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Whale of a Problem Lures Researchers

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Every morning between June and September, Stefanie Hawks-Johnson joined hundreds of people boarding commercial whale-watching boats in hopes of spotting orca whales. Her interest in whales goes far beyond tourism—she and other UW researchers have launched a multi-year effort to determine the cause of the marine mammal’s plummeting population in the Puget Sound.

Hawks-Johnson, a doctoral student in psychology specializing in animal behavior, has a long-standing interest in orcas and marine environmental education. She worked for four years as a naturalist aboard the Mosquito Fleet—a company offering whale-watching tours out of Everett—and formed Marine Mammal Connection in 1996 to educate school children and the public about Puget Sound environmental issues. Now 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. 

Working aboard a tour boat operated by the Mosquito Fleet, the researchers are collecting data about the orcas’ behavior. They are using 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 (PCBs) 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 affecting the orcas and their behavior. 

“The orcas are getting hit with a triple whammy,” explains 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, says Hawks-Johnson, 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. In one of the local pods, there hasn’t been a surviving calf born since 1996. 

Hawks-Johnson’s research is the first step in a larger, long-term effort. A special solar-powered catamaran, currently being built by a team including UW electrical engineering doctoral student Michael Dougherty, will eventually follow the orcas out to sea in winter and monitor them around the clock with infrared cameras and hydrophones. 

“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.” 

For now, Hawks-Johnson is collecting critical data in Puget Sound to learn whether orcas are changing their eating habits and feeding off the bottom of the sound, as she suspects. In addition, she and her assistants—UW undergraduate psychology and zoology students—will collect behavioral data on individual whales and will use a camcorder to record multiple orcas when they come into view, allowing them to later analyze the videotapes in detail. 

“Orcas are fascinating to me because they are so family oriented like humans,” says Hawks-Johnson. “Their bonds and social structure are so strong and there is a real emotional connection between individuals. 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,” adds Hawks-Johnson, “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.”