Archive for March, 2011

Week 1!

Olympic Mountains from Lime Kiln

Hello all!  My name is Mandy, and I am a 3rd year Wildlife Ecology major from the University of Maine.  We are already a week into the Spring ’11 Beam Reach program, and it would be an understatement to say that it’s been an eventful week so far.

We started our week off with a trip to Lime Kiln State Park (also known, appropriately so, as Whale Watch State Park).  The State Park was absolutely GORGEOUS.  It was a beautiful, sunny day, and you could see the Olympic Mountains towering over the water (above).  Just as some background information about the park, it was mined for limestone to make into concrete back in the late 18 to 1900s.  Kilns were built at the park to produce lime.  This resulted in a lot of deforestation on the island, as trees needed to be cut down to keep the fires in the kiln going.  Now, however, the forests are coming back, especially in the park area.  We got to walk back and see one of the kilns that’s still standing, which was very cool.

So at any rate, we went to the park to brainstorm and discuss questions.  We got to sit out on the rocks, in this beautiful setting, and come up with questions, then moved inside to the warmer lighthouse to discuss our questions with everyone.  It was as we were discussing our questions that it happened.  Kelsey was talking to Scott about one of her questions, when all of a sudden she stopped talking, left her mouth hanging open, and just kind of stared off out the window over Scott’s shoulder.  Then her eyes got huge.  It was most definitely the face of someone who had seen something.  Turns out, she hadn’t just seen something, she had seen ORCAS!  We all promptly grabbed binoculars and ran outside.  There was a group of what turned out to be about 9 whales.  We watched them a bit from the Light House, then ran and hopped into the car and journeyed up to Val’s house.  We got there just in time, as they were passing right by.  They were a ways out, but they were lunging and were definitely visible.

It was awesome because, not only were they killer whales, but they were transients!  Apparently there was about a 1 in a 1,000 chance that we would ever see them.  The hydrophone never picked up any calls, so we were very lucky that Kelsey happened to be looking in the right place at the right time.  We were also mentioned (although not by name) in a blog by Jeanne (check it out), who we all hope to meet soon!

So, for those of you who don’t know, there are three different ecotypes of killer whales found in these waters.  The first is residents (such as the beloved Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) that we will be focusing our research efforts on, as well as the Northern Residents).  The resident pods are fish-eating pods.  They eat primarily Chinook salmon.  Our SRKWs are found in three pods: J, K, and L.  They are known for being quite vocal (which makes them prime candidates for bioacoustic research).  In contrast, transients are mammal-eating.  They are usually found in smaller pods, and are usually much quieter then residents are.   Then there are the offshore killer whales.  Although believed to be genetically closest to residents, very little is known about offshores.  They are usually found in large groups out in more open water, and it is believed that they feed on sharks and other fish.  Offshores are also typically smaller than the other two ecotypes, and they make strange and haunting calls (Offshore calls were recently picked up on hydrophones in our area, and were recorded by Jan Twillert from Holland, an active listener of the hydrophone network maintained by Paul and Helena Spong at the north end of Vancouver Island).

Seeing the transients has definitely been the highlight of the program for me so far.  However, it has all been awesome.  I can’t get over how fantastically gorgeous it is out here.  The islands are beautiful, and everyone is so friendly.  We’ve learned a ton too.  Probably my favorite talk was by Monika Wieland, who told us a little about the natural history of the SRKWs.  She told us a lot of interesting stuff about the whales, and also a lot about acoustics.  Jason Wood talked about bioacoustics, which was very interesting for me, as I’ve done a bit of acoustical work with bats in New York.  Kari Koski came in and talked to us about the Soundwatch Program, which helps educate boaters on ‘being whale-wise.’  Because there has been evidence that the whales are affected by the constant vessel traffic around them, this is extremely important.  Finally Anna Kagley talked to us about salmon in the area, which I thought was really interesting as well.  Obviously, as the SRKWs primary prey, the fate of the salmon is tied with the fate of the whales.  Furthermore, I read about a study done by Drs. Eric Ward and Eli Holmes, whose preliminary results suggest that the birth rate of the whales is most affected by Chinook salmon abundance than any of the other threats analyzed (vessel interactions and exposure to toxins).  Therefore, it’s very good that efforts are being made to help understand the Chinook salmon population!

