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Will orcas mix with turbines?

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett, researchers from Orca Network, scan the waters near Admiralty Head in a former searchlight post attached to a bluff. Five days a week they spend two hours counting the marine life that travel through the area.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Susan Berta and Howard Garrett, researchers from Orca Network, scan the waters near Admiralty Head in a former searchlight post attached to a bluff. Five days a week they spend two hours counting the marine life that travel through the area.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

At the southwest tip of Admiralty Head, in what was once a searchlight post for enemy ships at Fort Casey, two researchers are using the viewpoint to spot killer whales.

While the work is long, and often chilly, it’s part of a larger project that could shed light on the future effects of tidal energy.

Within the next two years, the Snohomish Public Utility District is preparing to test tidal-energy turbines in deep water a half mile offshore from Fort Casey.

“It’s a new technology that not a lot is known about,” Susan Berta of Greenbank-based Orca Network said.

While tidal energy may one day contribute to the Northwest’s portfolio of clean, renewable energy, questions remain about the potential effects on marine life.

The network has tracked orcas for the last ten years during their winter travels, but they will intensify their efforts this year to aid the PUD. They will also monitor the area before and after the three turbines are placed.

“The turbines might be something they totally ignore or they might see it as intrusive and not want to swim past it. Nobody knows because we’ve never had anything like that in this area,” Berta said.

The whale organization is also asking for the public’s help in spotting whales for the study. Sightings of Southern Resident orcas, Steller sea lions and other mammals between Admiralty Head, Fort Flagler State Park and Point Wilson are especially important for the project.

Orca Network will also undertake scheduled land observations, as well as deploying boats in the study area to gather photo identification, acoustic and diving information.

People can help by calling in any whale sighting immediately so research boats can be deployed. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET, or you can email reports to info@orcanetwork.org.

The Orca Network asks that the public provide the species, location, time, direction of travel, approximate number of whales and if there are any adult males. The males have large, five to six foot dorsal fins.

If possible, people should also include any behaviors they observe such as breaching or feeding.

The sightings are collected and shared with researchers, agencies and the public through the Web site www.orcanetwork.org.

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