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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Epic Journey to Race Rocks

Today our awesome and very generous captain chartered a Canadian zodiac to take his crew out on a wildlife-viewing adventure from a different (and much speedier) platform. This trip had a bit of everything - sunshine and blue skies to socked in fog, choppy waters that tossed us around to glassy flat-calm water. We traveled all the way out west past Race Rocks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and while traveling about a hundred nautical miles over six and a half hours we saw tons of birds and marine mammals. The best way to capture it all is via a species list, with some photos and notes to go along with it.

Cetaceans (don't ask me how the numbers worked out like this)
3 transient orcas - T41, T41A, and male T44
3 minke whales
3 Dall's porpose
3 harbor porpoise

Transient male T44, surfacing with a red piece of harbor seal meat in his mouth. It's hard to see in the low-res version, so I included a close-up.

Transient female T41

Minke whale chillin' with a red-necked grebe

Pinnipeds
Several hundred Steller sea lions - several hundred at Race Rocks, 5-10 "harassing" the three transients, and about 20 more at Whale Rocks on the way back home
Several dozen harbor seals
A few California sea lions

Steller sea lions through the fog at Race Rocks (with one California sea lion in the back)

Two lazy Steller sea lions on Whale Rocks, with some Heermann's gulls and double-crested cormorants

Birds
Several hundred common murres
Several hundred glaucous-winged gulls
Several hundred Heermann's gulls
Several dozen rhinoceros auklets
Several dozen pelagic cormorants
Several dozen double-crested cormorants
Several dozen turkey vultures (see photo)
5-10 pigeon guillemots
5-10 surf scoters
5-10 Bonaparte's gulls
3 Pacific loons
1 bald eagle
1 red-necked grebe (I didn't even know we saw this until looking at my photos, and I noticed it with the minke whale in the above photo!)
1 shearwater (!!! Species yet to be determined, but something I've never seen here)

Probably the coolest thing we saw today was the interaction between some Steller sea lions and the three transients. I've heard about hordes of Steller sea lions chasing transients away, but this is the first time I've witnessed anything like it. Transients are the true top predators in the ocean, but really only stand a chance against a large, aggresive Steller when they get it alone and offshore, and even then it takes a group of them to do it and they might leave the encounter with some sea-lion-inflicted battle scars. Right after we saw the transients make a harbor seal kill, they were continuing along to the west when we spotted about 5-10 Steller seal lions in a nearby kelp bed. The sea lions were on the surface "chasing" after the transients maybe 150 yards behind them, when the whales made a 180 degree turn and seemingly called their bluff by swimming right back at them. The whales disappeared on a long dive while the Steller's nervously poked their heads above the water to scan for dorsal fins. The whales circled around the sea lions once, and must have passed within yards of them before continuing on their way. It was exhilirating to see two of the top predators in the ocean interacting like that in the wild.

What's your eternal moment?

"The air becomes still. We become quiet. Together, we witness a sight that few people ever see: we are surrounded by killer whales...Conventional teachings suggest that eternity is something that starts after death, and then goes on - well, forever. But I know that it is this moment that is eternal. One wave moves in a certain manner while that particular killer whale rises above the water and catches one ray of light against the flash of its singular fin, and I stand here on this particular boat, late in the afternoon of this certain day, with these people who have traveled distances near and far to stand here and be captured with me in this moment, which is gone before I blink and which will continue always to exist." ~Ernestine Hayes, in Blonde Indian

This quote was in a magazine I read today, and when I read it aloud I was told it sounds like something I could have written. It certainly rings true for me. I think I'll have to check out the novel that it comes from.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

T14 in Active Pass

Today we headed way up north into the Canadian Gulf Islands, up Swanson Channel and through a narrow area called Active Pass where we caught up with the lone male transient T14. T14, also nicknamed Pender, is a famous transient because he was captured in 1976 along with 5 other transient orcas. Little was understood about the local pods of orcas in the 1960s and 1970s, and both residents and transients were captured to be put on display in marine parks. By 1976, members of the public were beginning to protest the live captures, however, and all six transients were eventually released. T14 and his mom, T13, were held a little longer than the others for research purposes and were eventually fitted with radio tags before release.