Vessels and resident whales... Helps highlight one of the threats to the whales (Photo credit to Kari Koski)

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Week 1


It’s our first week on San Juan Island and it’s been great. It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful it is out here. Even the ferry ride out was abundant with beauty, passing Lopez Island and seeing all the trees and sparkling water, it’s lovely. Also the Friday Harbor Labs where we’re staying are awesome. There’s hiking trails through the campus that lead to secluded beaches and a dock where we can rent boats to row into town whenever we please. I’ve been here one week and I love it, even if we have only had little bits of sun. I can’t wait till it starts getting warmer, then we can really take advantage of what the island has to offer!

For our first Beam Reach activity we headed out to Lime Kiln State Park. Lim Kiln Park is a day park located on the west side of San Juan Island that’s known for its whale watching. Since the park is on a point where the rocks abruptly drop off into the Haro Strait, it makes for fantastic whale watching because the whales can come so close. Upon arrival, we went for a small hike to see the famous Lime Kiln. On our way there we admired the scenery and learned the history behind limestone that was mined in the park. In the 1900’s people began to mine the island for limestone and built giant kilns to fire it to lime, which can be used to make concrete. The amount of wood needed to supply the kilns was tremendous and resulted in severe deforestation of the island.

After we walked back to the light house, we were given the assignment to think of 21 questions about killer whales and anything related to them. Scott sent us out to go be in nature and reflect on our questions. It was nice to be able to just sit outside and ponder, much nicer than sitting inside a classroom. We then gathered in the warm light house to go over our questions as a group. Little did we know we were about to get lucky. While in the light house going over her questions Kelsey spotted some transient killer whales out of a tiny light house window! We will later learn that the odds of this are extremely rare, about 1 in 1000.  It looked like they were headed north around the island so we decided to hang the lesson plan and follow them. We ran to our cars, literally ran, and went to Val’s house to get a better look. From Val’s house we saw what we thought to be about 6 orcas! We were all pretty excited. Jeanie’s blog on March 28 has more info and pictures because she was out on a boat. Then we saw some bald eagles. It was a good day for wildlife.

Transient orcas!

A side note to those who aren’t as familiar with orcas, there are actually 3 different types; resident orcas, transient orcas, and offshore orcas. In this program we will be studying resident orcas, more specifically the Souther Resident killer whales (SRKW). To learn more about the 3 different types and brush up on your killer whale knowledge go here and scroll down to “3 Distinct Populations”.

We were all excited when our transient spotting came up in Orca Network the following day. We felt pretty special. That was one fabulous way to start the week. The following days we had guest lectures from Jason Wood about animal communication and Monika Weiland about SRKW natural history. We were also fortunate enough to hear from Kari Koshi about boating and being whale wise and Anna Kagely about tagging fish and salmon issues. We also scratched the surface of working with the hydrophones and learned to tie 3 new knots, the bowline, double half hitch, and the clover hitch.

In the afternoons we managed to have some fun this week and go on a small hike to a beach and enjoy the glorious sunshine.

On Saturday we got to utilize our newly refined rowing skills and row into town to check out the whale museum. It was sunny with no wind which made for a rather lovely row and not capsizing made it even better.
The museum was really cool and had big skeletons of whales and needless to say, we had a lot of fun.

Me and the giant Orca skeleton

The first week has been great and I can’t wait for the adventures that next week will bring!

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Beam Reach spring 2011 begins!

Wow, just a few minutes into the first discussion on Monday morning, Kelsey saw killer whales out the window at Lime Kiln State Park.  This was a very, very unlikely observation.  With such a good omen, I know that we will see and learn much from orcas this spring.

