Late morning on Friday, August 26th, Soundwatch (SW) driver John Calogero received a distress call from a driver of a professional whale watch company who claimed to have just witnessed a private boater hitting a female member of the Southern Resident Community off the west side of San Juan Island. SW responded to the call immediately and interviewed the both the whale watch driver and the driver of the private vessel who claimed that he did not make contact with a whale or feel himself hitting anything.
Right after this alleged incident occurred, experienced observers saw a whale logging on her side at the surface of the water for a long period of time. SW staff began monitoring this whale. Eventually she did start swimming, although her dives were very shallow and her breathing seemed erratic. SW staff did not notice any visible marks on her body to verify that a vessel strike had indeed occurred. SW staff continued to monitor this whale until staff from the Center for Whale Research (CWR) arrived on scene and confirmed the identity to be L-90 Ballena an 18-year old female. Soundwatch then worked to keep a ¼ mile perimeter free of boat traffic, while the CWR crew stayed with L-90.
L-90 did get back with her family group soon after the possible vessel incident and was followed by CWR and the UW Conservation Canine Program for about four hours. At that time, the Center for Whale Research stated it was their opinion that she had not been hit by a boat, but was possibly pregnant or suffering from some other type of illness. They also said they had witnessed this whale exhibiting this behavior prior to the vessel incident.
Unfortunately, observers then lost track of her for several hours. She wasn’t seen again until early Friday evening when Jeanne Hyde, The Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Manager, spotted her. At that time, although she was lagging about 400 yards behind the rest of her family, she was keeping up with their pace. They were able to observe her until dusk.
“We all hope that no vessel strike occurred, but one thing to keep in mind here is just because you do not see any external signs, this does not mean the animal isn’t injured,” states Amy Traxler, Coordinator of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “We frequently pick up marine mammal carcasses that, outwardly, look to be in pristine condition. During the necropsy, however, you find broken ribs, severely bruised tissues, pools of blood in the body cavity, etc. that directly point to a blunt trauma injury that is the potential cause of death.”
All day Saturday L-90 was seen travelling with her family group and other K and L Pod members in San Juan Channel, but was slower and still travelling behind the group. In the evening she and her family travelled north along San Juan Island.
Soundwatch Director, Kari Koski, was on the water Friday working with the Conservation Canine Program when the call came in that a whale may have been struck by a vessel. According to Koski, “With busy boat traffic in the summer, the whales always have some risk of being hit by a boat. When anyone witnesses a potential strike, we have to take it seriously, and do follow up with witnesses, the vessel in question and stick with the whale to monitor its condition. Everyone did the right thing.” Koski also praised the whale watch operator for calling attention to the situation and noted that she had not witnessed a whale behaving in such a way and was concerned enough that she felt continued monitoring was warranted whatever may or may not have happened with the boat strike.
Over the next few days, researchers, monitoring groups such as Soundwatch and Straitwatch as well as Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement teams will be on the water and will be paying special attention to L-90 and her family group. All boaters are reminded to be on alert for whales and to give them plenty of room while following the guidelines and new vessel laws. If anyone witnesses possibly injured or stranded marine mammals, please call the Whale Museum Hotline at 1-800-562-8832 or email email@example.com
Be Whale Wise!
The Whale Museum