You'll understand why I was so thrilled to hear about the small, cutting-edge tracking tags Brad Hanson is using this year when you hear what happened to Pender. The tags that were fitted to him and his mom weighed 1.5 kg and were attached to the fin with five bolts that were surgically drilled through the fin while the whales were in a net pen - quite a contrast to the small dart Brad and other researchers can attach to the whale as it surfaces! After five months of tracking, the two whales disppeared, and were not seen again for three years, at which point the tags were gone, but a build-up of scar tissue remained. While T13 has since died, T14 still bears distinctive scars from his tag 32 years later. You can see them in the photo below - the two notches on the bottom of the leading edge of his dorsal fin.


Pender was just a young sprouter male when the tagging incident occurred, but he has since become one of the most well-known local transients. Today was the first time I've ever gotten to see him, though. It's actually the first time I've ever seen any of the transient lone bulls, that either disperse from their mother or travel on their own after her death. They lone bulls will occassionally associate with other males (T14 was with another lone bull, T31, yesterday) or other transient pods for breeding purposes, but Pender is most often seen alone.

Some whale-watch captains theorize that Pender routinely circumnavigates Vancouver Island, because he's seen here every three weeks or so, always coming east from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and heading north up the Strait of Georgia. That's exactly what he was doing on this visit - coming in from Victoria yesterday and when we left him today he was heading north up the Strait of Georgia.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Lazy Day, Lazy Whales

Today I got a call that J-Pod was heading south towards Lime Kiln Lighthouse. I rushed out there, because sometimes they zoom down from the north end of San Juan Island in 20 minutes. Other times though, like today, they move very slowly against a strong flood tide and it takes them more like two hours. When the whales finally came into sight, they were very far offshore, and I spent another two hours watching them slowly make progress southward. While it wasn't an action-filled day whale-wise, it was nice to just relax on the rocks in the sunshine, and sit there with my camera and binoculars enjoying both the whales in the distance and the other wildlife that was around.

Several small flocks of harlequin ducks flew by, there were lots of little harbor seal weaner pups (born in July of this year, but now off on their own) chasing each other around, and one orca even came in for a "close" pass - although close today meant within half a mile!




Overall, I certainly can't complain - it was another beautiful day in the San Juan Islands!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

K-Pod Calls from Yesterday

While listening live as I recorded yesterday, I thought the whales were pretty vocal, but it turns out it was pretty hard to find a nice, short sample that has a lot of vocalizations! I found a decent one though: here's a clip from yesterday when J and K Pods went north past the lighthouse. This seems to be all K-Pod vocals; while both Js and Ks make these calls, K-Pod has a distinct high-pitched version that sounds like kittens mewing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn Whales

Today I ventured out to see the incoming superpod in the wind and rain. It was somehow appropriate that my first time seeing the residents after the fall equinox was a cool blustery day. As I walked down to the lighthouse, orange leaves drifted down from the trees. I took my place on "my rock", and my jeans got wet from the damp rocks. The water was a steely gray, and I had my hood up against the drizzle. The whales were pretty far offshore, but I was still smiling: it's almost October, and I'm watching killer whales!


Blackberry (J27) and his younger brother Mako (J39) - Mako did a couple of enthusiastic upsidedown breaches as the J11 family traveled up Haro Strait

The whales were mostly about a half mile offshore, plus it was drizzly, so I didn't get to take many photos, but they were vocalizing and I made my first Mp3 player recording in about a month. I'll go through tomorrow and pick out a nice sample to post.

In between groups of whales passing by, a great blue heron also flew over!


At times the sun would break between the clouds, as in the above picture looking across at the Olympic Mountains. It was only a brief parting, but the mountains looked like they were momentarily floating about the strait. By the time I headed back to town, however, the rain had started in again and the winds were picking up and there was no hint of sunshine anymore.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Surprise Transients

I was over at my friend Jeanne's house yesterday afternoon, and while we had heard there were transients inbound from Race Rocks in the morning, we pretty much thought there would be no chance to see whales from shore that afternoon. As we were sitting there talking, however, Jeanne kept looking out the window. All of a sudden in the middle of our conversation she yelled "We have whales!!"

