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Let’s Have a Blast and Remember this Moment for the Rest of Our Lives!

I never thought I would be able to call the sea my home, but after living on a boat for an extended period of time, I can truly call myself a sailor, and a sustainable one at that! The Gato Verde is the only biodiesel electric commercial sailboat in the country, which makes it pretty darned special. It’s considered sustainable because of the myriad of things that keep the cat green, like being able to use the slightest touch of wind to power the boat. When the wind is lacking, the boat simply runs on electric power, and when electric power runs low, the boat is backed by biodiesel.


The electric power of the Gato is provided by heavy, lead acid batteries. These batteries are the same batteries that can be found in cars and their weight adds to the drag on the boat. In order to make the Gato more efficient and sustainable in the future, the type of battery used could be switched to lithium polymer batteries, which are lighter, more abuse tolerant, and could power the boat alone for a full four hours, as opposed to the current two hours that the lead acid batteries provide now. In addition to the battery type change, Captain Todd hopes to yet improve the sustainability of the Gato by converting the current black water system to a grey water system.

While we were out sailing through the Salish Sea, we had to constantly be conscious of our black water system. The black water system on the Gato Verde is the where the human waste is held, home to a unique ecosystem of hazardous pathogens, and it was how we kept our waste from entering the marine environment. We had two holding tanks on the boat, a primary and a secondary. When the primary holding tank was filled, it was pumped into the secondary holding tank and when both tanks were full, it was time to make a trip to pump out. We created a decent pump out rule, as pumping out is not always the most pleasant thing to do. The rule was that whoever did not pump out had to buy ice cream for whoever did pump out. Because of this, pumping out ended up being one of our favorite things to do on the boat! In addition to measuring the amount of waste produced, daily calculations were made of fresh water usage, biodiesel fuel, and power consumed.

More Sailing!

When the environment permitted, we used it to maximize our efficiency. A few days out on the Gato allowed us to hoist the mainsail and test our skills at sailing. We used the wind to our advantage and optimized our angle with the wind, maneuvering the boat with the jib sheet by tacking. In addition to the different aspects of sailing, we learned a lot of other valuable information, like how to tie a double sheet bend knot, which is used to tie two lines together. My all time favorite knot was the bowline. I got so good at tying a bowline that at one point, I somehow managed to tie one single handed! Another knot I became very quick at tying, which I think is the most aesthetically pleasing knot of all, is the cleat hitch. The cleat hitch was used every time we docked instead of mooring or anchoring.

There were a number of tasks to accomplish when we anchored for the evening. To start, we lowered the anchor into the water. After the anchor was lowered, a bridle was put on the anchor chain to reduce the tension on it. We observed the angle of the anchor chain each time we anchored to be sure the anchor was secured at the sea floor.

One of my favorite things about sailing was the rare opportunity we had to view the southern resident killer whales from the water. As we approached the end of our voyage, we were all wondering when we would be able to see the greatly anticipated whales. Finally, three days before our trip ended they showed up and stayed in the Salish Sea long enough to be with them on each of our last days on the boat. Our last day, the whales were not very vocal, but they put on quite a show for us at East Point. We were running from port to starboard, shouting out behaviors like crazy! It was amazing to see how much of a mood booster the whales could be.

Killer whale tail slap, photo courtesy of myself (my pride and glory)

After a long, arduous, and exhausting week here at the Friday Harbor Labs, we have finally passed the threshold of our looming presentations. I will be sad to say goodbye, and while I know that I will never, ever forget the time I have spent here, it’s always difficult to leave a place where you feel so at home. This truly has been the experience of a lifetime. I have made lifelong friends and learned valuable skills and information that I will be able to use in almost every situation. Congratulations to the Beam Reach 121 class of spring 2012, you’ve done it!

I love these guys!

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Eureka! I Spy Whales!

