What will you study?

Endangered killer whales

At Beam Reach you’ll study the southern resident killer whales (orcas), the endangered salmon they eat, their marine environment, and what it will take to save them all. Our orcas were listed as endangered in November, 2005.

While the killer whales are still around, we think it’s important to study their basic biology (like how they communicate). But we also encourage you to ask applied questions (like whether boat noise affects a killer whale’s ability to hunt) and to consider practical ways to help their population recover. In either case, you’ll use bioacoustic methods to explore your questions and help understand two of the major risks to orcas:

  • interference from human-generated noise, and
  • lack of fish for the orcas to eat.


Bioacoustics is the study of animals and sound. We focus on bioacoustic methods because they are non-invasive and because the southern resident killer whales are unusually vocal, using calls, whistles, and clicks to communicate and forage. Sound is the best way to sense the oceans and computers let you use it to visualize the underwater environment where orcas spend 95% of their time.

At Beam Reach we emphasize passive acoustics — listening to ambient underwater sound with hydrophones. By towing multiple hydrophones behind our silent research vessel you can locate where sounds come from while we move with the orcas. This allows you to attempt to understand the meanings of the sounds that killer whales make.

Passive acoustics also let us ask how human-generated sound affects the killer whales’ ability to survive. For example, some Beam Reach students have studied whether boat noise may be masking orca communication.

We also use acoustic technologies that are active: emitting sound themselves. Scientific echosounders (or fish finders) let you observe organisms that live in killer whale habitat — from fish to plankton. Acoustic tags attached to animals can reveal the behavior of the salmon and other fish that orcas eat.

Dive deeper: Who will you meet?

Your research project

At Beam Reach you get to develop and answer your own scientific question — from initial hypotheses through data collection and analysis to final presentation of your results. You can ask any question within the program’s research theme: acoustic exploration of endangered killer whales and their marine environment. You might ask how do the orcas communicate, or how do they hunt? You could investigate whether vessel noise affects an orca’s ability to locate fish, or how declining salmon populations influence killer whale recovery.

Your research project can be completely unique or can build upon previous work by local scientists and past Beam Reach students. Check out the research topics of past and present students:

You can explore the spreadsheet of past student research by sorting on any column (e.g. general topic, season, or year). The first two digits of the class represent the year. There are links to the class home pages where you can access papers and other results.

Or peruse the recent additions to the Beam Reach Zotero library of published scientific literature:

You can learn even more about research conducted by Beam Reach students and staff by diving into the science and sustainability wiki. There you’ll find descriptions of our equipment, data archives, long-term research projects, publications, and projects to reduce human impacts on endangered orcas, salmon, and their marine ecosystem.

Your sustainability projects

At Beam Reach you’ll have a chance to help solve some of the environmental problems we study scientifically. Your individual project lets you explore your interests and suggest or implement ways to reduce human impacts (often our own) or the local marine ecosystem. You’ll also work with your peers to support a local organizations through a service project.

Some students have volunteered with a marine mammal rehabilitation clinic. Others have helped teach visitors at The Whale Museum.

The 2005 project constructed a portable radio that lets tourists listen to a hydrophone while watching orcas from Lime Kiln State Park. In 2006, some students mapped creosote logs; others helped collect water quality data for the Friends of the San Juans to understand eel grass decline; and a few wrote “orca bios” used by The Whale Museum to enrich their orca adoption program’s monthly reports.

The Curriculum

The Beam Reach curriculum lets you practice science as you learn about critical marine and environmental issues. It’s designed to let you experience the scientific process and intensive field work.

The curriculum is divided into 2 courses approved for credit through the University of Washington:
Marine Field Research (10 quarter credits) and
Practicing Sustainability Science (8 quarter credits)

Practicing research methods on land will prepare you for your research at sea. Field trips will help you develop the broad societal (vs. scientific) motivation for your main research project.

You’ll also get first-hand experience with real-world marine policy issues and the technologies that can help to mitigate marine environmental problems. You’ll meet local decision-makers and learn how they use scientific information to define and work toward marine sustainability.

If you’re currently in school, you may be able to use the following detailed information to arrange for Beam Reach courses to help satisfy your major and distribution requirements:

Dive deeper: Who will you meet?

“These orcas are icons and indicators of the quality of Puget Sound and coastal waters. How they fare in coming years will tell us a lot about our own fate.” — Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research