"No way. You've got to be kidding me. No way," I kept saying in response. We both jumped up and looked out the window, and then over the choppy waters a huge spout shot up into the air right off the point at the south end of Andrew's Bay (just north of Lime Kiln). The plume went so high and stayed in the air so long despite the windy conditions that at first we almost thought it might be a humpback whale! But soon we saw two, then three, blows and through binoculars could see the distinct dorsal fins of orcas. From outside Jeanne's house, we watched as three transients, including the tagged male T19B, made their way through Andrew's Bay and up north. Not only was it exciting because it was unexpected, but because of the rough water conditions we got to see whales from land while most of the whale-watch boats stayed in more protected waters and didn't go out searching for the transients.

You can follow the very interesting progress of T19B, female transient T30, and now also the minke whale we saw in San Juan Channel on the Cascadia Research tagging site, where every morning they post updated maps of the whales' movements. While I'm as excited as anyone else to check back and see where the whales are moving (for instance, the T30s have been traveling along the continental shelf - is this a pattern more widespread among transients? Also, where do the minkes go when they leave the inland waters - no one knows!), there are many potential consequences of giving this information out to the public on a regular basis. It allows the commercial whale-watch companies to know where to look for the whales before anyone is actually out on the water first thing in the morning. There are many issues to ponder surrounding this, and I will probably blog more about it later, but for now I'm fascinated to follow the progress of these tagged whales.

Monday, September 22, 2008

New Ts in a new place

I love seeing whales I haven't ever seen before, and I love watching whales in new places. Yesterday, I got to do both at the same time. After seeing a minke whale in San Juan Channel, we headed northwest to Moresby Island. (For those of you checking my map for reference, its near where Haro Strait and Swanson Channel come together - the biggest island on the left.) When we got there we encountered the T2s - a group of 4 whales. The oldest is female T2, and traveling with her is her third offspring T2C, as well as T2C's two offspring, T2C1 and T2C2. I still can't believe how many transients have been around over the last 6 weeks or so. I've seen more transients this summer than in all previous summers put together! I've also gotten to see quite a few different groups and have started becoming familiar with them. After today, I can add the T2s to the list, as they're a group I'd never seen before.

From left to right: T2C2, T2C, T2C1, and T2

They were pretty "quiet" it terms of activity and hunting, as they were surfacing a few times and going down for fairly long dives of five minutes or longer. The most action was when one of the whales did a full-body lunge through a group of sea gulls that were trying to steal fish scraps from a Steller sea lion. We thought the chase might be on, but the Steller disappeared and the whales continued slowly on their way. Still, it was an absolutely beautiful place to watch whales with bizarre lighting through the cloud breaks, silvery water, and the tall hills of Saltspring Island in the background.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No whales, lots of wildlife


The residents were still out in the ocean today, and the transients turned west and ended up just out of our reach as we left the dock. It was rainy and hazy and spirits could have been down, but we had a boat full of people ready for an adventure and it turned out to be a pretty phenomenal wildlife trip. The highlights included an amazing encounter with Dall's porpoise, where we had maybe two dozen of them zipping around in all directions, including some "players" that spent a good amount of time bow-riding our boat. It's one of the coolest encounters possible to have with the wildlife here, where the porpoises are actually interacting with us and you can look down into the water and see their whole bodies just feet away. It was one of the best porpoise encounters of the year....I don't know when the last time was (if ever) I've seen that many Dall's in one place, and they were all demonstrating their speed by rooster-tailing all over the place, chasing each other, riding waves. They're the fastest marine mammals on the planet, and today we saw exactly why!

As we cruised past Spieden Island on our way back to Friday Harbor, we saw an amazing amount of animals out grazing on the hillside. There are three exotic species that inhabit the island after it was a game ranch in the late 1970s, and we saw all of them: the Mouflon sheep, fallow deer, and sika deer. There were dozens and dozens of Mouflon and fallow deer - I've truly never seen that many animals at once there. There were even two sika deer mixed in for good measure.

These photos capture the essence of the wildlife we saw today, but were taken earlier in the summer on much sunnier days. It was just too wet to have the camera out today.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Ahoy! Today be international talk like a pirate day, and t' celebrate, Google (who has the goal o' enablin' everyone, regardless o' language, t' search the web) be now available in a new language: Pirate. It would be a nice day t' blog about goin' on the ship or seein' whales, but unfortunately I be off of work and the whales be headin' out west. So us land lubbers will have t' celebrate by raisin' a mug o' grog and toastin' t' pirates.