All week long, papers have been flooding the tables and fingers have been punching away at keyboards in our humble abode, S1. Everything was put on hold this weekend for our overwhelming proposals that each of us just barley managed to finish in the nick of time last night at midnight. Hooray! They’re finally finished! It was stressful, but it was also really fulfilling to be able to write a somewhat formal, scientifically written document. And that was just the beginning of the weeks of research to come, as we embark on our next epic, week long journey, collecting data on the Gato Verde. Beam Reach wasn’t the only class working on research proposals this week. Many of the other classes here at the labs were developing ideas for their research, and it was really fun to hear about all of the cool science that is yet to come. From something as tiny as phytoplankton to a creature as massive as a whale, the sea never ceases to amaze me with all that it has to offer.

Learning in the Lighthouse at Lime Kiln

The majority of our class time during the past week was spent at Lime Kiln, observing and collecting data for our upcoming research, and we had the best observations anyone could ask for! Resident killer whales swam to and fro in front of the lighthouse, making a dramatic appearance as if showing off to the six of us Beam Reach students, seeing them for the first time there. There was so much technical work to cover while we were at the lighthouse in preparation for our upcoming boat excursion, but according to Murphy, it wasn’t really that important. Generally, I would be unhappy about Murphy’s law interfering with our critical working and learning environment, but not this time. In my book, seeing the whales was not only one of the most important parts of my week, but also one of the most special.

Breaching Killer Whale!

Plankton tow at Lime Kiln

In our proposals, we adapted our ambitious hypotheses to accommodate the allotted time and instruments that are available to us for our research. After a lot of hard work and consideration, my hypothesis turned out something like this: in areas of the water with limited visibility, the rate of the S1 call increases in comparison to all other calls. I am pretty excited because I am developing my own visibility profiles of the aquatic environment in which the resident killer whales live, so it feels like I am doing some pretty legitimate science. The profiles I am creating are in relation to the abundance of particles, phytoplankton, and light in the water. My theory is that with more things in the water, it becomes harder for the whales to see, which in turn would have them be more reliant upon their vocal communication skills.

It has been an intense week in Beam Reach, and I imagine the intensity will be even more apparent when the writing of our full blown papers commences, but I am still so psyched to be living the life of a marine biologist and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I cannot believe how time has flown over the weeks that I have spent here in Friday Harbor. It seems like just yesterday that I was stepping off the ferry onto this beautiful and mysterious soil for the first time, relishing the unique ocean habitat that the resident killer whales are fortunate enough to experience throughout the duration of their lives. I am sure that the memories I have made here, and the memories yet to come  in this short span of ten weeks, will last a lifetime.

Dana, Me, Jamey, Phinn, Bre, and Taya at Lime Kiln

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I Think I Found a Sailor

Oh my Gato, what a week it has been! Monday began with an early wake up call and a hurried morning bustle in preparation for our first voyage on the Gato Verde! The six of us, Dana, Phinn, Taya, Breanna, Jamey and I stuffed ourselves into the Washington State Ford Explorer, only to drive five minutes to wait in line to board the ferry. While we waited, we decided to get coffee in a little cafe nearby. I really don’t like coffee, but I thought I would try a mocha milkshake considering that most milkshakes, regardless of the flavor, are delicious. It turned out to be a little too strong for my liking, but I drank most of it anyway. On the ferry, Phinn, Taya and I found a fruit themed jigsaw puzzle and started in on it right away. I’m not sure that I have ever felt so concentrated and determined in my life and I think it was the caffeine. We worked diligently on the jigsaw throughout our ride and we even had people betting on whether or not we would finish before we had to get off. We worked until the very last second we could, only to miss finishing it by about ten pieces. Do you have any idea how unsatisfying it is to miss finishing a puzzle by ten pieces? Needless to say, it was a very long ride to Bellingham as I stewed over the unfinished puzzle.

