on Darwin’s Arch, some of our group were treated to a repeat performance by the orcas.


An orca plays in the waves along the coast of Darwin Island


An orca passes over a shallow ledge in the warm clear blue water of Darwin Island.

Reflections on a Once in a Lifetime Experience

After our interactions with the orcas, we were all as giddy as school kids and couldn’t stop talking about what each of us had experienced and just how fortunate we were to see orcas in the wild – the way they are supposed to be seen.  We all came to the Galapagos to experience the raw beauty of nature, but none of us expected an interaction of a lifetime.  For the next several nights, the workshop photo reviews were full of orca pictures and videos and some people became very emotional when reflecting on what it meant to them.  For me, it truly was a new high point in my aquatic life and I feel extremely lucky that the orcas allowed us to interact with them.  But most of all, it was being able to share this chance encounter with 15 people from various walks of life who now share an everlasting bond.  I will never forget how terrific I felt when one of the Taiwanese divers, Albert, approached me and confided, “It has been 22 years of diving for me and it is the first time I have spotted wild orcas.  If you didn’t jump into the water, I would not have done so myself alone. Thank you, so much.  Great to share this experience with you.”


Frame of video taken by Bluewater Photo Workshop guest Lee Hsiao Chung, who was one of the first guests to enter the water with the orcas.

Learn More About Orcas

We discuss the range and habitat, diet, types of orcas, conservation and more in our marine life article Facts About Orcas.

Article by Underwater Photography Guide

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UPCOMING EVENTS: Week of September 17 to September 25 and beyond!!

**************WEDNESDAY, September 21, 2016 – Town Hall Meeting hosted by BROKE – Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion*****************

 2 Town Halls re. Kinder Morgan Pipeline Sept.21 & 28

With the Federal Ministerial Panel deadline to voice concerns about the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion fast approaching, Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE) has organized two more town halls on Sept. 21 and Sept. 28, for residents to learn about the risks associated with the project.

We only have until September 30 to voice our concerns to the Ministerial Panel examining the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project.


*************WEDNESDAY, September 21, 2016 – Climate Convergence Meeting – Grandview Church,

1801 East 1st Ave – 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.********************

Join us for the September meeting of People’s Climate Convergence, where the diverse strands of the climate justice movement come together every month to strategize, organize and build grassroots mobilization.
This month we’re announcing a major fall mobilization to Stop Kinder Morgan with speeches from key activists, discussion on and details on how you can help to build it. With cabinet’s final decision approaching in December this a is a crucial moment for us to demonstrate the broadest possible scale of opposition to this project.
Climate March November 29,2015, Vancouver (unceded)

******SATURDAY @ SUNDAY, September 24 and 25 – Greet the GARbarge – Steveston Fishermans Wharf – 10:00 am Sat to 4 pm Sun

The GarBarge will be bringing an estimated 40 tonnes of plastic and other marine debris to Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf and we need your help to sort and recycle it!
Groups have been working hard this year to remove plastic and other marine debris from Vancouver Island’s remote and (otherwise) pristine west coast beaches before it endangers wildlife. By bringing our recoveries to Steveston, we hope to raise awareness of the magnitude of this issue in B.C., as well as improve our chances of getting the material recycled and repurposed.
The event will include a presentation and thanks to the Government of Japan for its gift of $1 million, that helped fund the groups listed below to collect the debris.

*******SUNDAY, September 25, 2016 – Kayaktivist Training –              1:00 to 3:00 pm –  Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres

If you want to protect the Salish Sea while cruising in a kayak, come join us for a training session at Granville Island on Sunday, Sept. 25!
1 hour on the water training
– paddling pointers, rescue techniques, etc.
45 minutes dryland training
– navigation, safety tips, why we’re protecting the coast, etc.
We will have a limited number of kayaks available for volunteers, so RSVP here:

*****SUNDAY, September 25, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.

Burnaby Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Run and Walk Event for Change -#stopkindermorgan

Break Free Kinder Morgan Land and Water  May, 2016 – Sunday, September 25th from 2 to 4. Bring your family’s all ages welcome!!!!!!
Fall in love with our precious nature!