The above photo was taken last summer in Portland, aboard t' Lady Washington, which be the ship that played the Interceptor in Pirates of the Caribbean. The ship, built n' Washington, came to port here in Friday Harbor once earlier this summer too. Whew, it's hard t' talk like a pirate. Back t' normal tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Brad Hanson Lecture

Brad Hanson's lecture tonight at The Whale Museum was full of all kinds of thought-provoking information about killer whales. He's another one of those scientists that inspired me, in part because while his work is biologically interesting in terms of animal behavior and evolutionary biology it is equally important in terms of conservation. Some of his many projects include collecting fecal samples, prey samples, and tissue biopsies of the Southern Residents.

One brand new project involves putting state-of-the-art tags on transients. As you may or may not know, there haven't been many successful attempts at putting a long-term tag onto a relatively small cetacean (into which killer whales fall - large cetaceans are like blue and humpback whales) because there hasn't been any technology that's small enough to involve a non-invasive attachment mechanism. For instance, when two transients were tagged in the 1970s, it involved attaching a tag via surgically bolting through the dorsal fin - the whale that still survives today still shows distinctive scars from the incident, which occurred while he was in a net pen. However, a new miniature dart tag has been developed that can stay on for more than two months and causes only minimal tissue damage, and over the last couple of days three transients have been tagged locally.


The best part is, we can follow the progress of these whales as they post updates on their research website. The above map is taken from the Cascadia Research site, showing the progress of T30A during the first day and a half after being tagged. Amazingly, these tags don't use GPS technology, but rather Doppler shift, so as it sends a signal to a NOAA weather satellite, the satellite can estimate the position of the signal.

And for you biologists out there, here's another interesting tidbit I learned at the lecture: worldwide, killer whales are very similar genetically. Since you find unique populations of killer whales everywhere in the world in terms of foraging and social structure, you'd expect genetically distinct populations. However, that's not the case....for instance, the Northern Residents and Southern Residents only have a 1 base pair difference! This suggests that one of two things are the case. Either 1) There was a recent global genetic bottleneck for killer whales, and all the "speciation" we've seen between the different ecotypes is a relatively recent and relatively quick occurrence, or 2) these populations actually interbreed. Either one would be a huge change in the current belief about killer whale life history and evolution!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Where is ______?"


Blog reader The K made a very good point in the comment section of my last post - not everyone is familiar with all the channels and points I mention when talking about wildlife sightings. There's no simple map that shows everything, so I put a little one together. Refer back to this post to locate places I'm talking about. Click on the map to see a larger (and more legible) version.

Thin black text refers to towns and island names. Thick black text refers to aquatic areas. Yellow text refers to points on land. Red dots specify the exact locations.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Residents vs. Transients

A transient surfaces in front of Mt. Baker in San Juan Channel

Yesterday there were no fewer than five separate orca sightings:
  • J and K Pods came down Boundary Pass in the morning, then went up Swanson Channel
  • The L2s were seen off of Kellett Bluffs
  • The T30s were near Hein Bank
  • Another group of L-Pod (including the L55s and L47s) was seen in San Juan Channel
  • The T19s (T18, T19, T19B, and T19C) were also in San Juan Channel
  • A third group of L-Pod wasn't spotted but was probably around, since they showed up off Lopez this afternoon

The most interesting sighting, and the one we got to witness in the afternoon on the Western Prince, was having both residents and transients in San Juan Channel. When we arrived "on scene" with the 4 transients, the L-Pod whales were a good 3 miles north of there. We watched as the transients made a kill, then started moving northward. Slowly, the gap started to close, and it became apparent the whales were going to be close enough that an interaction was possible. Normally (if there is such a thing as normal when it comes to whales), residents and transients simply avoid each other. They are not known to interact whatsoever, and genetic tests indicate they may not have interbred for more than 10,000 years. In the handful of documented resident/transient interactions, the residents have seemingly chased the transients away from the area. The hypothesis is that the marine mammal feeding transients may at times pose a threat as a predator to the fish eating residents, particularly to young calves.