Phinn, Bre, Jamey and me hanging out on the trampoline before leaving Bellingham

When we arrived in Bellingham, we were welcomed aboard our new home on the water, the Gato Verde, by Captain Todd and had a brief orientation of the catamaran. The next couple of hours were spent loading the Gato with the plethora of science gear we brought with us and the many wonderful food ingredients we needed to make gourmet meals out at sea, including, but not limited to, milk chocolate, asparagus, white chocolate, eggplant, dark chocolate, loads of cheese, chocolate covered pretzles, tea, and chocolate brownie mix. By the end of our voyage, there was a pretty big dent in our food supply and not a hint of chocolate left. A short time later, last minute, final preparations were made and our four day journey began!

My berth

I had never spent an extended period of time on the water until this week and I loved every minute of it! The weather was decent and we spent the first afternoon on the front of the Gato, basking in the sun, being showered with waves on the trampolines. We docked for the night at Fossil Bay, on Sucia Island, and were welcomed by the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen. I live in Tucson, Arizona, and nothing can compare to an Arizona sunset, but this was spectacular! Night fell fast and before I knew it, I was rocked to sleep by the gentle arms of the ocean, in my tiny little berth on the forward, starboard side of the Gato.

A view from the Gato at Fossil Bay, Sucia Island

The next few days out on the water, we learned how to deploy our scientific instruments, such as the CTD, to measure the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water, a niskin bottle to collect water samples, a secchi disk to measure the water’s visibility and of course a hydrophone to get a feel for listening to the aquatic world beneath us. We traveled all over the Northern Inland waters and even floated into Canadian waters for about 20 seconds. It was my first time being in Canada and I was stoked! We also learned some of the fundamentals of sailing, like tacking, which was my favorite part of the trip! Sailing is so much fun! We had a good amount of down time during our adventure to relax on the Gato and explore the islands after we had docked for the night.

Taya, Jamey and Phinn working diligently

Our time sailing was full of great learning experiences. In the mornings after breakfast, our responsibilities included things like washing the decks and cleaning the heads (bathrooms) to rid the catamaran of mung, and fulfilling a systems report to monitor how much fuel, fresh water, and sewage storage we were using. We also had a navigator who listened for the weather report, observed tides and currents, and determined our course for the day. For this trip, I had a chance to clean the heads, do the systems report, and navigate. Each job was very different, but equally as important as the next.

Jamey and Dana relaxing on the catwalk

Not only did I learn about science and my upcoming research on this voyage, but I also learned a great deal about the people with whom I am to share the Gato for our upcoming trips. I have gotten to know my new friends pretty well in the time that we have spent on land at the Friday Harbor labs, but being confined to a catamaran with them has allowed me to get to know them even better, especially when a common sailor theme song continuously resonates through our heads. As has been the theme of my time here on the island, things just keep getting better and I can’t wait for our next grand adventure!

I love my life!

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A Touching Moment

This morning began as a usual Monday here at the labs. I rolled out of bed and stumbled to breakfast, half asleep and hungry as always. It was a gorgeous day, the sun was shining and it reflected off of the water in the harbor. After breakfast, I meandered back to S1, preparing my mind for the arduous, yet thoroughly interesting day ahead. The syllabus hinted that we would be diving in the realm of bioacoustics which I worried would be saturated with physics, a subject that most days just goes right over my head. Class began shortly, and it didn’t take long for those physics terms to start popping up. A few hours ticked past and it was nearing 11:00 am. We were diligently listening to Scott lecture on sound waves, when Robin made a sudden, dramatic exit from the room. She hurried out the door and disappeared, only to scurry back inside ten minutes later shouting, “There are orcas in Friday Harbor!” I have never seen eight people drop everything so fast. Laptops and notebooks were flying through the air as we ran excitedly out of S1 and down toward the harbor. It was as if our lives depended on seeing these whales. My heart was beating so fast, I hardly noticed the treacherous rocks we sprinted over to spot the whales. As we reached the edge of the island, what looked like four orcas could be seen swimming North out of Friday Harbor. Among the blows and the dives, I caught glimpses of a juvenile whale with the others. Words cannot express how utterly and deeply I was affected by my first sighting of these amazing creatures, the killer whales. They only took a short time to be out of our visual range, but they will forever be imprinted in my memories. What a grand day!

