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Science Blogbook:Prevost to Mitchell Bay

Prevost to Mitchell


We woke to a rainy, gray morning in Prevost Harbor.  We desperately needed to pump out so we went to Roche Harbor first thing and held our morning meeting on the way.  We spent the morning discussing Hannah’s journal club article and headed to the Lime Kiln area, hoping to catch the whales while we satisfied our other science goals.  We were finally able to record some ship data for my project but we were eventually driven north towards Mitchell Bay and shelter by bad conditions.  Before entering Mitchell Bay, we took a conductivity, salinity and temperature cast and also practiced vertical plankton tows.  We took a quick reading of the water clarity using a Secci desk and then proceeded into Mitchell Bay at about 6:15. Scott and Jason made amazing minestrone soup, cornbread and salad for dinner and we settled in for a quiet evening, fending off the wet and cold.

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Charismatic Mega Fauna

Over the course of this program, I’ve heard the understanding of whale calls and language compared to the Rosetta Stone and the Holy Grail. Given the amount of effort, speculation and near worship given to both of these, I’m beginning to think they are right.

My project does not attempt to understand the meaning of whale calls in any sense but the tiny portion I am examining makes me realize just how impossible that task would be. People have attempted it, continue to attempt it, approaching it from every possible angle to try to understand what whales are saying but their language and so many other aspects of them continue to elude us.

J1, traveling North up Kellett Bluff

J1, traveling North up Kellett Bluff

Jason was the first person I heard refer to the whales as “charismatic mega fauna.” I don’t know if that’s a common way to refer to killer whales because I’ve now heard Todd and Val refer to them that way as well but the name makes me think about how popular these animals are when all you mostly ever see of them in the wild is a black dorsal fin.

Hannah calls them “sea ninjas” because they are so sneaky and suited to their environment. On many days, we’ve been out looking for them in Haro Strait, six pairs of eyes behind binoculars, straining to see them only to hear on the radio that they’d gone clean past us with no one the wiser. It’s not as if these are small creatures or that they blend in. They’re giant whales with black and white bodies. You’d think they’d stick out like sore thumbs but they don’t.

Killer whales are mysterious, fascinating creatures but the most surprising thing about them to me is how many people they have managed to enthrall. Killer whales are an icon, a demonstration of the mystery of the sea and of the strength and grace of its creatures. They are a rallying point for conservationists everywhere, a fascination for people from all walks of life. They live in every ocean of the world, with different hunting strategies, languages, food sources and behaviors. Actually when I think about it, it seems like it should be more surprising to me that they haven’t fascinated more people.

And yet we know so little about them. We know so little about the ocean as a whole. While I respect and admire the whales immensely, I wish we could all pull back the focus a little bit more to take in the whole picture. Because of their charismatic, mysterious nature, killer whales pull our attention towards them and yet they are not the whole picture. As an apex predator, their condition is a strong indicator of the health of their ecosystem. While the whales themselves need focus and attention, we need to remember that they are only a small part of an enormous ecosystem, a huge web which trembles with every tiny shift in a great balance.

In every ecosystem, scientists and researchers focus on individual species and on relationships. I think both parts are key but a balance is necessary. In order to know enough about a species, you must know a great deal about how it interacts with all components of its world and the effects that it has. I wish it were easier to strike that balance.

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The Mystery of Lost Balloons

When I was five years old, I went to a neighbor’s birthday party. It was a sunny day and she was turning six. All of the neighborhood children were invited and we ate cake in her backyard, surrounded by blooming nasturtiums, fruit trees and cats. Towards the end of the party, her mom brought out a giant bunch of balloons. She gave each one of us a postcard and told us to write a note, asking whoever found it to send a postcard to our address. We each hole-punched our cards and attached them to the strings of our balloons. My friend’s mom counted to three and we all released them.

I remember very clearly the glee in my young mind as I watched the balloons bounce up and drift, carefree and cheerful, pink, blue, green, yellow and purple into the clear sky. I imagined each balloon discovered, still completely inflated somehow, drifting into the arms of another child like me in China, Kenya, France, Argentina or Australia. I imagined receiving the coveted letter, covered in bizarre, wonderful stamps, nothing like the stamps my mom kept in her desk. I waited for it but it never came.