The T19s in San Juan Channel, following behind the residents

Before long the residents and transients were within 1/2 mile of each other and we could see both groups of whales. The residents were in the lead, traveling north in a very tight group very close to shore. They were definitely behaving differently, all surfacing together and going on longer dives than normal (there's that word again). The transients were following behind, also close to shore, and kept on traveling steadily for a good 15 minutes or so. An interesting note is that all the residents were females and juveniles; there were no adult males in the group. Does this mean the transients posed more of a threat? The Ts were definitely still outnumbered with 4 of them to more than a dozen residents.

The residents surfacing all together in San Juan Channel, traveling about 1/2 mile in front of the transients.

In the end, the transients drifted back and ended up circling Yellow Island, where they made another kill. The residents continued on their way. We saw no evidence of a direct interaction, but they were close enough to each other that both groups certainly knew the other group was there. Were the residents acting differently because of the transients? We will never know for sure, especially because the residents were acting strangely anyway by being in San Juan Channel in the first place, and by being an odd assortment of L-Pod whales to be seen apart from the rest of the pod. Still, it was exhilarating and bizarre to see both types of killer whales so close together, and if anything just added to the list of all the mysterious things we don't understand about these fascinating animals.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Good News on Oregon Coast

After reports of oxygen-deprived "dead zones" off the Oregon Coast for the last several summers and an unprecedented closing of the coastal salmon fishing season this year, there is finally some good news for oceans off the Oregon Coast: the waters are getting colder.

As The Oregonian reported a couple of days ago, a cold surge of water from the Gulf of Alaska that may be part of the beginning of a cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (a 20-30 year climate shift along the coast) has flooded the Oregon Coast with cold, oxygen-filled water with lots of large plankton, which is causing a resurgence in many oceanic species and may prove to be vital for the recovery of Oregon and Californian salmon stocks. The cold water contains more nutrients, more oxygen, and marine organisms called copepods that are about 3 times larger than those that have been making up the bottom of the food chain for the last several years. This all translates into a healthier ocean system.

The area where the cold surge is occurring is a summer feeding ground for young salmon from both Oregon and California rivers. This could result in higher salmon returns a couple of years from now, when these salmon are adults and returning to the rivers to spawn. Scientists have developed models that predict salmon run sizes and take into account a wide variety of factors. These models are resulting in the highest salmon predictions since they began modeling just over a decade ago, and this is supported by their highest test catches of juvenile salmon over the same time period.

The article accurately quotes the situation as "guardedly optimistic" - there is still a lot we don't know about salmon and especially what factors contribute to their thriving in the ocean and predictions are often off - but certainly this is good news for salmon and other oceanic life off the Oregon Coast that has been suffering for the last several years.

Thanks to blog reader The K for the tip about this article's publication.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Evening Whales

Thursday evening all three pods did make their way back in from the ocean. While sitting at the lighthouse, we watched them come straight across Haro Strait towards us, before most of them veered off and "hit land" to the north of us. I could see some dorsal fins waaaay to the south, however, so I decided to stick around and see if they might come north. Jeanne, Mary, and I walked down to Whale Watch Point to take one last look before we went home, and sure enough we could see fins close to shore heading our direction! It turned out to be a group of maybe 8 L-Pod whales that swam slowly north through the kelp. It was kind of an odd assortment of whales, with a few moms and calves and a few young males you wouldn't necessarily expect to see together. It was neat to watch them from a different rock for a change, too. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Pooka (L106) dives under mom Surprise's (L86) tail as she slaps it.

Wavewalker (L88) kelping

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Help Protect the Mar Vista Resort Property


Dear friends, fellow naturalists, and San Juan Islanders:

As you may know, the Mar Vista Resort property adjacent to False Bay has recently been put on the market due to the death of the estate owner. This property is commercially licensed, making it a hot commodity as a potential site for resort development.

This ~60 acre property is unique in many respects. It is still relatively undeveloped, making it a habitat that supports a wide variety of marine and terrestrial wildlife including otters, deer, eagles, foxes, harbor seals, and more. The prairie fields support one of the few remaining sites of a threatened species of wildflower. Additionally, it provides stunning views of Haro Strait, the Olympic Mountains, and west side sunsets, and could potentially provide a public access point to the westside shoreline in the "gap" area between Land Bank's Westside Scenic Preserve and American Camp. It provides excellent shore-based whale-watching, and would make a great additional site for land-based research.

