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Thar she blows!

On the glorious day of May 10, 2010 we found the long awaited J-Pod and it was wonderful. We got to spend 4 hours with them and got some great recordings. Check them out Orca Recordings. The whole time we were surrounded by orcas, it was surreal.  I can’t even begin to explain the level of excitement on the boat when we first spotted the whales. Whenever we spot the whales, we yell out their bearings with respect to the boat so we can better keep track of where the whales are. There were so many whales, we  had one on nearly every hour of the clock!   I never realized how big a creature can be until you see it in real life. Orcas are huge, not as big as a humpback, but when that black dorsal fin cut through the water, it rose to a stunning 5ft. It was amazing.

We stayed with them till dusk and eventually when all the whale watching boats were gone, it was just us and J-Pod. It was a beautiful clear sunny day and our recordings, as well as the photos, were fantastic.  These photos were taken by our videographer, Carlos Sanchez

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Humpback Whales!

Throughout our travels in the San Juans, we passed an island called Spiden. Todd said Spiden is unique because it originally belonged to two brothers who were taxidermists. They  liked to hunt and stocked the island with all sorts of exotic deer. When we went by on our way to Patos Island, we were able to see a few of them. Todd told me that sometimes the deer swim to different islands and occasionally one will see a set of antlers making its way across the water.

Last week we  had a confirmed report that the elusive J-Pod came in through Discovery Island and had gone up Swanson Cannel into Canada. Normally, when they come to the islands, they go up Swanson Channel and down Boundary Pass or Presidents Channel. Taking the strategic approach, we decided to camp out near Patos Island where we would be at the fork of the two channels (see map). This way, we could be close and listen for them when they came back down. To ensure that they didn’t slip by us overnight, we did an anchor watch. For the anchor watch,  we all took turns listening to the hydrophones overnight. My shift was from 12-1:30am. I unfortunately didn’t hear anything and neither did anyone else. As a result, we were up bright and early the next morning watching and waiting for J-Pod to hopefully come back down.  Oddly enough, these tricky killer whales went back down the way they came in and we missed them all together. Oh nature.  On the brighter side, Patos Island was amazing. It was very secluded and there were only two mooring buoys where we stayed. After dinner we went on a hike to the lighthouse where we watched the most beautiful sunset yet.

On Mother’s Day we saw humpbacks! We spotted them early in the morning and had them all to ourselves. We arrived at the perfect time. When we found them they were very playful, breaching and peck slapping, all right in front of us!  They are massive creatures. A humpback whale can reach lengths of 48-63 feet and weigh up to 40 tons! There’s also a picture of us in Jeanie’s blog, here. We spent about an hour and half with them before we moved on to Salmon Bank to get plankton samples.

Photo by Carlos Sanchez

We also spent one day down on south Lopez looking at fish populations. To assess the fish, we photographed sea birds and looked at what types of fish were in their  beaks. This is difficult because the birds like to swallow the fish immediately.  Luckily, Carols with his awesome photo skills, was able to capture a picture of a seagull with a sand lance in its mouth which was the fish that Kelsey was looking for to support her project. It was a successful day overall.

Cormorant, photo by Carlos Sanchez

Seagull with sand lance photo by Carlos Sanchez

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The Expedition Begins!

Living in my Northface fleece

We were all so excited to get on the boat. We planned to meet Captain Todd at 11:45 on Sunday to load our gear and begin our high seas adventure. It was a beautiful sunny day. We loaded all our gear and set sail. Todd decided to take us to the infamous Cattle Pass, which is known for its wildlife. On the way there we all sat on the trampoline and watched the water pass underneath our feet. At Cattle Pass we saw some Stellar seals hauled out on a rock and a bald eagle. As darkness descended upon us, we made our way to McKay Harbor where we moored the boat for the night. Sleeping on the boat was colder than I expected it would be. I wore a lot of layers to bed, but I was warm.
To keep the boat in ship shape and stay organized, we are assigned different jobs that we rotate through every day. On Monday, my job was to be the navigator. Being the navigator, I was in charge of charting our course. This is a cool job that involves looking at all the charts with a divider, I felt pretty nautical. I had to listen to the weather report on the radio and check the tide and current books to see where we should go and when. There were no reported sightings of orcas in the area, but there was a sighting of gray whales in Saratoga Pass, which unfortunately was pretty far from where we were. I chose to go north to Sung Harbor and we got our Gato Verde introduction on the way.

On Tuesday we made our way south to Port Townsend, because there were reports of transients south of Whidbey Island. We wanted to be wherever the orcas were. I was the science lead, so I was in charge of keeping everyone organized and outlining the priorities for the day. On the way, we deployed our precious hydrophone array and recorded some sounds so we could practice analyzing the sound files. The hydrophone array is a big deal because that’s how we record the whales. We have a line of 4 hydrophones spaced our across 10m increments that we tow behind the boat. We docked our boat in Port Townsend for the night. The dock had a Marine Science Center on it with all sorts of cool tide pools and aquariums. That night on the boat was also cold. I slept in many layers again. At this point it dawned on me that I was probably going to be spending my week in many layers.
Wednesday I was the systems reporter. To do this job I checked our water and sewage levels and biodiesel supply. I entered the levels into the computer and reported the daily water use per person, so we could keep track of our water use. Mandy was the navigator and she, like all of us, was on a mission to find whales and with no orcas in the area, we turned to the gray whales. We charted a 10 hour cruise up around Whidbey Island ending at Penn Cove. It was awesome. We sailed all day and it was a gorgeous sunny day. Mandy, Emalie, and I rode the bow all day and kept our eyes peeled for whales. Around lunch we saw something amazing. Val spotted a breaching Minke whale! These whales rarely jump out of the water and this one breached 5 times! It was really cool. It caught us all by surprise, so we only got 1 photo. Val was quick enough to get a shot of its little dorsal fin. We reported our sighting to Orca Network. Due to our lack of credibility and rarity for Minkes to breach, they reported “beam reach students reported what they believed to be a Minke Whale”. Taken back by their lack in confidence in our sighting, we compiled a case, sent in our Minke fin picture and earned some street cred. Check out Mandy’s post dedicated to whale identification here. We also saw many porpoises. They were really cute. As we continued around Whidbey, it became clear that we wouldn’t make it to Penn Cove before dusk. As we realized this, we got a call that there were gray whales in our area. No sooner had we looked to the horizon when blows were spotted. We quickly decided to anchor in a closer location, Elgar Bay , so we could spend the rest of our afternoon with the gray whale. We watched as it was feeding and recorded the time between its breaths. It was such a fun day!

