Archive for October 2nd, 2007

Passing in the night

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

We departed MacKaye Harbor at 7:45 after receiving a call from Val who had heard J pod on the OrcaSound hydrophone at 7:00. He mentioned that Ken Balcomb had also heard them at 9:00 pm last night at Lime Kiln (only 2 hours after we dropped anchor!). As the calls grew fainter at OrcaSound and weren’t heard further south at Lime Kiln, Val thought they were headed north, though he couldn’t see them. We motored and sailed up the west side of San Juan Island, stopping to listen intermittently. Half way up Haro, we coordinated with the Western Prince whale watching vessel to search for the southern residents. The orcas apparently continued traveling to the north while we stopped to drop Shannon off for her break and sighted a lone Stellar sea lion. We continued north, sailing fast; Mike hit 9.6 knots and then Wessal topped 10! After rounding Turn Point, we tucked into Prevost Harbor for the night, tying up to the dock and taking the opportunity to run, walk, and stroll on land.

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Reading, writing, and ‘Oh Canada’ – Week 5

Monday 17th September to Wednesday 19th September

Well its mid week of Week 5 back on land, and it’s been hectic to say the least. When I say hectic I mean we have had reports to do, papers to read, and final proposals to write. Monday morning we went to Lacrover Farm again and did some manual labour, pulling up of pea plants to be exact, but we got to feed the four pigs they have which had grown quite substantially since a fortnight ago, so that was cool. I really do plan on posting pics up on the Beam Reach gallery of my trip so far, but have just been too busy to sit down and wait for them to upload, but I promise I will get on that. So I had hoped to go out with Giles on Mon arvo but no whales were reported. Same thing happened on Tuesday and today (Wednesday), no whales. I felt bad for the other group as they have now had 3 days with an orca sighting, and therefore no data collection. Thankfully though that is an advantage of my project where I’m not relying completely on the presence of whales, all I need is boats, and there are plenty of those around. So I’m writing this as a break from my proposal that is due tomorrow. We have had a few little exercises/reports so far this week, as well as readings for journal club so as I said it’s been a little bit hectic. Had another Whale Museum lecture this week, Giles (Debbie) spoke about her PhD work, but as I had already been out with her I kinda already knew what she was working on. Still, it’s fascinating work and very thorough. So my proposal is due tomorrow so I better get back to the finishing touches. Off to Victoria Canada tomorrow arvo as well! We get 2 days off every fortnight so Ash and I decided we would go to Victoria as she had never been, and I really like it, plus I want to utilise the opportunity to speak to some whale watch operators about doing some drive-bys for me next week when I’m at sea. Well better get back to my proposal.

Thursday 20th September to Sunday 23rd September

I’m writing this on the boat on Sunday night after spending 2 days in
Victoria, Canada. So here’s how the last few days went down…