I ask you to please join me in encouraging a conservation-minded future for the Mar Vista property. If acquired by San Juan County Land Bank, this land could be well-managed and open to low-impact public access. Regardless of who buys the property, Land Bank can encourage it to be managed in an environmentally respectful manner. The voice of the public community can be powerful in influencing the sale and development of land, as we learned so recently with Turtleback Mountain. Land Bank needs our show of support in this matter.

You can help by signing this petition to San Juan County Land Bank that I have created, which encourages an environmentally-friendly future for the land. You can also help by leaving your own comments on the petition site; forwarding this petition to your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers; and by promoting it on your own website or blog. Additionally, you can write a letter to the San Juan County Land Bank or to the San Juan Journal.

As I outlined this petition, I sat at the point of Mar Vista overlooking the water. A Steller sea lion swam by. A harbor seal poked its head up in a nearby kelp bed. A deer browsed in the brush a few yards away. Murres, gulls, cormorants, herons, and harlequin ducks flew by. All this reemphasized for me how beautiful this place is, and why I am so inspired to help protect it. This was the first place I saw orcas from shore, and where I truly fell in love with the islands nine years ago.

Margaret Mead said a small group of committed individuals is all it takes to change the world. I hope you will join me in being one of those individuals that helps change San Juan Island for the better. Please sign this petition by clicking on the petition box in the top right corner of this blog.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Js are back!

Yesterday morning J-Pod (and the three pseudo-Js: L57, L53, and L7) were off the westside, and after some indecision they finally headed north past the lighthouse. The first few whales were offshore and traveling slowly, but then a large group of whales came zipping by close shore. The above photo is of Cookie (J38) and Oreo (J22).

I'm staying out near False Bay for a few days while my mom and her friend stay in the houseboat, and out there I was treated to a beautiful sunset last night.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

The T19s

The setting for our whale encounter this afternoon was perfect: sunny skies, and right in front of Patos lighthouse and Mt. Baker in the distance:


At first the four whales we were with (T18, T19, male T19B, and T19C) were being typical transients: two or three short breaths at the surface, a dive of more than five minutes, than another surfacing in a completely unpredictable location. Before this summer, I really hadn't seen transients all that often, but over the last month it seems like they're everywhere. I had never witnessed a kill before this year, either, but as we spotted some splashing on the surface of the water it became apparent that I was about to witness my third kill of the summer. Male T19B was in pursuit of a harbor porpoise. Can you see the porpoise in both photos below? It looks so tiny!

Suddenly the splashing stopped and all the whales were down for another longer dive, and I presume this is when the kill actually happened, because when they came up again they were engaging in another typical transient behavior, what I call the "celebration" after a kill. I don't know if they're really celebrating, but it certainly seems like it as they breach, tail slap, and spyhop almost every time after feeding. Then, after another longer dive and just before we had to leave, they surprised us by surfacing right off our starboard side! We had mostly been 200-300 yards away from them, and this was the closest I had ever seen a transient. This female is T19:

Another female (either T18 or T19C) surfaced right behind T19, and Ivan confirmed what we had heard from another boat just beside us - she was carrying something (a piece of porpoise flesh?!) in her mouth. You can't really see it in the photo below, but I can imagine there being something (more of a grayish color) in the front of her mouth just under the surface of the water. I'll tell myself you can see it in the photo because I know it was there! What strikes me about this photo though is that you can see her rib cage! Probably not a good sign....


Another fantastic transient encounter!! And better yet, the word is residents are on their way back in from the ocean right now!

Then again, who knows?

Now I'm reading Naturalist by the great scientist and ant specialist E.O. Wilson. He is one of those people I mentioned yesterday, the most successful type of scientist who keeps that deeply engrained passion while doing groundbreaking science. In fact, he even says he doesn't want to define that core curiosity for fear that defining it might make it disappear. Reading about his memories of growing up in the deep south, keeping detailed notes of his ant findings that 50 years later still provided a source of insightful data in his research,it gives me hope that a true naturalist at heart can still find a way to be a "good" scientist in today's field so dominated by genetic labs and biotechnology.

