Author Archive

Jason swims the proposed orca refuge

Prevost Harbor to Snug Harbor

Still no Southern residents, but we did see an interesting wet suit and flipper-clad creature in Haro Strait today! Jason swam three miles along the West side with the goal of contextualizing NOAA’s proposed vessel regulations, which, if put into practice, will impose restrictions on boats when whales are present. As our “whale,” Jason swam to show what Haro Strait is like from an orca’s point of view. While he was in the water we took photos, videos, and sound recordings, which we will organize and display on a website in an effort to demonstrate why NOAA’s proposed regulations would be beneficial for the whales. After Jason’s exciting dip in the deep blue, we drifted down the coast for a few miles and saw a variety of marine mammals, including porpoises (harbors and Dall’s) and a Steller sea lion. We’re at anchor now, ready to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for another day of searching… maybe tomorrow will be the day!

Read More

In other news….WHALES!

Beam Reach went out on the water with Ken Balcomb (of the Center for Whale Research) yesterday, and we had our first close encounter with Southern residents!  L41, a big male from the L12 matriline, is pictured here.

Read More

Meeting Alexandra Morton

I got blisters on my fingers… and by fingers, I mean toes.  My feet have never been so beat up in my entire life, but I can safely say that I sacrificed their happiness for a worthy cause.  On Saturday, Libby and I walked from the marina in Sidney, British Columbia all the way to the parliament building in Victoria.

Libby walking

We walked approximately 18 miles with hundreds of other people as part of the Get Out Migration, a march to raise awareness about open-pen fish farms led by a woman named Alexandra Morton.  She has lived in the Broughton Archipelago for more than twenty years, researching the Northern resident killer whale community and, more recently, the effects of open-pen fish farms on the wild salmon populations.  After ten years of working to eradicate Norwegian fish farms from the area, Alexandra organized a three-week walk from the Northernmost to Southernmost tip of Vancouver Island to spread the word about their negative impact on local communities and ecosystems. During a trip to Vancouver Island a few years ago, my father bought me Alexandra’s book, Listening to Whales.  I did not read it until last summer, when I was living at a remote research station off the cost of Maine.  Her narrative about studying killer whales and her depiction of life as a field scientist was formative for me – since then, I have dreamed of meeting Alexandra Morton.  When I heard that she was due to walk into Victoria while I was right across the water, I decided then and there that I had to walk with her.  After much logistical planning, Libby and I  pinned down a ride and set out for Sidney.  Because we had to clear customs, we missed the start of the walk at 8 am, so the beginning of our journey was fairly rushed.  Walking brisklyAlexandra Morton through the Sidney suburbs without any sight of Alexandra and her entourage, Libby and I started to wonder if we’d be walking all the way to Victoria alone.  Just as we were beginning to contemplate hitchhiking, a car pulled up beside us.  “Hey, are you guys trying to catch up to the migration?”  A young woman named Megan, who turned out to be none other than Alex Morton’s assistant, opened her car door and ushered us inside.  “I know migrators when I see them!” she said.  Five minutes later, we came upon a train of cars, signaling the back of the migration pack.  A woman with long, wispy white hair came into view, and my eyes widened.  I was way too sweaty and frazzled to be thrust into the presence of Alexandra Morton already!  Libby and I thanked Megan for saving us many uncomfortable miles of walking and started down the road, trailing Alex’s heels and wondering what to do next.  Turns out my body is not too keen on the idea of walking 18 miles, so for the majority of our migration to Victoria, I was solely focused on putting one foot in front of the other.  Because of this, I did not get the heart-to-heart with Alex I had imagined, but simply being in her presence and taking part in this massive culmination of her efforts was enough for me.  After a long day of trekking down Highway 17, we entered Victoria, greeted by a huge group of supporters.  The final 1 km walk to the parliament building was spectacular – thousands of people flooded the streets, marching to the beat of the First Nations’ drum and shouting to spectators.

At the Parliament Building

It became evident to me that this is an issue that affects all of British Columbia’s citizens in different ways, but it is undeniable that the effects are uniformly negative.  Libby and I collapsed on the parliament building lawn, ready to yank our shoes off and douse ourselves with cold water.  The wide range of speakers at the final migration event, from First Nations chiefs to commercial fishermen, spoke of the cross-cultural concerns fish farms have raised.  There were so many people crammed onto the lawn that we could not even see the stage, but it was enough just to be able to sit and listen.  Alexandra was the last to speak; I had not lost all hope of meeting her, so I tried to keep one eye on her as she snaked back through the crowd amidst roaring applause.  Libby pointed. “There she is!”  We knew this was the last chance we would get, so we pushed forward until we were standing right in front of her.  As this was the end of Alex’s very long journey, I didn’t want to goad her into taking a photo with me or signing my book.  I just wanted to say hello, so that’s what I did.  Libby somehow managed to snap a candid photo of this moment (she’s amazing!), and I am so glad she did.  Like I said, the blisters were well worth the pain.