Thursday arvo I handed my proposal into Val after having a chat with him about it. I’m pretty happy with it because I know it’s feasible, and I know what I have to do. It definitely needs some fine tuning but it’s well within the scope of the program, and somewhat original. I mean it changes now anyway as it no longer becomes a proposal, but an actual report. Anyway, it’s in now so will get feedback on it early next week no doubt. So Thurs arvo Ash and I caught the Washington State Ferry across to
Sidney, British Columbia, for a total of $6. Bargain! We met a couple on board that we chatted to and they had just been on a whale watching tour earlier that day with a local San Juan operator, Jim Maya, who we have met, and Jim said he would be more than happy to do some drive-bys for me to get some recordings. The couple were asking us about our research and about the killer whales in general, and it was really good to be able to spread our knowledge to members of the general public. So we got into Sidney just after 5pm, then caught a public bus to
Victoria. I had done this trip a few times before when I stayed in Victoria and was going to
Sidney to speak to the whale watch operators, so knew where we had to get off and how long it would take. Ash and I grabbed dinner and a few drinks and headed out to check out the Victorian night life. We went to a pub called Darcy’s and ended up meeting this guy who was a restaurant manager in town, he had a few connections and after Darcy’s we got into a club for free. It all closes pretty early on Thurs night in
Victoria but it was a great night and we had organised on the Fri to go grab lunch at the restaurant this guy manages. So Friday Ash and I grabbed lunch at the restaurant, with a discount from our newly made manager mate, then went down to Prince of Whales whale watching company to speak to them about possibly doing drive-bys for me next week when I’m out on the Gato Verde. Well, it went exceptionally well, much better than I had anticipated. I seriously thought I would have to go to several operators but Laila at Prince of Whales was awesome. I chose Prince of Whales because I had spoken to them 7 weeks ago when I was in
Victoria sussing out possible job opportunities for next year (I have a 12 month Canadian working visa) and they said get in touch with them when I finish this program. The woman I spoke to 7 weeks ago that works there also does acoustic research on porpoises but when I contacted her again a few days ago I was unable to get in touch with her. However, that didn’t really hinder me in anyway as Laila (head of land operations) was extremely positive and also a conservationist, so when I explained what I ultimately planned to do in my research she was more than happy to help out. So we teed up next week, Ash and I got chatting to her about all things marine mammals, and she asked if we wanted to go out on the last tour of the day, we didn’t have any plans, so agreed. Oh yeah, should also mention, it was for free! I guess when you think about it it’s pretty funny, we study whales for 10 weeks, then on our days off we go to
Canada, and go whale watching! Still, we saved $70 each which is bloody awesome, and what was even more awesome was that it was the best killer whale experience of my life! Yep, it topped the one we had on our second day out on the water. It truly was phenomenal. Here’s what happened:

We jumped into our ‘Mustang’ suits (full-bodied orange suits designed to keep u warm and act as a flotation device should we fall into the drink) and hopped aboard the Zodiac (steel hulled open inflatable boat). The driver, aka ‘Radar’, announced he had some acoustic researchers on board, and Ash and I signalled him with much professionalism as we jumped into the seats up front. Laila said these seats are the best as they are the ones where you get the real ‘Zodiac experience’. We have been travelling a maximum of 6-7 knots out on the water while aboard the ‘Gato Verde’ so we certainly felt the need for speed, and the zodiacs (very common whale watch operator vessel in these parts) certainly zip along (~25-30 knots). The ride out was awesome to say the least. It was spitting with rain so the droplets felt like little pin pricks on your face but it was all worth it with the 2ft swells and the air-time we were getting of the waves. It took about 40 min to get to where J pod and some of the L’s were, but waters were really calm and we were only one of three vessels out there (west side of San Juan Island around Eagle Pt). The ‘Gato Verde’ was out there also so I called them up on the radio and we had a chat then went over to say G’Day. It was just after 5pm by this stage so the GV had to leave to get to an anchorage before dark, and the other whale watch boat left, so we were the only one’s out there with the whales. We positioned ourselves in front of the whales and 100m from their general direction if travel and watched spyhops, breaches, lots of tail slaps, and just general playful behaviour. Next thing we knew a group of about 10 individuals somewhat spread out started heading toward our boat and before we could get out of the way they were right next to us. It was un-bloody-believable! We had a whale swim just under the surface the entire length of the boat (it was as long as the boat) just looking at us, then we had whales surface about 2m from where we were standing, their breaths seeming soo loud and their dorsal fins coming up to my eye level. It was truly spectacular. The water was like glass which just made the experience that much more beautiful. Now when whales decide to come and check you out (it rarely happens but as we were the only boat out there I guess they were curious) the best thing you can do is just let them pass and when you think it is safe, engage the ignition and slowly motor away to a safe distance. In this instance the whales were actually curious and so came right up to us as they swam past. The last thing you should do is try and get out of their way as the ignition of the engine and then the engagement of the gears actually makes quite a large “clunk” underwater, and so may startle the whales. I know this because I felt like I was deafened when I had the headphones on right where a boat engaged its gears. Furthermore, engaging propellers runs the risk of bumping into whales when they are underwater and out of driver sight. So we just floated there silently while killer whales milled around our boat and swam off. Radar (the driver) had a basic hydrophone that he deployed and the vocalisations we got were just unbelievable! Ash and I were amazed and really wish we had a recorder at that time. We were meant to be the “researchers” but we couldn’t contain our excitement and kept telling the others on board that what you are witnessing is absolutely amazing and a one in a lifetime experience. We have been out on the water for 2 weeks and pretty much all of the time the whales are little black dots in the water, so this experience is one I will forever treasure. The passengers on board (7 in total incl. us) were asking us questions all about the orcas and between us, Ash and I could answer them all. The driver kept pretty quiet, whether or not because we were on board I don’t know, but he had been doing it for 12 years so knew his stuff. Anyway, it was great practice for me as the driver could be me this same time next year. I got some great video clips but it was often hard to properly focus as it was cloudy and drizzly for parts of it. One of the highlights I think was when J42 calf and it’s mum (sex of calf unknown) came less than 5m from the boat and the calf was spyhopping and jumping around just playing like a typical child would, and mum was just hanging there in the water keeping a close eye on her playful child. J42 in it’s playful behaviour all of a sudden vocalised as it came up out of the water, and Ash and I just looked at each other in amazement then looked at Radar and he was just as surprised. It was absolutely amazing! We eventually had to leave the orcas and head back to Victoria but it was definitely a memory that will stick with me and one that I’m very appreciative to have witnessed. Some days you just get lucky.