"For the obsessed and ambitious, the only strategy is to probe in all directions and learn where one's abilities are exceptional, where mediocre, where poor, then fashion tactics and protheses to achieve the best possible result. And never give up hope that the fates will allow some unexpected breakthroughs...The advice I give to students in science is to move laterally up and down and peer all around. If you have the will, there is a discipline in which you can succeed...Be a hunter and explorer, not a problem solver." ~E.O. Wilson

It inspires me and gives me hope. It makes me feel like I can still be a scientist if what I really want to do is go out there and observe and explore.

My thesis adivsor has been urging me to retool a paper for publication. I think it will be a project for this fall. Am I meant to be a scientist, or not? Do I have to define myself, do I have to choose?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Like me and orcas


"I was transfixed. As I now recall it, there was only one sensation in my head: pure elation mixed with amazement at such perfection...I remember thinking, with what was left of my consciousness, that I wanted no part of the science of beavers and otters; I wanted never to know how they performed their marvels; I wished for no news about the physiology of their breathing, the coordination of their muscles, their vision, their endocrine systems, their digestive tracts. I hoped never to have to think of them as collections of cells. All I asked for was the full hairy complexity, then in front of my eyes, of whole, intact beavers and otters in motion." ~ Lewis Thomas

I've been reading Lewis Thomas' "notes of a biology watcher" in his book The Medusa and the Snail. You may know him better from his book The Lives of a Cell, but his way with words and his wit is at its best in this collection of essays, where he explores all sorts of biological wonders.

This passage really jumped out at me, since it reflects exactly how I feel while I'm watching orcas. My heart pounds and I'm in total awe of the animals before me, and I care nothing about physiological processes or theories of animal behavior or chains of chemical reactions. More and more, as I question whether I really want to be a full-fledged scientist, I realize that many of those who are doing research have become blinded against that raw passion that draws so many of us to the field of biology in the first place.

Several instances from last summer come to mind: I was sitting on a research boat while Grace (L2) was swimming along beside us. You could look right down into the water and see her whole body gliding effortlessly along, so rare to have such an extended view of them swimming underwater, then she turned on a dime and disappeared the other direction. All the scientists were uninterested since it wasn't an opportunity to collect data, some were not even looking. I was in a classroom listening to a lecture that had a title that led me to believe we would be talking about boat-vessel interactions, but instead we were talking about cylindrical versus spherical sound propagation models. Had these people ever even seen the whales interacting with boats? I was on the rocks at the lighthouse while the whales were passing by, and a researcher wanted to talk about how I tell the difference between two different vocalizations. His back was to the whales swimming a hundred yards behind him! I didn't want to answer his questions, I just wanted to watch the whales.

I know it's very possible to both be a scientist and maintain the passion and intrigue that got you interested in the first place - the best scientists succeed at doing both - but I also see how easy it is to get so wrapped up in that science that the pure amazement of the natural world can get lost in it all. I still don't know what my true calling is, but it's starting to feel like what is considered good, hard science is far removed from what really matters to me about the orcas, continuing to understand them better, sharing their magnificence with others, and helping to make sure they're around for a long time to come. Ultimately, science always comes down to observation, and I feel like that's when I always learn the most about the whales: when I'm observing them, just taking it all in.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Red-breasted nuthatch

All three resident pods have been out west to the open ocean for the last few days. At no time this summer have they taken when of their "long" (6+ days) trips out, its mostly just been 3-4 day trips. So hopefully they'll be back soon! It is September, and this time of year the whales often travel all together, so when they do come back it will probably be another superpod!

This does give me the chance to share another photo I took recently, of a red-breasted nuthatch. I was waiting for the whales to come by (what else?) a couple of weeks ago and reading a book when this little bird flitted down to the tree just feet away from me. I had a chance to slowly grab me camera and take a few photos before it continued on its way again. This one is my favorite.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Harbor Seal Curiosity


We've been having problems with our plumbing here at the marina, and my goal over the last two days has been to fix it. I won't drag you through the miserable details of my hours of work, multiple trips to the hardware store, and tears of frustration, but in an effort to focus on the positive side of things, I wanted to post about a harbor seal that came to check out my handiwork. While I was figuring out a way to maneuver hoses under the dock, there were a lot of hoses, boat hooks, ropes, fenders, and hands in the water. As I was securing a hose, a harbor seal surfaced right between the dock and the boat next to me, startling me so much I nearly fell in the water. I can only assume that he/she was coming over to see what all the commotion was about, since its only a few times a year I see seals right in the marina, and rarer still that they're actually in a slip with the boats! We both scared each other, because the seal quickly flipped over and dove again. It was a very cool experience that (almost) made all the hard work worth it - at least I finally, triumphantly, fixed the plumbing, too.

