Good Morning, Whales!

This morning I woke leisurely, confident that the fog and the threatened rain would leave us on shore. That didn’t keep the whales from making another appearance, however- right off the deck of the Center we could see and hear a number of killer whales headed north along the shore. Dave, this incredible guy who works at the center, captains the tiny boat (the Orca) that we photograph from, and knows every single whale in this population by sight and by relation to its fellows (along with their life histories and general attitudes) marked which whales we were seeing. I’m still working on photo-ID’ing just a few of my favorite (and most easily-discernible) whales… I can’t imagine knowing them as well as he does. It’s like they’re all old friends to him, J2 an ancient matriarch who avoids the camera and K25 a young one he’s watched grow up into a “funny-looking little guy” with a smallish dorsal for a male. K20, his big sister, presumably “sucked all the growth” out of their mother, K13, because she’s as robust as any whale he’s seen. They take on so much more life and character when seen through his eyes- I’m still trying to get past the strange combination of awe and incomprehension that are always present when I see these massive animals break the surface of the water. 

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I’m sure these kayakers didn’t MEAN to get so close… after all, they were putting themselves directly in the paths of not only endangered animals, but apex predators on the hunt. Who would possibly do that on purpose? Oh yeah. Maybe the girl running along the shore with camera, dog, socks, and sandals, oversized flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. Regardless, it was inspiring seeing them in so close to shore and so calm, fins breaking the surface and blowholes hissing out clouds that mingled with the incredibly dense fog.

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It wasn’t long before the whale watch boats found us (well they weren’t really looking for me, just the whales…) but Marron and I didn’t mind too much when the whales and boats all moved off faster than we could follow. We were having a good shoreline wander. I took too many photos of jellyfish and liked them all, so they’ll be showing up probably in future posts. Here’s one of my favorites: 

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It’s a Lion’s Mane jelly, I think- star of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and one of the biggest (if not the biggest by length) animals on the planet at full size. In cold waters, they can loose tentacles 120 feet in length. I tried to keep Marron from swimming with them and met with mild success… and mild failure. Luckily, it didn’t appear that she got stung.

She’s a good beach walk buddy, though I worry that I’m letting her get too wet. She doesn’t appear to mind:

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Tomorrow’s hopefully going to be nice and clear, sunny and whale-ful. We need to photograph more of K pod, especially their males because they’re likely to be first and most impacted by food shortages. Stay posted- the next few days are likely to be busy and fruitful as the weather turns back toward summer.

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Mama’s Boys

I was going to call this post “Killer Whales are Killer Wailers” and talk about their systems of hunting but then I just couldn’t do it. But real quick, these whales (southern residents) do make a lot of noise while hunting because they find and catch fish with sound (fish aren’t good listeners apparently, never learned that skill in Kindergarten). Mammal-eating whales are silent as they hunt, potentially coordinating using their saddle patches and eye spots as visual clues to their pod-mates’ movements.

Okay, but back to the title of the post: southern residents are organized roughly along matrilineal lines. That means that most groups are composed of mothers and their offspring, whether male or female. It’s fascinating listening to the researchers here, because according to them, the big males with their tall dorsal fins and wide pectorals are fairly useless at feeding themselves. The older females keep them around and help them sate their bigger appetites, in the hopes that their sons will then procreate and pass the mothers’ genes on indirectly. Sort of like lions? Sort of like humans?

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Males whose mothers have died are sometimes taken on by other groups (or tag along, I’m not sure which). We’re hoping for the successful reattachment of a few of the big males to new groups of females, because there aren’t too many mature males left. They eat more, so when fish are scarce they’re the first ones to bite the metaphorical dust.

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Here’s Holly Fearnbach, one of the researchers I’m working with. She’s that tiny dot hanging out of the side of the helicopter, strapped in with a construction harness and taking aerial photos of the whales to determine, basically, how fat they are this year. (They told us we were looking good on the boat from above… with only a few snarky comments on our relative widths and potential “peanut-headed” status. A peanut-headed whale is unhappily skinny- they ought to be sleek and fat all down their bodies.)

Hopefully if we find evidence that the endangered Southern Residents are getting skinny, we might be able to convince interest groups to stop people from taking so much of their food source. Having watched the fishing boats seining for the past few days and hauling in nets of salmon, I’m not sure how they’d up the protection on Chinooks without impacting fishermen to the point of bankruptcy- I don’t understand how they could exclude the big (and tasty) fish while still catching enough of the small ones to make it worth their while. It’s not an easy problem, but it would be better to start fighting for the whales’ food now…

Also, helicopters are neat.

Finally for today, I know some of you have been reading along in the hopes of super cool leaping whale shots- I don’t blame you. But because I’m on a boat that is permitted to approach the whales pretty much as close as we need to get, it would be unchivalrous of me to use photos taken within the 200m permitted range for my own personal amusement and profit (aka this blog and my facebook page). I definitely super don’t want to get anyone in trouble or mess up anyone’s research or step on any toes, so all the whale photos I post on this blog will be fairly far away. THAT BEING SAID, some of my photos may go up on the Center for Whale Research’s website, http://www.whaleresearch.com. I highly recommend it- the people at the Center are constantly updating with whale encounters, awesome whale photos, and pages of ID guides and info on these animals. I personally think a membership to the website is worthwhile as well, and I can guarantee the proceeds from the memberships are well-used here.

I’m going to go try to photo-ID some more whale photos now. It’s getting slightly easier, but I’m nowhere near good enough to figure them out on the water. I’ve picked a few favorites that I’ll hopefully be able to spot next time we go out- stay posted for their stories!