The red balloon floating on the southwestern end of San Juan Island

The red balloon floating on the southwestern end of San Juan Island

I hadn’t thought about that day in years until our first time at sea when we rescued a red balloon. It was slightly deflated, drifting listlessly in the dark water. It occurred to me then that it could have very well been the same balloon that I released all of those years ago, except red instead of yellow. When it was lifted clear of the water, I looked at the tangled end of the string, expecting to see a postcard there but no postcard remained and instead, the end of the string was a matted gnarl. We hung the balloon in the cockpit until it had completely deflated and then threw it away. The mystery of balloons didn’t occur to me again until yesterday when we rescued more, a yellow and green pair this time.

It began to occur to me how many balloons must be floating on their own and without permission, released at birthday parties or on New Year’s, slipping from an untidily tied knot on a little girl’s wrist, or wriggling free from fence posts. My thoughts slid, as they do, to consider all of the other things that we humans do to our surroundings, without any consideration for the effects they have.

I don’t mean to imply that balloons have no place in our world, merely that we should all be a bit more mindful of what we do. Last week we had an interesting talk with Russel Barsh, who explained the nature of surfactants and the problems they cause our world. Within our small boat microcosm, we must be continuously aware of our levels of consumption and waste. As we all continue to work on our sustainability projects, we begin to look at our boat time through that frame of reference, rather than a purely research minded one.

I guess the point of my usual rambling is that mindfulness is the first and most difficult step to solving many problems. How many times have we each stormed around in a bad mood, only to realize we were in that mood and feel sheepish and guilty for taking it out on the world? How many mistakes have we each made, simply because we went into situations with ignorance and no realization of it? I’ve come to think that maybe, the very best way we can help ourselves, our world and each other, is by being as conscious as possible, observing and questioning as much as we are able.

So what are you waiting for? Go rescue a balloon!

Hannah rescuing our balloon

Hannah rescuing our balloon

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Science blogbook: Mackaye Harbor – Snug Harbor – Jones Island north

Mackaye Harbor – Snug Harbor – Jones Island north


The seas were almost barf-inspiring today as we battled the wind northward along the west side of San Juan.  We tucked into Mitchell Bay to drop off Val for his haircut appointment (?!) and then continued around the northern tip of the island.  All was going well until we got to Spieden Channel, where the current began pushing us backwards.  We were forced to turn on our engines in order to make it to the north bay of Jones Island.  There we romped around in the rain and finished up the eveining with a double header:  Return of the Plankton (dum dum dumm) and The Life Aquatic.

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Science blogbook: Snug Harbor – Mackaye Harbor

Snug Harbor – Mackaye Harbor

This morning we had a quick breakfast and collected a gray water sample for Erica and Peter’s surfactant sustainability project from the water used to wash dishes. We spent the morning discussing our progress in becoming comfortable with data analysis methods.  We pumped out and filled up with fresh water and then headed towards Discovery Island to try to record the metallic plink that you can hear on the Lime Kiln and OrcaSound hydrophones. Because we didn’t hear the plink we recorded the noise produced by the Gato Verde with various electronics on.  We spent the afternoon motor-sailing and working on our individual projects. Hannah and Jason made a lovely dinner of falafel, tzatziki (sp??) and veggie stir fry.  Hannah and I attempted a repeat performance of the Team H Caramel Covered Chocolate Spice Cake and we all enjoyed  some deck yoga.

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Science blogbook: Reid Harbor – Snug Harbor

Reid Harbor – Snug Harbor

After an efficent morning chore period, we had a long discussion of our current scientific methods and how they need to be changed and improved.   Jason also began to examine the OrcaMaster data set.
In the afternoon, we sank a Vemco receiver in front of Val’s house to pick up the pings from the salmon experiments.  The Vemco was deployed at 14:45 at 48, 33.7 and 123, 10.81 in around 10 meters of water.  The serial number was 100913.
We did a quick drill with the hydrophone array and recorded the noise of the Gato Verde at 4 knots and varying speeds below as it slowed down. We did a quick man overboard drill with a hockey helmet that we’d found and then spent the early evening learning how to motor around in the dinghy.  After a filling dinner, everybody worked through the evening. Peter and Val analysed some of the data we took on the Gato Verde’s noise levels and found some interesting results that will need further experimentation.