The above picture is of course of Popeye, Friday Harbor's resident harbor seal (blind in her left eye) that takes fish from people off the main dock. She left for a few weeks last month and did return at least once with her pup, making it two years in a row that she's given birth. Unlike resident whales, who stay with their mom their entire life, harbor seals have five short weeks of nursing before they're weaned. Popeye has never been a big fan of her pups hanging around the marina for very long - this definitely seems to be her "turf" here. The harbor seal that startled me while I was working with the hoses could easily have been the one in the photo, though - that's how close I was!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sea star mating, salmon sniffing, and killer whale body temperature

One of the things I love about being a naturalist is being stumped when someone asks me a question I don't know the answer to. It pushes me to further my understanding of the natural world, because the first thing I always do when I get home is find the answer to the question. Here are a couple of my favorites from so far this year.

How do you tell a male and female sea star apart?
This one was interesting, because I didn't even know if there were male and female sea stars, or if a single organism could produce both eggs and sperm. It turns out, though, that individual sea stars do have a gender. Unfortunately, the only way you can tell them apart is by analyzing their gonads (which are internal, by the way), or - and this is the method I prefer - stand around and wait until they release their gametes! Another interesting tidbit I picked up is that some sea stars can also reproduce asexually - one arm will split off and regenerate into a complete separate organism.

How do salmon know which streams to return to when they spawn?
I knew the answer to this question was by using their sense of smell, but when pressed for further details I realized I didn't know very much. Based on local soil type and vegetation, each stream has its own chemical composition which results in a distinct smell. Baby salmon imprint on this olfactory cue - this means that the smell they are following is neither inherited (they imprint on it soon after hatching), nor is it influenced by other cues from other streams they pick up while migrating to the ocean (the imprinting window is a very short one). When the activation of sex hormones induces the salmon to spawn, they recall this olfactory cue from their long-term memory. When researching this I also learned that "smoltification" is a word, meaning the metamorphosis of a young salmon into a smolt, which includes developing preadaptations for life in salt water.

What is the body temperature of a killer whale?
It's not too often someone stumps me with a killer whale question, but here was one I definitely should have known the answer to and didn't. The answer is between 97.5 and 100.4 degrees F. The motivation for this question was a curiosity as to how killer whales stay warm in the frigid local waters. While I knew their layer of blubber (3-4 inches thick) played a role, it turns out there are other mechanisms that help as well:
  • Since killer whales have decreased limb size, they have less surface area exposed to the external environment compared to their land counterparts. This allows them to contain more of their heat in the core of their body.
  • They also have a higher metabolic rate than land mammals, which generates heat.
  • Breathing is a quick way to lose body heat, and since they breathe less frequently than land mammals they lose less heat that way.
  • The arteries in their external limbs such as flippers, flukes, and fins are surrounded by veins. This allows outgoing blood from the heart to transfer some of their heat to blood on the way back to the heart, rather than lose all its heat to the environment.
  • Finally, when a whale dives, less blood is circulated to the body surface, which conserves heat as well.
It's really amazing how many adaptations contribute to thermoregulation of cetaceans, and I can honestly say this is one area that we have a much greater understanding of due to marine parks where these things can be studied with much more ease in captive animals. This information on orca thermoregulation was all taken from Sea World's website.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Crafty Cormorants


As I was heading off-island this weekend, I spotted some pelagic cormorants roosting in the pilings at the Anacortes ferry landing. I had seen these birds there once before, but had been unable to take a photo of them because as soon as the ferry gets all the way into its slip the view of the birds is blocked by another piling! These crafty diving seabirds have found a way to have the best of both worlds - a roof over their heads to get out of the rain (and raining it was when we pulled in to Anacortes), and a way to stay out of sight of people on the ferry. This time I was ready for them, though, and got to snap a few photos right from my car while we pulled in to the dock.