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Expert talks about Whidbey's whales

"Whale expert John Calambokidis describes the life of Puget Sound gray whales to a large audience in Freeland.Jim Larsen / staff photoHelp track the whalesCascadia Research and Orca Conservancy track whale movements in Puget Sound and appreciate reports from the public. Cascadia Research is also seeking photographs of gray whales to use in the photo ID process. The animals are close enough to shore that adequate photographs can be obtained with a telephoto lens from shore. Desired are close-ups of either the right or left side in the vicinity of the dorsal hump as well as the ventral flukes.Report or send photographs of whales in Puget Sound waters to either of the following locations:*John Calambokidis, Research Biologist, Cascadia Research, 218 1/2 W. Fourth Ave., Olympia WA 98501Web page:www.CascadiaResearch.orgTel.: 360.943.7325Fax: 360.943.7026E-mail:Calambokidis@CascadiaResearch.org*Susan Berta, Orca Conservancy, 2403 S. North Bluff Road, Greenbank, WA. 98253Web page:rockisland.com/~tokitaeTel.: 360.678.3451E-mail:susanb@whidbey.netComing soon:www.orcaconservancy.orgJohn Calambokidis stepped off his whale research boat to give a talk about the Saratoga 5 to a large, appreciative audience in Freeland April 25.The veteran whale researcher looked rather wild in his work clothes, flowing hair and graying beard, but his kind eyes showed his real nature. He may be obsessed with whales, but in a good way. He could be Captain Ahab's nicer brother.His main subject that night was gray whales, which for the last month have been a common sight as they spout and feed on ghost shrimp and other small creatures found in Saratoga Passage. Calambokidis helped develop the photo ID system of identifying gray whales by their markings over 20 years ago, so each whale is like a long-time family member to the researcher, who represents Cascadia Research in Olympia.The photo ID project in Saratoga Passage, which divides Whidbey and Camano islands, was started in 1990. Two whales were identified that year, and in 1991 five whales were identified. They've been coming back every year.All five were present through last year and there have been three ID'd this year, Calambokidis said, explaining that he still expects the other two to show up. There's a core group of five that returns virtually every year.The Saratoga 5 are the one sure thing when the gray whales return to Puget Sound each spring, but there are usually more than that. Last year there were 12 additional, but these five are always here, he said.The Saratoga quintet are part of a group of about 250 seasonal gray whale residents, those who keep returning to Washington waters year after year, including the outer coast. That's a tiny fraction of the estimated 26,000 gray whales that make their way past the Washington coast on their annual migration between California and Alaska. The resident grays spend three or four months in local waters, usually leaving in May or June.We still don't know where they go, Calambokidis admitted. Although the grays are individually identified, they're almost impossible to pick out in the mass migration route. But he suspects the seasonal whales stick to the inside waters on their way north, east of Vancouver Island.Clearly they're going somewhere, he said, soliciting a laugh from the audience of more than 60 people.Gray whale populations in southern Puget Sound are less predictable. Some we've never seen before and we'll never see again, Calambokidis said. About one-fourth to one-third end up dying in Puget Sound in a typical year. They're stragglers from the migration who aren't making it, he said.Calambokidis said the gray whale population may be at its historic, pre-whaling days level. Many whale deaths have been reported, particularly last year, but the numbers aren't beyond what could be expected from such a large population.Killer whales are known to harbor high levels of toxins in their bodies, but Calambokidis said the same isn't true of gray whales, which feed much lower in the food chain. They gulp water and nutrients into their mouths, and the food is strained out by their baleen as the water is expelled. Some 30 to 40 gray whales have been tested for toxins and levels have been low. Toxins are not playing a role, in whale deaths, he said.Some gray whales also become prey to killer (orca) whales. We hate to blame the orcas, but over one-third of live ones (grays) show signs of killer whale attacks, he said. One juvenile whale was found dead with 200 killer whale bites.Whale deaths received extensive media play last year, but so far this year there hasn't been anything to report. Mortality is not occurring this year, Calambokidis said. There has not been a single death so far in Washington; it doesn't look like it's happening. During an average season, six whales are found dead, he said. There may be a more plentiful food supply in the ocean this year.Renewed hunting of gray whales by the Makah Indian tribe at Neah Bay has caused considerable controversy in recent years.I'm quite torn by it, Calambokidis said. Basically he believes the Makahs have a treaty right to hunt gray whales, and he supports that as long as they're not hunting the small population of resident whales. He helped hunting opponents put a temporary stop to the whale hunt last year as a judge ordered another environmental assessment based on the resident whale population.Calambokidis appeared in Freeland at the invitation of the Whidbey-based Orca Conservancy, headed by Greenbank residents Susan Berta and Howard Garrett. It was the first of several planned monthly whale presentations.The next meeting will be Wednesday, May 30 at 7 p.m. at the Central Whidbey Fire District meeting room on Race Road. The Inland Sea -- Where have All the Orcas Gone?, a 45-minute film from People for Puget Sound, will be presented by Michael Harris. "

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