Gray Whale

Since we hadn’t gotten as far as we planned on Wednesday we had to get up extra early on Thursday to time the current leaving Deception Pass. Deception Pass, as I will explain, was one of the coolest parts of the trip. My job Thursday was to be the science reporter and report on what we did the day before. Scott helped me make a graph of the gray whale breath times from the day before. From my graph we found a dive pattern. It was really neat. Going through Deception Pass was so beautiful. It is an extremely narrow channel and it was possibly the most beautiful thing I have seen in the San Juans so far. We anchored in Aleck Bay early in the afternoon so Mandy could do a sound spreading exercise for her project. We sent Scott, Robin, Mandy, and Kelsey out on Gatito, the dingy to play sounds from different distances. Emalie and I recorded the data from the sound on the boat and enjoyed the beautiful day.
Friday we spent out day traveling north to Snug Harbor. One the way we did a lot of science. We stopped for a while in Salmon Bank and took samples for Kelsey’s project. Again, it was an amazing day and spending it out on the water made it all the better. We also deployed the most expensive piece of science technology on the boat, the CTD. The CTD is a device that can measure nearly everything possible to measure in the water. It records the temperature, salinity, chlorophyll levels, light particles, pH, and oxygen levels. We tied two “oh crap lines” aka back up lines to that device.

Deception Pass


On Saturday we had a guest speaker, Jessica Lundin come and talk to us about her work of gathering and analyzing orca scat samples. That was really interesting. We spent the rest of the day gathering plankton samples and deploying the CTD offshore from Lime Kiln State Park. As we needed more water and a place to pump out the sewage, we headed to Roche Harbor. Roche harbor is a very interesting place. It was hands-down the nicest port we had stayed in, having giant yachts and sea planes all over. It was such a warm day I was down to 1 layer, it was very exciting. After dinner, Mandy and I wandered the town and visited a sculpture garden. This was the most elaborate sculpture garden I have ever seen, we were there admiring and wandering for 2 hours. Later that night when we were working we heard J-Pod on the hydrophone! Sweet irony. We spent a week at sea hoping to see J-Pod and they come back the night of our last day at sea. At least they’re back.

Sculpture Garden

On Sunday, we unloaded the boat and we’re welcomed home with an Easter brunch from Leslie and Val. It was so sweet of them. They even hid chocolate eggs all over the house for us. It was a great way to end a great week.

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Adventuring on the Salish Sea!

On Sunday Robin took us on a kayaking excursion along the coastline. We got up bright and early to meet her and then we all drove to the San Juan County Park to launch our kayaks into Smallpox Bay. We got a brief introduction to kayaking and then put on our “spray skirts” and headed out. We were in tandem kayaks, Mandy and I were in one, and Emalie and Kelsey in the other. Mandy, sitting in the back, was in charge of steering and did a great job in steering us close (but not too close) to the rocks to see the interesting organisms. We saw many purple pisaster starfish. Robin even found a gumboot chiton and gently plucked it from the rocks to show us. It looked like a giant red slug with a hard shell. As we made our way along the coast the wind began to pick up. We also saw some juvenile bald eagles fighting over the remains of a crab. Being from San Diego, I haven’t seen many bald eagles, and boy, are they huge. After seeing an eagle,  I was inspired to learn a bit more about these majestic birds.



Robin also arranged for us to go help her friend, Doug Mcutchen of the San Juan County Land Bank, restore the Beaverton Valley Marsh. Presently, the wetland is overrun by non-native reed canarygrass which outcompetes the natural plant species. Earlier volunteers planted native plants such as gooseberry, willow, and black hawthorn along the margins of the wetlands. By planting natural species, they hoped to improve the wetlands diversity and enhance its habitat value for birds and other animals. Our goal was to aid the pre-planted natural species, black hawthorn, gooseberry, and willow, in hopes that they would grow to be healthy and shade out the invasive grass. It was a beautiful sunny day so we were all thrilled to be outside helping the environment.

Shoveling mulch

We began our restoration by putting white plastic tubes around the important native plants to shelter and protect them from foraging deer and voles. We then put cardboard around the base and mulch on top to give the plants nutrients and a stable start. I thoroughly enjoyed being outside in the sun all day. We even saw some spring peepers, which are cute little green frogs.
There is an abundance of wildlife living in this area. I have seen black and red foxes running all over, and they are adorable. Mandy was quick enough to get some photos of the black one.

Neighborhood fox

On Saturday before we went on the boat, we made a trip out to Lopez Island for the day. Since downtown Lopez is small, we had time to go into every store . While Kelsey  interviewed for a summer job, we got ice-cream and ate it on the beach.

Lopez downtown

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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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