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Friday, June 19, 2015

June 9th: First Encounter With the Orca Behavior Institute

At Reed College, I did an undergraduate senior thesis on killer whale acoustics and published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal as a result of that work. While going on to graduate school wasn't right for me, I've still wanted to stay involved in orca research, and have done so at a surface level by blogging about a lot of the science here as well as sharing graphs of information I've compiled about whale sightings and salmon numbers over the years. A couple years ago, I met another Reed College student, Michael, who is spending summers on San Juan Island doing killer whale research in preparation for his senior thesis. After working together last summer and discussing numerous short and long term research projects, this spring we decided to formalize our research efforts under the Orca Behavior Institute (OBI).

On June 9th, the same day we got our boat back in the water, we headed out in the evening hoping to encounter the J- and L-Pod whales that had been around throughout the day. When we saw some other whale-watching boats we knew we were in the right area, but after stopping and scanning for several minutes we wondered where the whales were. The glassy calm seas gave us great distance for spotting, but we didn't see any fins! Until, that is, a huge group of whales surfaced, all rolling around together with Mt. Baker in the background.


Js and Ls were all mixed up in a highly playful social group.


While the mixed up, highly active whales weren't the easiest circumstances for trying out our data collection methods, we weren't complaining! It was everything we could have hoped for for our first research encounter (OBI #1). In addition to taking hundreds of photographs that helped us figure out who was who later, we took over two hours of behavioral data and made four hydrophone recordings. You can hear a two minute excerpt of one of our recordings here.

While most of the whales were in one big group, some others were further off, but soon came in to join the fun. Here's J51 speeding towards the big group of whales with the rest of the J19s.

Little J51, about four months old

L87 Onyx also made his way towards the bigger group from offshore:

L87 Onyx

Adult males often like to hang out together in mixed pod gatherings, and it's always an impressive sight to see multiple huge fins right next to each other:

L95 Nigel (left), who has grown a lot over the winter, and L87 Onyx
The whales were slowly making their way north through Haro Strait, but very slowly - mostly they were playing around at the surface!


Tail slap by L118 Jade

Watching a whale "cuddle puddle" is just about the greatest way to watch whales:


Finally, closer to sunset, the whales started to get more serious about traveling, but stayed in a large group. It's hard to take a bad photo when there are so many whales at the surface at once:


Needless to say, the research crew was all smiles at the end of the day:

OBI#1 research team: Monika, Michael, and Julie
Our data collection this summer will help Michael's undergraduate thesis, but we also have some longer term research planned. Our key research questions focus on the changing social associations of the whales, acoustic communication, and behavioral responses to prey availability. Additionally, last November Michael presented some of our preliminary work at the ACS conference in Long Beach, and based on feedback he received there we are writing up last summer's work for our first publication. Right now this is 100% a labor of love, as we've invested in the boat and hydrophone and are donating our time. Since people have expressed interest in helping us defray the costs of gas, moorage, and boat maintenance, we've set up a GoFundMe account here. Any help you may be able to provide is much appreciated!

The first week of the OBI field season was whale-filled to say the least. Stay tuned for lots of photos form our next few research encounters.

1 comment:

dalyboys said...

That looks amazing!! I've convinced my husband to move to Whidbey eventually :) So maybe one day I can help you all with your research efforts. Beautiful photos.