Meeting Alexandra (Libby’s picture)

To learn more about the Get Out Migration, click here

Read More

Watching Whales

Evening sky at Griffin Bay

Hello from the Gato Verde!

Things have been going great so far — it feels wonderful to be out on the water.  I have not been sailing since 2008, and the moment I set foot on the Gato Verde, every reason for loving boats I had ever conjured in my mind came rushing back to me.  I actually used to have a great fear of boats. I think it began because my idea of being out at sea was based on one or two childhood whale watching experiences.  During one trip, I remember being so frightened that my mom had to literally sedate me with medication.  I spent most of the whale watch underneath my Little Mermaid towel, hiding from the wrath of the Massachusetts seas.  Despite my dramamine-induced drowsiness, I remember my panic reached a high point once we spotted whales.  Every single passenger scrambled to one side of the boat to get a better look, causing us to tip precariously (at least in my mind).  In this moment I remember feeling desperately out of control of my own fate…this boat was going to sink and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  Luckily, my fear of boating has gradually been replaced by a deep love of all forms of marine transportation.  This is the only instance where my fear of something has decreased as I have gotten older – all my other phobias have, unfortunately, seemed to increase with time.  Thankfully, the time for fear of boats has passed in my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be sailing again.  Everything has been working in our favor so far weather-wise (knock on wood), and things have been going very smoothly.  I even got to steer the boat for about 20 minutes yesterday!

After a relaxing first evening anchored in Griffin Bay, we rose early to get a head start on what we thought would be a very full day of sailing.  We had planned to sail to Neah Bay, where there is a hydrophone in need of repair.  Beam Reach has never sailed that far, so we were all looking forward to the exciting challenge of charting new territory.  I woke up early after a fitful night of sleep, soothed by early-morning fog banks and loon calls.  We departed on schedule and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.  Around this time, I happened to look out the window; I had seen some sea lions sunning themselves on some rocks, and I thought I might see more in the water.  Instead, I saw a tall black shape sinking beneath the surface.  My breath caught.  No, I thought, there is absolutely no way.  It’s probably just a cormorant. Then, a blow.  “Whales!!” I cried, tripping over myself stupidly in an effort to get a better look.  “Whales, whales!!!”  I clapped happily, laughing in awe – I absolutely could not believe our luck.  Here we are, one day out from Friday Harbor, and we happen to stumble upon a beautiful group of transient killer whales.  Their pointed dorsal fins sliced through the water, and I sighed contentedly at hearing their piercing blows.  All plans of attempting a passage to Neah Bay lost, we followed the whales from nine in the morning until they gave us the slip around 3 pm.  The whales came within meters of the Gato Verde several times; during one encounter I even picked up the familiar smell of whale breath on the air (which, in my opinion, smells like rotten pumpkins).  I am happy to report that I recorded several videos of our time with the whales today…the quality, however, is somewhat compromised by the fact that I was leaping all over the boat in my uncontainable excitement.  If these past two days have been any indication, there will be much more to report soon!

Hope everyone is well,


Coming up for air

Read More

Ready to Set Sail

Hello, everyone!

I am finally sitting down after a long stint of packing — I had no idea I could be so inefficient at packing a single bag!  We’ve all been busy buying groceries, doing laundry, and tidying up in preparation for our afternoon departure tomorrow.  I am unbelievably excited to re-immerse myself in boat life (time to re-learn how to tie a bowline and start thinking about what someone means when they say “pass the jib!”).  There have been reports of several large groups of transients in the area, so it is possible that we will have some orca sightings during our first leg on the Gato Verde.  Other than scrambling with last-minute logistical preparations, we have not done much besides refining our research methods (and having a much-needed impromptu dance party in our spacious duplex).  On Friday, we took a dip in the ocean as part of Beam Reach’s “cold plunge” experience.  I had been dreading this initiation process, but it turned out to be much more enjoyable than I expected — I might even do it again!  To see pictures of us freezing our buns off, click here.

Not much else to report — more to come once we’ve gotten settled into our new home.  I can’t wait to brush my teeth under the stars…


Read More

Another Week Bites the Dust

Hello everyone!

Walking the sea lion around the bow

The team!

Me and Libby sailing

Sorry for the silence – between turning in a rough draft of our project proposals, participating in a Steller sea lion necropsy, and venturing out into the bay on our first sailing trip, we have been a bit short on free time.  Even though this past week was somewhat of a whirlwind, I am truly in awe of how much information I absorbed.  We had seminars on advanced acoustics, scoured the scientific literature for papers relating to our proposal topics, and got our first taste of boat life during excursions on the R/V Buzzard and Val’s dinghy.  I learned how to hoist a 1-ton, male Steller sea lion out of the ocean amidst hail and wind, and I learned about its fascinating anatomy and physiology as I watched a marine mammal scientist conduct a necropsy.  This was probably the most exciting part of our week (as evidenced by my fellow bloggers’ posts), and it was certainly a unique experience.