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Man Overboard!

We’ve had a full, exciting day today, a perfect Beam Reach day. I woke a bit later than usual, rolling out of my sleeping bag at 7:50 and wandering into the kitchen to find that almost everyone had already eaten. Jason and Bubbles, his traveling sourdough starter, had made lovely sourdough pancakes.

Our morning meeting turned into an extended, incredibly helpful, strategy session. The conversation, led by Val and Jason, flowed smoothly and ranged from the last bits of research we need to complete for our proposals, to amendments to our data sheets and data collection systems to beginning to practice our analysis. I don’t know about the others but I ended up with two pages of notes and a long list of new things to address or research. About half way through, we decided to “make like plankton,” drifting from Stuart Island, south down Haro Strait, listening to various hydrophones all the while. We were so engaged that we almost, but only almost, worked past lunch.

Our morning meeting in the sunnny cockpit

Our morning meeting in the sunny cockpit

In the course of “making like plankton” we came across some interest flotsam. I asked for the definition of flotsam while writing this and Val promptly answered, “The things you find at garage sales.” It is actually, Todd tells me, the things you find floating in the water. Anyway, today we came across a hockey helmet, a construction hardhat and a circular piece of polystyrene (Styrofoam).

We had an equally busy afternoon, sinking a receiver in front of Val’s house to pick up the pings from transmitters put in salmon. Using an array (pun intended) of ropes, tapes, weights and boats, we managed to sink a cement block attached to the receiver and anchor it to land. As we left, we did a quick drill, pulling out the hydrophone array, as quickly and neatly as possible.

We were just beginning to relax again when Todd yelled, “Man overboard!” There was a great deal of running around without a clue where to turn, trying to decide who would keep their finger pointed at the “man” overboard. This was additionally confusing because for the first few seconds, none of us could see what was supposed to be the “man.” Hannah tossed the man overboard pole like a javelin and if it had actually been a person in the water, they probably would have been impaled. The hockey helmet, our “man” was successfully rescued and we proceeded into Mitchell Bay.

I had just gone to pull out my laptop and start work on the to-do list I generated this morning when Todd called us together and began dinghy training. Erica and I went first as the night’s cooks. It was like learning how to drive all over again only backwards, all with one hand and out in the wonderful, open blue.

The reason I wanted to blog about this day in particular was mainly an idea I had just before dinner while dicing garlic to fry with zucchini. It’s the “Man Overboard” thing. Not only did I feel like today was a bit of a continuous “Man Overboard” drill, in a good, thought-provoking, keep-you-on-your-toes kind of way, but I’ve sort of come to decide that all of Beam Reach is a bit like a “Man Overboard” drill.

It presents challenges that are usually unexpected, a bit nerve-wracking, and have an enormous payoff, if successful. All of our Beam Reach overboards seem daunting and confusing at first, but with helpful direction, good judgments, reliable instincts and hard work, we can complete the rescue successfully.

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Boat Life

Despite the amount of build-up, preparation and thought that went into our departure, I’ve come to find that I had very few concretely formed expectations regarding boat life. I now believe that even if I had formed expectations, they would have been thoroughly altered after the first two hours.

So many small things in life need to change to make life on a boat possible. At home, my mixed family live in a strangely laid-out mother and law house. My mom and I joke by calling our part of the house, the ‘Paris apartment’ because it is so small and compact. The concepts required for peaceful cohabitation in the ‘Paris apartment’ must be multiplied tenfold to be acceptable on the Gato Verde.

One of the first rules of a small space is keeping it clean and uncluttered, particularly in communal spaces like kitchens and bathrooms. At home that meant leaving my school books In a tucked away corner of the living room, vacuuming at least twice a week, and always, always neatening my room once day. Here, it means cleaning every communal area at least once a day, never leaving your personal belongings in a communal area and living out of a backpack.

