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Fin whale on Vashon

by: Bianca Perla, featured photo above by Kelly Keenan.

Have you ever touched whale skin? It’s slippery and firm like the smooth skin of a wet apple. Have you had the chance to stand and look down into a whale’s gaping mouth? The lines of stiff baleen fray open to reveal a thick purple tongue the size of a full grown human.  If you were at Spring Beach Park last week you may have been one of the lucky ones to stumble upon a leviathan of the deep–a fin whale that met an early demise. Fin whales are federally endangered baleen whales that strain mostly fish and krill through their fibrous mouths. They are the second largest whale species in the world.

A view into a fin whale’s mouth. If you look closely you can see the tongue folded to the side against the back. Some baleen had been removed from this whale’s mouth which is a federal offense. All marine mammals are protected by law. Observing the animal is fine. But, no part of the animal can be removed. Photo by: Bianca Perla

It is transporting to walk carefully around an animal as massive as this with a presence so strong even in death. This whale, I discovered, was male. I imagined the world he came from, the mystery of those liquid realms he glided through. He saw places I can hardly imagine and explored depths, sights, and sounds that I will never understand.

I stopped at his eye, closed in death and larger than a human’s head, and wondered with a sharp sadness what it would have looked like gazing at me, open and alive.

Eye of the fin whale, baleen mouth, and person for scale. Fin whales are our second largest whale species, only blue whales are larger. Photo by: Bianca Perla

This whale had been brought to our shores for an unfortunate reason. He had been found stuck to the bow of a tanker pulling into Commencement Bay in Tacoma. Needing to act fast, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network–spearheaded by NOAA and encompassing a dizzying array of research and response groups from all over the Puget Sound, brought this whale briefly to our island shores. (Other groups present to learn from the whale were: Cascadia Research Collective, SR3, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, MaST, University of Washington. From Vashon-Maury there were representatives from Sound Action and Vashon Nature Center).

Network researchers prepare to start the necropsy. The white gash in the whale’s back is the impact site where the whale was hit by the tanker. Photo by: Bianca Perla.

Why was it necessary to drag this 52-foot long, approximately 70 ton, whale to land?  To conduct a necropsy that would answer whether the whale was sick or healthy, alive or dead at the time of impact. In addition, this necropsy provides valuable information about typical characteristics of this endangered species including length, girth, parasite load, diet, genetics, contaminants, biotoxins and more. Researchers from the University of Washington even collected tissues to help with stem cell research!

Soon after the investigation began, some of the essential questions were answered. Blood spilled like a fountain when researchers cut into the impact site, indicating that the whale’s circulatory system had been working at the time of the strike. He had been alive when he was hit. Furthermore, oily blubber stores, a belly full of krill, and a low parasite load indicated that he had been a healthy juvenile. The case has now been turned over to federal law enforcement officers who will determine if the company that owns the tanker that hit this endangered whale will be deemed liable.

The arrival of this fin whale is harbinger of a larger change throughout Puget Sound. Released from the pressure of large scale whaling operations, these impressive sea mammals are making a comeback. This is great news but their increasing numbers also highlight threats to whale health still present in Puget Sound. According to NOAA, since 2015 we’ve had 4 humpback whale strandings in Puget Sound. Before 2015, we had zero.  Not particularly frequent in the Puget Sound, fin whales seem particularly susceptible to boat strikes. Since 2002, there have been 12 fin whale deaths recorded in the Pacific Northwest, 10 of these from boat impact.

Talking to researchers on the beach I learned that this fin whale was the third whale stranding in our region in the last 10 days (the other 2 were gray whales– one a calf caught in derelict crab gear, and a mature female in poor nutritional condition. Another gray whale (22) was struck by a boat, but she survived and is healthy and well.) These necropsy crews have had almost no down time. Which brings up a final challenge: What do you do with dead whales?

The preferred option is to leave whales on the beach to decompose, as would happen if they died naturally and floated to shore. Their carcasses provide an abundant food source to wildlife of all types. Other options include sinking or burying them–both much less ecologically beneficial and also incredibly tricky. In some areas, the law does not allow the sinking of whales, and the permitting process for sinking or burying (can you imagine burying a 52-foot-long, six foot tall carcass???) are extremely complex and time consuming.