When Jason approached us about picking up a dead sea lion on Lopez Island, I was dragging my feet, just trying to make it through the day after staying up late finishing my proposal.  Almost instantaneously, my head felt lighter and my face lit up – the mere prospect of setting foot on any kind of boat was enough to lift my spirit.  Since other blog posts have already chronicled the beginning of our sea lion adventure, I will keep this part of my blog post short.  Suffice it to say that attempting to pull an animal the size of a couch into our little boat (during a hailstorm) was very interesting…as was trying to pull him out again after discovering he was too heavy to keep in the boat.  Several kind locals allowed us to tether the sea lion to their dock for the night with the understanding that we would be back early the next morning to retrieve him.

Picking up the sea lion the next day was a much less trying experience than our initial retrieval operation; this time we had the weather on our side.  We tethered him to the side of the boat and started back (slowly) toward Friday Harbor Labs.  As we rode back, I started to become uneasy about conducting a necropsy – wasn’t it disrespectful to mutilate this creature, even in “the name of science?” I had never spent so much time with an animal I was about to cut open, and I struggled to justify what we were about to do.

The necropsy itself was, thankfully, a fairly subdued affair.  It was clear that Joe, the veterinarian leading the dissection, wanted to be careful while still learning as much as he could about the animal.  I very much enjoyed listening to his external monologue because it allowed me to follow his thought process.  I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all until the very end of the necropsy when Joe decapitated the sea lion.  After all we’d done to the animal, I had a hard time even watching him do it.  I have always enjoyed necropsies, so long as I can separate the experience from the animal itself; holding this magnificent creature’s 30-pound head in my hands forced me to reconcile the fact that we had just marred the body of a once living thing.  Despite my slight discomfort, I found the necropsy to be an extremely valuable learning experience – one I definitely never would have gotten in Maine!

After a long Friday full of grimy work, we were rewarded with our first sailing trip.  We went out in Val’s dinghy, two at a time, and tried our hands at working with the wind to propel ourselves around the bay.  It was difficult, but we had a lot of fun!  This experience made me realize that I am absolutely itching to get out to sea – one of my major life goals is to become an able-bodied sailor (I would love to get my captain’s license someday).  In a continuing boating theme, Horace, Nora, and I decided to row into town on Saturday since it was such a calm, sunny day.  I had never rowed before, so I was nervous about how I would do.  I ended up rowing back to the labs with Nora, and I unfortunately didn’t do as well as I would have liked.  I plan to practice, though, and I am hoping to be an expert rower by the time I leave San Juan Island!  Overall, things have been going pretty well here at FHL – I am definitely ready to get out on the water.  The whales have yet to make their debut around these parts, so I am keen to get out there and start looking for them myself!


Read More

Back on San Juan Island

I have been waiting to return to San Juan Island for 5 years.  The first time I came to Friday Harbor, I was 15 years old.  I arrived in Washington with the hopes of seeing a wild orca, and I began my hunt on the ferry to the island. I stood on the chilling bow, wind-whipped and shivering in 4 layers of clothing, scanning the horizon for black dorsal fins and telltale plumes of mist suspended in the air.  I knew the chances of seeing whales before I had even reached San Juan Island were slim, but I simply could not contain my excitement.  About halfway through the ferry ride, I noticed a zodiac idling a mile or so away.  The people on the boat were obviously looking at something, and I squinted my eyes to get a better look.  Moments later, a black shape rose out of the water, and my heart skipped a beat – orcas.  Somehow my father managed to snap a photo of me at this exact moment, and I can only describe the expression on my face as one of pure, unadulterated joy.  In suburban Ohio where I grew up, the closest thing to wild orcas are captive animals who lead sad half-lives at Sea World; it was an absolute thrill to see these animals swimming freely in the Salish Sea.  This unexpected encounter set the trend for the remainder of my trip – I saw orcas nearly every day.  I watched whales cruise by the lighthouse at Lime Kiln State Park and I followed them through the fog on a whale watch.  The only way I managed to leave the island without dissolving into tears was to promise myself that I would return someday.

As I boarded the Anacortes ferry one week ago, I was overcome with the same child-like excitement I felt during my first ferry ride.  I had waited so long to be reunited with this thick, fragrant air, the ethereal cathedrals of tall, leaning trees, and, most of all, the whales.  After seven days on the island, I have still yet to see an orca, but my disappointment has been tempered by a multitude of other wildlife experiences.  Friday Harbor Labs is situated within a biological preserve, and the area is bursting with life.  I have had close encounters with deer, sea lions, slugs, foxes, and river otters, temporarily satiating my desire for animal contact.  I have started to use our Sibley’s bird guide to identify the birds around our duplex (including a Red-Shafted Northern Flicker that has been drilling noisily on a metal lamp outside our window for the past few days) in an effort to hone my observational skills.  While these experiences have been fulfilling, there is still part of me impatient to get out on the water – I listen to the hydrophone network daily, ears tweaked for sweeping killer whale calls, and even though I know they don’t frequent the east side of the island, I keep an ear out for the gunshot ring of whales coming up for air.  We’ll be out at sea in two short weeks; in the meantime I will enjoy the company of other creatures and bask in the knowledge that I am finally back in this wonderful place.

Read More