 An inclusive community run and walk along the Trans Mountain Trail for anyone who wishes to simply learn more about, or share views and information on the proposed #KinderMorgan pipeline expansion project slated for Federal Cabinet decision December 2016.

2:00 PM – Community gathers to enjoy music, words from residents, group displays, art, speakers, vendors, sponsors and more.

2:30PM – Residents, speakers and leaders share their voice concening the issues surrounding pipeline expansion, alternative energy solutions, and the politics of change.

3-4 PM – Community Run and Walk (3.4km) along the Trans Mountain pipeline trail and tank farm. Participants will have a chance to craft and affix a personal message on a designated ‘Tree of Change” at the turnaround point at the base of Shellmont Ave and Greystone Drive.

4:00 PM Closing remarks and give-away’s.

We are seeking volunteers and accepting door prizes from sponsors, plus we have speaking opportunities for local residents and leaders. Please contact: philifil@gmail.com

We will have tables and displays from BROKE-Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion, Dogwood Initiative, Amray Solar, The Great Climate Race, and more.

Gift prizes from Ethical Bean Coffee, Fitness 2000, Choices Markets and more.

Attendees are encourage to register for and participate in the The Great Climate Race on October 30, 2016. We would like to use this initiative to potentially springboard a team to raise funds for a solar roof project at Forest Grove Elementary school.

Attendees can use Transit taking the 136 Lougheed Station Bus route from Holdom Station at 1:25pm, exit bus stop 54875. Or the 136 Brentwood Station Bus route from University/Production Way Skytrain station at 1:35pm, exit 54846 bus stop.

It’s okay to drive your car to this event. You won’t be judged for using the most readily available transportation method lol!! Parking is available along Forest Grove Drive or Ash Grove Crescent. Carpooling is encouraged and please bring a water container.


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TANKER BAN – Tell Transport Canada: We want a permanent and legislated oil tanker ban on BC’s north coast! Engagement closes September 30, 2016


NO Enbridge!!!!       NO Enbridge!!!!         NO Enbridge!!!!         NO Enbridge!!!!

Friends of Wild Salmon

Transport Minister Marc Garneau recently confirmed that the federal government will be formalizing the Pacific north coast oil tanker moratorium within the next few months. Transport Canada has set up a website for the public to submit comments on the key issues to be addressed in the oil tanker moratorium.

Friends of Wild Salmon has heard that industry is pushing for no tanker ban at all, so comments from the public calling for a legislated, comprehensive and legislated moratorium are incredibly important. 

Comments will be accepted until September 30, 2016. You will need to register in order to submit a comment, which simply involves entering your name, email address and the first three characters of your postal code, as well as creating a password.

Transport Canada has released a discussion paper that considers some of the issues. West Coast Environmental Law has published a FAQ document that outlines their views on the key aspects of the oil tanker ban. West Coast’s key points boil down to the following:

  • The oil tanker moratorium must be legislated by an Act of Parliament.
  • The legislated oil tanker moratorium must not contain a sunset clause or expiry date.
  • The legislated oil tanker moratorium must at minimum apply to all of Hecate Strait, Dixon Entrance and Queen Charlotte Sound, as set out by the Prime Minister in the Mandate Letter of the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
  • The legislated oil tanker moratorium must comprehensively prohibit ships carrying oil in bulk as cargo, while allowing necessary shipments of fuel to coastal communities.


See government website here

Crude oil tanker moratorium

 A voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone (TEZ), in place since the 1980s, has protected the West Coast from loaded oil tankers transiting from Alaska to the continental U.S. The Government of Canada has taken other important steps towards protecting the marine environment, such as mandatory double hulls for tankers and compulsory pilotage areas where pilots come aboard ships to guide them through challenging waterways. The Government now aims to formalize a crude oil tanker moratorium on British Columbia’s north coast.

We invite you to share your ideas about how we can formalize a moratorium to protect our waters and coastlines without losing economic benefits from shipping. You can read about Shipping in Canada, Canada’s Marine Safety System and considerations on a moratorium in our Discussion Paper.

What do you believe are the most important issues the Government should address in its plan to formalize a crude oil tanker moratorium?   Submit you comments here!