However, sometimes leaving the whales on the beach is not an easy task either. Very few people are thrilled about having a whale decompose on their beach, even if that beach is a public park. After complaints from a few Spring Beach residents, NOAA worked hard to find a more remote place on our island shores where the whale could be relocated. Although we have many long stretches of uninhabited shoreline, no willing land managers or private land owners, besides the original Vashon Park District owned site (thank you VPD!) came through.

After much discussion, the network did find a solution that would keep the carcass on a beach. At the expense of the tanker company that hit him, the fin whale was towed, at high tide, at midnight, to rest on McNeil Island, where there is no public or research access.

Seeing a marine mammal this size is an amazing experience! Photo by: Bianca Perla.

The chance to see a dead whale up close is a fascinating experience that many islanders would enjoy. In addition, following a whale carcass through all stages of decomposition could be an incredible scientific and educational endeavor for the whole community. Before we learned the whale was to be moved, Vashon Nature Center initiated conversations with the network about mounting a wildlife camera or webcam to document the wildlife that made use of the whale throughout the decomposition process. Whales have been absent from the Puget Sound for so long we have virtually no understanding of their potential influence on the Puget Sound ecosystem, even in their death.

We view this a big missed opportunity–for scientists, the local community,  schools, and park visitors. There was not much time to make decisions and the concept new to land managers. Locally, the understanding of accompanying un-pleasantries (smell, sight, extra people on the beach) outweighed the understanding of benefits (scientific knowledge, unique experience, education, wildlife and ecosystem benefits from decomposition).  The positive outcome is that we are now talking about places around Vashon and Maury that might be more palatable to put a stranded whale. This is a conversation that needs to happen. As NOAA stranding network coordinator Kristin Wilkinson aptly states, “The strandings are only going to increase and this is going to come up time and time again.”

As the whales return, we hope to lessen the negative impacts they experience in our waters. But, when a whale does die, will our community be able to find a space for these magnificent animals to cycle back to earth and sea naturally? To be carried in the stomachs of seagulls, in the nibbles of fish, in the talons of eagles, in the jaws of coyotes? We hope so, even if it’s a bit unpleasant and stinky.

More information: Marine mammal stranding network, Cascadia Research Collective autopsy report, SR3.

To report dead, injured or stranded marine mammals call our local marine mammal stranding coordinator or one of the above groups: Anne Stateler, 206-463-9041 or vashonorcas@aol.com.

Please note: Public access to Spring Beach Park is by water only. There is no public land access and the whale is now gone.

BeachNET launches as part of larger Salish Sea restoration

by: Kathryn True

On several cold, wet nights this winter, while the rest of us cozied up by the fire, a group of intrepid scientists and volunteers visited local beaches to pan for gold—fish gold to be exact. They carefully measured out predetermined beach sections, then used modified gold-panning equipment to sift fish eggs out of their sandy beds. They sent these samples to a Department of Natural Resources lab where researchers determine and report back the numbers and kinds of forage fish found. Each beach was chosen for contrasting characteristics to give scientists information about what makes healthy fish habitat.

This effort is one part of the island BeachNET Program, a citizen-science partnership between Vashon Nature Center, Vashon-Maury Land Trust, Washington Department of Natural Resources, King County, and the University of Washington. BeachNET (Beach Nearshore Ecology Team) is the active hand of the Citizen Stewardship Committee for Maury Island Aquatic Reserve. The Citizen Stewardship Committee plans citizen science studies, educational opportunities, and stewardship activities in the reserve. It is coordinated by Vashon Nature Center and open to anyone (contact us to sign up). This forage fish survey is just one of many projects conceptualized by this Committee and carried out by BeachNET volunteers.

“These fish are important and are called forage fish for a reason: they are foraged,” says Bianca Perla, director of Vashon Nature Center. “They are the underpinning of the whole food web and are supposed to be very abundant. Their existence is critical to salmon and sea birds.” The study focuses on sand lance and surf smelt; though herring are also key forage fish, they spawn in deeper waters so egg abundance can’t be measured using the panning method.

Sand lance eggs found by Vashon BeachNET volunteers at Piner Point. This is shown under a microscope. The eggs are stuck to sand grains. Photo courtesy: Galen Richards, WADNR

A critical part of the forage-fish life cycle is beach spawning. During a high-tide (using some sort of fishy “seavite” system, they all know when to show up) the fish swim together in a frenzied mass to deposit eggs and milt. These free-floating gametes somehow find each other and join to make zygotes before falling to the sediment where they will develop over the next several weeks. The tide then recedes, leaving the newly fertilized eggs exposed and vulnerable.