Orcas in Friday Harbor!!!!

Watching the Whales

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Scenes from a Horror Film

Class began today on somewhat of a different note than usual. We observed a necropsy of a harbor seal, performed by veterinarian Joe Gaydos, which was thoroughly fascinating! The newly weaned, stranded male seal was rescued on a beach and was found with an injury just above its nose, which we later discovered had penetrated through the bone. The young seal was blind in both eyes, and it was speculated that the injuries had resulted in an attack from another harbor seal. It was determined that the extent of its injuries would not allow it to thrive in the open ocean if it was returned, so instead it was euthanized, as this was the fairest option. As unfortunate as it may have been for that poor little seal, it was extremely educational and beneficial for us to have been able to witness its necropsy.

Harbor Seal Skull

Throughout the dissection, there was a great deal of education occurring that snagged at my light physiology background. It was fascinating to see each internal part of the seal accompanied by a brief explanation of what role it played in a living animal. I took an unholy amount of photos, as my interest in possibly becoming a marine mammal veterinarian was weighing heavily on my mind throughout the necropsy. I was bummed that we were unable to stay for the next necropsy candidate, a river otter, but I am so enthused about being able to have such an awesome experience!

Just Before the Necropsy

We Survived the Necropsy

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Island Pizzazz

Our mid-week adventure to South Beach was tremendous! South Beach, as you may have assumed from the name, is on the South end of San Juan and encompasses American Camp, which is basically the same thing as English Camp, but where the Americans settled so many years ago. It hosts an array of creatures that we were very fortunate to see, from tremendous terrestrial animals, like foxes and bald eagles, to amusing sea birds and harbor seals. The weather was fabulous, sunny and calm; it was optimal marine mammal viewing weather! Unfortunately, the whales were still being rather evasive and we didn’t spot any out in the water.

A view of South Beach

Our class time and studies have been enabling us to learn a tremendous amount about the ocean and its incredible inhabitants. I read another case study that dealt with the question of whether or not marine areas protected for ecosystem conservation are compatible with marine areas designed for fishery sustainability. The study focused on the importance of the sea otter’s role in the ecosystem and its relationship to the harvested red abalone, its main source of food, and how the red abalone population was being affected by the sea otters, sustainable harvesting, or both. The results of the study indicated that the sea otters were more detrimental to the red abalone than sustainable, recreational harvesting. When both factors were observed occurring in the same area, the red abalone population was affected adversely. Therefore, it was determined that ecosystem conservation and sustainable fishing are not compatible in this specific situation. I found the results of this study to be really intriguing because it ended with a push for another study, to find compatibility of ecosystem conservation and sustainable fishing. It is satisfying when a study results in an expected conclusion, but if it leaves the door open for more thought provoking research, it becomes so much better!

Bre and Jamey hard at work, sitting on Elvis the futon

In our down time, our exploration and discoveries continue! Jamey, Dana and I did a small study of our own. We found that it is difficult to defy gravity and run up a plastic slide on a playground, no matter what type of traction your shoes have. After a try or two, I managed to reach the top of the slide. Difficult it may be, but definitely not impossible! Tomorrow we are going to observe a necropsy on a harbor seal and I am so excited! The food is still delicious, the laughter is ever-present and I am still extremely content in my new favorite place, the San Juan Islands!