So Ash and I headed out that night to check out more of the Victorian nightlife. It was good to get across to Victoria and head out in the evenings, as you don’t really get the opportunity inFriday
Harbor, so let’s just say we enjoyed our two nights away from the labs. Saturday we walked around Victoria, Ash did some shopping, then it was a bus back to Sidney and a ferry back to

Harbor in the evening. One would think that the troubles I had the first time I went back in to the
US in August would be well behind me and I could expect to go straight through customs and onto the ferry, but ahh, no. I’ve said it before, US Customs is a bloody joke! For some stupid reason the old bloke that stamped my student visa back in mid August when I entered the US from
Canada stamped mid September on it, I have no idea why. The woman at the customs desk in
Sidney looked at it weirdly and asked me all about it and why it was stamped for September when the program ends at the end of October. Of course I had no idea, but I told her that the old guy at the border that processed my student visa didn’t appear to know what he was doing. She couldn’t work out what was going on as Ash’s documentation was all fine so I had to step aside while she processed everyone else. While that was happening I felt a sense of deja vu, as this is what happened last time in August and I was holding people up on the bus, and now I had scenarios of what the hell I would do if they wouldn’t let me back in to the US. Fortunately enough the woman issued me with a new visa card and I was allowed through. When on the ferry a lot of the people in the line were saying how lucky I was as most US Customs officials aren’t as nice as this woman was. Guess I got lucky, but still, I had all the documentation necessary and it ended up being an error on their behalf… bloody US Customs! Anyway, Ash and I got back to

Harbor and pretty much crashed out.

Today, Sunday, we had the changeover from the JaMi group atRoche
Harbor. Marla Holt gave us a talk (who had spoken at the

Museum a few weeks back) and then she hopped aboard and will be spending the next three days with us. Marla is a post-doc with a great deal of hydro-acoustics knowledge and experience so she will be a great asset to us all these next three days I’m sure. I was hauled up the mast this afternoon, 63 feet above the water, it was awesome! Got a great view of
Bay (

Harbor) and the sunset where we are anchored tonight. If you have seen the film ’28 Days’ with Sandra Bullock and can recall the scene where they must climb a wooden structure all harnessed up, and the gay blonde guy with glasses is climbing… well if you’ve seen it I don’t need to go on. Let’s just say I’m a bit tender at the moment, but it was worth it to be that high up above the water.

So just before I head to bed I have to make sure that I have a towel above and below my mattress as yesterday the JaMi group had some high seas and water splashed into the vents of the forward births and so the mattresses got quite wet. Todd and I spent an hour this afternoon soaking up water in our respective births. Fun times. I plan on getting boat recordings this week so hopefully all goes well.

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