“We’re focusing on this part of the life cycle because we’re losing so many natural beaches,” Perla says. “We’re losing a lot of sand due to bulkheading and shoreline development. This also eliminates trees and other overhanging vegetation, which shades the eggs and keep them from drying out.”

“Since the Dust Bowl we have all been trained to fear erosion, so to turn around and tell people erosion is good for our shorelines is difficult to get across,” says Tom Dean, director of the Land Trust about the difficulty of selling the idea of bulkhead removal to landowners. “For years, we’ve had lots of efforts to teach about animals found on the beach, and now it’s time to go the next step to, ‘What am I seeing in the physical landscape and what does that mean for the health of beach creatures?’ This is groundbreaking work, and under Greg Rabourn at King County’s leadership we are pushing the envelope on this issue so we can demonstrate what we learn to people throughout Puget Sound.” Data collected on Vashon will contribute to a Puget Sound research study spearheaded by Jason Toft at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Though they serve as lynchpins of the entire food web, we know very little about forage fish. That’s where the BeachNET Program comes in. Examining side-by-side different habitat characteristics that provide good egg-rearing conditions will help define the perfect conditions under which these fish thrive. The Vashon study compares stretches of contiguous shoreline that include three types of beaches: untouched shoreline, shoreline with bulkheads that will not be removed, and shoreline with bulkheads that will be removed as part of this study, which will provide useful before-and-after snapshots of beach health.

“Salmon have been studied quite a bit, but their food hasn’t,” adds Perla. “We’re starting to put the pieces together and realize that an important part of protecting salmon is keeping their food populations healthy.”

This is one in a series of posts about the BeachNET Program. This spring, Vashon Nature Center will train volunteers interested in being part of this and more citizen science projects on the beach. To join us on the beach, email: info@vashonnaturecenter.org. Learn more about BeachNET and Maury Island Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee.

Walking on water

by: Kathryn True

Every few years, islanders are treated with a rare and miraculous gift: the ability to walk on water – water in its solid state, that is. The far reaches of ponds that we normally gaze longingly at, bound as we are to terrestrial shores, are suddenly accessible. Pond plants going about their watery lives largely undetected by human eyes can be closely studied in their frozen glory—reaching for light even as they are encased in ice.

Fisher pre-dawn. photo by: Kathryn True

Last week, after lacing up my Granny’s Attic skates and venturing out onto Fisher Pond with a group of friends in the inky purple pre-dawn, I was initiated into revelations that are generally the secreted knowledge of the water insects, ducks, and cattails. I was awestruck by the pond’s humming, haunting song, which echoed from shore to shore and reverberated through my body as our skates scored its surface. I was drawn to the perfect, clean black ice—so smooth it seemed a possible entrance into an exotic mirror-world.

Ice bubbles. photo by: Bella Ormseth

As the sun rose, raven flew over calling to her mate. I called “good morning” —taunting them both with my new freedom from earthbound trails. Smug to finally have something on raven! A pileated cackled its dawn greeting from a tall snag, as the tips of far firs were slowly cloaked top-down in a golden pink sheath. At my feet, the sky reflected frozen bubbles trapped in lines of silvery light, or caught mid-spiral like tiny galaxies. Larger bubbles grew beneath the ice as I moved inches above—shaped as space ships, cartoon speech bubbles, and mushrooms. Endless variations and forms spread out in all directions, made more magnificent in my knowledge of their fleeting existence.

For a naturalist, having the chance to travel the pond this way is like entering another world—akin to dipping into the ocean’s secrets via snorkeling. It is a treat to experience first-hand my wild friends’ homes—to peer into that hillock of pond plants so revered by Wood Ducks, to observe up-close the dancer-like reach of lily-pad stems, to venture alongside a scrabble of cattails where a Red-winged Blackbird sounded surprised as he belted out a spring song–his tribute, I guessed, to this strange, icy, new day.

Frost on the ice. photo by: Bella Ormseth

Special thanks to Linda and Gary Peterson for lovingly supplying ice skates so hundreds of islanders can explore Fisher Pond this way. And to the Land Trust for stewarding these special wild places for all of us to enjoy.

Watch this video of a frozen world by Kathryn True.

Featured photo at top of post by: Linda Peterson