Vicky Meets the Whales

Just completed my second day out on the water- apparently it’s rare to have two such full days as these past two have been, which might mean I have more time to update in the near future (forecast says rain, surprise surprise Washington…) but that I will have slightly less to say? Somehow, I doubt it. I always have something to say.

Anyways, basically this is the coolest internship ever. I’m on-site to jump in a boat and go hang out with, identify, and photograph amazing apex predators in their natural environment with (extremely patient) experts willing to answer all of my (millions of) questions about whales, their food, their habits, their moods, their habitat, and their future.

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Basically, we’re out to find, identify, census, and hopefully determine the sizes of the Southern Resident population of killer whales. But let’s back up a step here:

Killer whales are widespread, from Antarctica all the way to the Aleutian islands and possibly even farther north when there’s no ice. But that’s only if you consider every killer whale (Orcinus orca) to be part of a single species. You’ll notice I call them “killer whales”- I’m mimicking the scientists here, who are of the (undoubtedly correct) opinion that killer whales are not all one species, so it’s inaccurate to refer to them all as “orca.” The Antarctic/southern hemisphere whales probably haven’t had contact with their northern relatives for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Additionally, killer whales are further divided by their locations- northern and southern populations, close to shore or away from shore, Atlantic, Pacific, Aleutian, etc. and even further within those groups by their diet and group-specific culture. Yes, that’s right. Killer whales can be distinguished very clearly by their proprietary languages and cultures. They don’t interbreed between cultures (they’ve been described to me as “xenophobic”), look significantly different to those who know what to look for (eventually I will…) and haven’t traded genetic information in hundreds of thousands of years. In the wild, they are completely separate entities, and ought to be considered as multiple species across the globe.

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In the area we’re studying, three groups of killer whales can be found: residents, transients, and offshores. Offshores are the most rarely seen and least well-known, but it’s hypothesized from the state of their worn-down teeth that they eat sharks and live mostly off of the continental shelf. (WHAT.) Transients are the big mammal-eaters, taking down harbor seals and other kinds of whales with sneaky silent group efforts, and share nearly all the same spaces as residents. Residents and transients don’t compete for space (it’s a big ocean) or food, however, because residents eat nearly exclusively large Chinook salmon.

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Chinook salmon is the big stuff- the real deal, cherished by humans and whales alike. Complicating the already-sensitive reliance of the Southern Residents on these fish is the international border and fractured nature of interest groups in this area: whale-watchers want to conserve the whales, obviously, but also want close access to them; meanwhile, the US and Canada have to negotiate shares of ocean-caught salmon for their commercial and recreational fishermen; on top of this, native groups in both countries have ancestral claims to subsistence on the fish; and upstream pollution and dams and water loss are making it harder and harder for these sought-after snacks to breed every year. (In case you have never heard of salmon, they are born in high freshwater streams, make their way to the oceans to grow, then return up rapids and falls and long distances to their place of birth to generate their own offspring. Already a hard life for the lil’ guys. Or, you know, big guys…)

More on the whales themselves (their culture and language, especially) probably tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this at the end of your day:

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Goodnight whales. Goodnight internet. Goodnight little trailer and goodnight to you too.

Getting There: Journey to Friday Harbor

Traveling is hard. From my arrival at SFO until finally reaching my home for the next week and a half, well over twelve hours of travel time had elapsed, including a plane ride, a shuttle bus, a ferry, and a lot of waiting around.

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Luckily, SFO has a “yoga room” and I had a backpack full of books, papers, and sewing materials, and no lack of interesting travel companions. Most notably, my self-appointed guides to the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor were two guys named Maverick and Friday (presumably a fighter pilot or Senator, who in reality was a massage therapist with a deep interest in acupuncture, and his buddy, the namesake of the harbor… or maybe just coincidentally named). Hi guys!

Having braved the vagaries of fate and fortune (Alaska delayed my flight by four hours, disarranging all of the careful travel plans we had laid) and having been picked up at the ferry terminal by Holly and John, the two indescribably cool scientists who are essentially letting me tag along on their project, I finally made it to San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research. The property, owned by a man named Ken, a legend in killer whale conservation and research, is dotted with old campers and cars, trees, blackberry bushes, an ex-teepee structure, a workshop/guest house of sorts, and the center itself. Headquarters is actually Ken’s house, which has a gorgeous view and a generously shared downstairs area full of radios and computers for tracking and recording whale activity. There’s a constant hum- it might be excitement, or it might be the output from the hydrophone off of the Lime Kiln area, which records not only squeaks and clicks of traveling whales but also extremely loud propeller noises from the watercraft above. Out the windows that front the whole structure, whales and the sunset can be seen with nearly the same regularity. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration… but I’ve only been here about a day and I’ve seen 70-some whales and only one sunset, okay?)

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I’m inhabiting one of the old campers for the duration of my stay- it’s an adorable silver bullet-shaped structure with two beds and a multitude of interesting cabinets and hooks and drawers. I was promised spiders, but unfortunately they haven’t turned up yet.

While I’ve got access to actual bathrooms, the adventurous spirit in me demands that at least part of the time I make use of the composting outhouse. Decorated with banana slug trails that glisten with morning dew (and also slime), it’s located just far enough down a mowed path to be out of sight of the main driveway, but not far enough to lose its sense of excitement. But if the roll of toilet paper (conveniently stashed in a Ziploc bag) is missing from the top of the path, we know better than to continue on, and thus have avoided all mishaps.

As for the whales, I’ll post more on them as soon as possible. I need to reformat some photos and I’d like to give a bit more background about the research we’re doing and the whales themselves and it won’t all fit in this post! I’m having a marvelous time.