On Tuesday, I ‘lectured’ on an introduction to acoustics — waves,  amplitudes, frequencies, decibels and all that jazz.  Take a look at the white board —

Looks colorful at least, wouldn't you agree?

After nearly finishing this fun little discussion and demo, I noticed that I had a HUGE ERROR.  I had defined decibels directly in terms of signal power but that is WRONG.  Decibels are defined in terms of energy or power, and energy and power are proportional to the square of the pressure (true for all linear waves).  Take a look at my ugly fix —

Here,in the center, I got the correct definition. Check it out.

It looks a bit like a blue outlined blobby orca, don’t you think?  In any case it is right!

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New faculty: Robin Kodner

Robin Kodner in the fieldThis year a new professor has joined the Beam Reach crew.  Dr. Robin Kodner is an accomplished teacher, scientist, and sailor who we enthusiastically welcome aboard.

This spring, Robin is a lead instructor during the land and sea components of Beam Reach. In addition to working as a teaching fellow at Harvard for 5 years, Robin has taught two field research courses at Friday Harbor Labs (the Beam Reach land campus), and guided boat-based Outward Bound courses for 7 summers.

Robin has a PhD in Biology from Harvard University and specializes in geobiology and biological oceanography. Her post-doctoral fellowship (University of Washington, 2008-2011) focused on using comparative genomics and metagenomics to understand phytoplankton diversity and bloom dynamics in changing environments, like the San Juan Islands.  She has also studied how we may harvest energy from algae, obtaining fuels like the biodiesel that powers our research vessel, the Gato Verde.

Robin enjoys helping students explore the Salish Sea ecosystem — from plankton to whales. When she’s not teaching science on sail boats, Robin can be found kayaking in the San Juans, skiing or climbing in the North Cascades, riding her bike, practicing yoga, or dreaming about sailing around the world looking for her favorite phytoplankton.

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Tune in to voices of the seascape

An NPR short piece aired today on “soundscape ecology” is focused exclusively on the terrestrial environment, featuring sound clips of elephants, ants, and nighthawks.  Its overall point, however, is worth considering when studying the acoustics of killer whales and their environment.  As the article says, “we should pay attention to the ecological characteristics of sounds and their spatial-temporal patterns.” 

What does the din of underwater anthropogenic noise mean for the Northwest’s marine species — not only endangered killer whales, but also other marine mammals, soniferous fish, crustaceans, and beyond?  What do killer whale calls and fish sounds mean for other species?  How do our region’s marine biological sounds and underwater noises vary geographically and through time?

As we continue to study ocean sound at Beam Reach, we might consider the research agenda the authors propose for soundscape ecology:

  1. measurement and analytic challenges;
  2. spatial-temporal dynamics;
  3. soundscape linkage to environmental covariates;
  4. human impacts on the soundscape;
  5. soundscape impacts on humans;
  6. soundscape impacts on ecosystems.
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San Juan Islands music videos

Kid Daytona at Lime Kiln lighthouse

Kid Daytona at Lime Kiln lighthouse

While you can get a good sense of the Beam Reach program through the highlight video from fall 2010 or spring 2010, Erin Corra pointed us towards another fun way to get a sense of the San Juan Islands: music videos! The following two were filmed on or above San Juan Island and include some good scenery from Friday Harbor, American Camp National Monument, inland roads and forests, favorite beaches, Kenmore Air float planes, WA State ferries, and local lighthouses — including the Lime Kiln lighthouse at the Whale Watch State Park.

This year we’ll be putting new efforts into using video to share the Beam Reach experience, so consider this inspiration and a prelude…

On the Hill by Kid Daytona

(Not his intent, I think, but the lyrics could apply to the dichotomy between summer home owners and year-round residents of the Islands!)

Ima Do Me by The Good Husbands

Too bad neither video included much wild life footage, especially of the killer whales!

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