Hardly Sea Pandas

Most of the whales I saw in Haro Strait this summer were members of the Southern Resident population, fish-eaters that travel in large, social, noisy groups. 

One morning was different: we awoke to a thick fog, as usual, but the hydrophones in the main room of the Center for Whale research were silent. Whales were passing, but in complete silence and in groups of three and four, jogging along close to the rocky shore with deadly purpose. 

Even I, new to the ways of the whales of the Pacific northwest, could feel a visceral difference between this group and the playful bunch I’d seen porpoising by in the days prior. These animals, over twenty feet in length, dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water, were apex predators… and they were on the hunt. 

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Transients eat marine mammals like seals and porpoises, for the most part, but have been known to take down prey as large and diverse as moose, swimming the channels between the islands, and gray and minke whales, many times the size of the transients but vulnerable to their speed and dogged pursuance. They’ve never been known to take a human in the wild- any accounts of “killer” killer whales are invariably from aquariums- but there’s something in the way they move that pricks an evolutionary nerve. You can tell- you’d be digestible.

Right off the porch, I’d been watching a harbor seal for days. He and another, smaller female had been resident on the rocky reef a few hundred feet from shore, spending afternoons lazing on the old volcanic rock, then disappearing at high tide along with the reef itself. As three sharp fins neared the place I knew the rocks to be, they split suddenly around it. A quick splash of water and the sudden appearance of diving gulls were the only obvious signs that we probably wouldn’t be seeing that seal any longer… 

Later that day we got much closer to the scene of the carnage- out on the boat, we found a few groups of transients still hunting. They must be masters of maneuvering underwater. I was almost certain they would hit the rocks, they got so close.Image

We were rooting for this girl to get away:

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She was smart and stayed up on the rocks. Lucky this time… 

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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.

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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SFO

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.

Woods Hole Field Trip

A few months ago, (sorry, I got busy!) my Marine Biology class went on a field trip from Dartmouth to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, along with the surrounding marine labs, aquarium, and ocean! We left school at 6 am and got to the docks around 11, at which point we promptly jumped aboard what looked like the fishing boat out of every kid’s picture book. Decked out with chains and fishing lines and nets and otter trawls and those quaint-looking and questionably effective life preservers, the Gemma was in fact one of the boats that picks up experimental organisms for the researchers at Woods Hole. IMG_0294 We set out on the Gemma with our “tour guide” (the marine resources provider, aka creature-catcher for the Woods Hole institutions), his son, a BIG friendly german shepherd, and a somewhat less-talkative captain and first mate. It was a beautiful day- chilly, with winter not yet out the door but summer not far away. The water was still cold but the first of the spring fishes had been spotted at the southern end of Cape Cod, and our plankton trawl turned up all manner of life, plant and animal and the things that blur the lines in between, all gearing up for the productive days ahead. IMG_0305 This was the real treasure trove of the day, however: this miniature bottom trawl, a baby of the type much-despised by conservationists and clams, dragged along behind the boat for a few minutes (doing apparently little long-term damage to the often-disturbed sandy bottom) and when winched up, spilled a glittering, gleaming, hopping mass of undersea jewels. IMG_0324 Clams and clam shells, alive and dead, poured out of the net along with purple urchins, snails, smooth rocks, scallops, algae, and hundreds of knuckle-length pointy-faced shrimp. Some of the rarer organisms were pulled out for more careful stowage (meant for later scientific research) or more careful observation- a slightly battered pipefish, a few massive whelks, some compact and irritated hermit crabs, and a massive long-limbed crab that perched on our youngest crewmember as he searched the pile of treasures. IMG_0309   After a good morning’s trawling, we went indoors to check out the labs and holding tanks for all the scientific organisms. My favorite parts were the squid tank (squids are very hard to photograph…), the baby skates, and this GIANT HORSESHOE CRAB. It had never occurred to me that they could grow to be this size, or anything even close. IMG_0387 IMG_0403 IMG_0379

Fun class, great field trip! Everyone at least once should get tickles from a giant horseshoe crab.

Langur

Mom and I recently (last March) went on an impromptu, epic adventure to northern India, visiting some major cities and one very teeny little town called Khajuraho. I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this trip in the future, but for now I want to focus on our day in Panna National Park, a tiger preserve and conservation area near Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh. Teak trees filled with eagles and blossom-headed parakeets grow tall in the hills above the Ken River, and the calls of sambar deer warn of tigers stalking through the brush.

And perched in trees watching it all are the gray langurs, big cream-colored monkeys with long tails and black faces, articulate fingers and a bit of fuzz. In their groups of females, a few males, and a bunch of babies, they forage for food, descending from the treetops to search along the ground and the swinging back up into the branches to chew on leaves, fruits, insects, and whatever else they can find that appeals to a monkey’s tastes. While a few members of the group venture earthward for roots and termites, at least one langur stays in the trees as a lookout- they are at their most vulnerable to dholes (wild dogs), leopards, and tigers while on the ground. They’ve adapted quite well in the south of India to urban landscapes, generally feeding on anything they can find and occasionally causing trouble or violence. But the “gray langur” is any of one to 6 or more different species, depending on whose taxonomy you use. What species is this healthy-looking (and irritated) individual?

huh?

I guess what I really want to ask is, what is a species? Among the many definitions out there, the one most used in my field of study, ecology, revolves around ability to reproduce- if two individuals live in overlapping areas and can reproduce together to make viable offspring, those individuals are in the same species. But who decides how “viable” those offspring must be, and where do we draw the line? More on this soon- till then, I guess this is probably a Southern Plains Gray Langur (Semnopithecus dussumieri) or, more likely (though out of its range as listed on Wikipedia, fits more in terms of size and morphology) a Northern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus entellus.