Bre, Phinn, Jamey, and Dana at South Beach where the trees smell like Christmas

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New Places, New Faces

The close of a  highly educational  and enlightening week brought with it the start of our first weekend here in Friday Harbor! I wasn’t really sure how much better my experiences here on the island could get since everything that has happened so far has been more than I expected, but I can see clearly now that my adventures have only just begun. Thursday night, we ventured to the opposite side of the island (near Lime Kiln) to a place called English Camp with a group of other students from the labs. The story behind English Camp resulted from a rather daring pig encroaching upon American crops. Supposedly, some hostility arose between the British and the Americans after the pig demolished a few crops and was killed for trespassing. Thus, a fight broke out and the island of San Juan was forevermore considered American soil. What an extremely silly pig!

English Camp's ocean view

New friends!

Friday’s class opened with a group discussion on different case studies we each chose to read and present. The studies focused on sustainability science, but instead of encompassing the subject as a whole, they honed in on specific examples of the science in action. The study I chose looked at improvements experienced by farmers in developing countries after they adopted more sustainable farming practices, based on a response to a mail survey. It was titled Reducing food poverty by increasing agricultural sustainability in developing countries. It was interesting to find that with subtle changes like soil health improvements, using water more efficiently, and either decreasing or eliminating pesticides completely, the increase in per hectare food production was 93% (a hectare is about 100 acres)!  The study took place in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so in order to ensure economical and social support, the changes that occurred encompassed low costs and local availability. I am still a little bit skeptical of the results of the study because they were based on a mail survey and feel that there could have been more accurate results if the data had come from scientists actually in the field, but it was still cool to see such a dramatic improvement.

After class on Friday, the six of us rowed to town (I am still trying to convince myself that this is real). We wanted to stock up on ice cream and cookie dough for our future movie nights! When we returned, we happened upon an exciting gathering in the dining hall. There were quite a few students socializing with fun music and games and it was great to get to know everyone from all of the different programs that the labs have to offer.

Learning to Row

Today (Saturday, March 31), we rowed to town again to explore the Whale Museum and to see the Hunger Games. The Whale Museum was a fantastic place to brush up on and review my knowledge of a few things we learned in class this past week. After visiting the museum, we meandered through town and came across all sorts of fun little shops, like a used bookstore called Serendipity, where I purchased a book called The Life of Pi. I have always been really picky about buying used books, but I couldn’t risk never knowing the survival story of a boy and a tiger. More importantly, I feel like I have made a small step in advancing my sustainable lifestyle. On a different note, The Hunger Games was very intense! I think it really did justice to the book and I can’t believe how much I can’t stop thinking about it. I am glad I was able to share these experiences with my new friends. After all, every adventure is better when you are in good company!

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Welcome to Friday Harbor!

After a very long, ten day road trip, which began in Tucson, Arizona, I finally made it to Friday Harbor on the island of San Juan! My new home for the next ten weeks, the Friday Harbor Labs, is full of friendly people, sumptuous food, and a never-ending list of things to explore , like scenic running trails and quaint rowboats. Friday Harbor is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and I am so excited to embark on this enriching adventure with my new wonderful friends, Jamey, Breanna, Taya, Phinn, and Dana!

Me, Dana, Jamey, Breanna, Taya, and Phinn on our first excursion to Lime Kiln

Class began on Monday, March 26 and has thus far been very interesting. We have learned quite a bit about killer whales and have just touched on the topic of sustainability science. Sustainability science does not have one set definition, but can be somewhat described as a combination of preserving the environment throughout the developments of the human population and improving scientific practices to sustain society. It is not only viewed through an environmental perspective, but also economically and socially. I found a description of sustainability science in a recently read paper to be rather enticing: enhancing human prosperity while protecting the Earth’s life support systems and reducing hunger and poverty. I felt that the emphasis on human prosperity in addition to protecting the environment was really cool!

Outside of the curriculum, I have had some great bonding time with my new friends. The six of us have managed to explore town, the rowboats, and the food menu, and are hoping that our upcoming adventures will provoke much more laughter and prove to be even more exciting!

Friday Harbor Labs

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