Val, Hannah and Peter getting some work done in our main communal quarters

Val, Hannah and Peter getting some work done in our main communal quarters

We get up in the morning and the first thing after breakfast is completing our chore rotation. The breakfast dishes have to be washed, the systems and holding tanks for water sewage and fuel checked, the deck squeegeed and wiped, the galley cleaned, the floors swept and the weather and currents for the day reported on.

In chemistry, the term limiting reagent refers to the substance which determines how much of the reactants can completely turn into products. On the Gato Verde, the limiting reagent which determines whether or not we can keep sailing during the day is black water. I’m not, of course, talking about the erstwhile security contractor but about sewage which is what drives us to a fully functioning harbor more often than freshwater, food, or fuel.

Depending on your frame of reference, the Gato Verde can be accurately described as palatial or miniscule. I tend to try to classify it another way. Emotionally, the space is miniscule. Physically, the space is palatial for a boat. It’s trying to live in a place where everyone knows where everyone is and what they are doing every moment of every day. There just aren’t very many places to hide and have alone time on a boat.

All of that said, however, the experience has been incredible. The ability to travel over water, close to it, powered by it and living in it is an absolutely awe-inspiring one and something I have never been able to experience the same way. From a research perspective, it is an amazing opportunity. We tie up every night in beautiful secluded places and breathe clean, cool air, smiling into the wind, as we drift among islands covered in trees. We’ve watched otters, bald eagles, buffleheads, cormorants, harbor seals, transient orcas, Dall’s and harbor porpoises, and elephant seals all while learning loads and laughing.

Who could ask for more? It’s just that lovely.

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As I’ve gone through the Beam Reach program, I’ve subconsciously looked for the one thread weaving each part of the experience together. As redundant as it seems, the truest thread I’ve found is connection.

The first time I consciously thought about connections during the program was while listening to Paul Coltrell during our first day at the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Transboundary Naturalist Workshop. He was acting as a representative of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and explaining the steps that the Canadian government had taken to protect killer whales. Something about his explanation made me consider, more fully, the difference between transient killer whales, those who prey on mammals and move in quieter and less stable social groups and resident killer whales, those who prey on fish and move in highly communicative and stable social groups.

Those first few connections sinking into place at the workshop.

Those first few connections sinking into place at the workshop.

It was the first day I truly felt my brain had gone into “Whale Zone,” the name I’ve given to the state of being I find myself in when questioning whales and research. One of things we learned during two days of an incredibly steep learning curve was that residents and transients very rarely associate. They have slight morphological differences, different behaviors, and different sources of food. How can two populations be so similar and also so different?

In my opinion, the difference between the residents and the transients is the demonstration of something geologists call ‘actualism.’ It’s the idea that everything that is happening now has already occurred somewhere in the world. It’s a great way to study things that happened millions of years ago because you can look at something happening now and say that it is happening the same way it would’ve then. In my mind, we are seeing the actualism of speciation, a connection between species forever cemented in time, originating from the one point.

Not all connections I’ve found at Beam Reach are so scientific in nature. Most of them are as personal as can be. Each of us has found different personal connections, friends, family, or strangers who know people we know, who can contribute to our research, whose experiences connect to each one of us in a comforting and strange way.

Jason was trying to explain the name of the street he lives on, a vernacular word for someone ferocious. He couldn’t think of the word jargon and so instead, used the French word ‘patois.’ He didn’t notice he had used it but I was thrilled to hear it. That one word prompted a new connection, a realization that there was someone here who spoke French. I asked him how he learned his French and he explained a bit. We had been talking for a few moments before we realized that we were still speaking French and that no one else in the room could understand a word.

Jason and Val, who bring their own unique connections

Jason and Val, who bring their own unique connections

The more I look back, the more I think about the connections weaving through all parts of this course, not just through me but through my family, my school or my friends. My dad did an independent study for Val in college on wood waste. The bike I’ve been riding here was brought to me by a complete stranger, transferring an act of kindness he once received and then safeguarded by Scott, prior to my arrival.

I am infinitely grateful to be reminded of the depth of connection between everything in our world. What could be more appropriate to be reminded of in a program about the survival of a population and the changes necessary to make our society sustainable.

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