All the times we missed the orcas passing the Lime Kiln during our land-based research were about to be made up for…
Once we were aboard our catamaran home, our lives could basically revolve around the movement of the orcas, and it didn’t take long for that to begin. Since we started taking data on the whales right from day one, we had to take what we had learnt at the Lime Kiln and adapt quickly to data recording at sea.
“Permission to Deploy the Array”:
Once the whales were around us, we would deploy a four hydrophone array from the back of the boat and start recording. Laura listened to the calls and clicks being recorded in one minute time segments and recorded what she could hear on a phonation sheet so we could go back and listen to the best recordings afterwards. We also played the hydrophones through the speakers throughout the catamaran, so even those of us not working on the acoustics could have the full effect while we were with the whales.
The hydrophone array recording equipment (left) and the team preparing to record the whales on our first day (right).
Sharon and I were on behaviour lookout. The idea was to call out every whale we saw with a clock bearing, a distance, and what activity they were doing, while Hayley wrote all this information down on a behaviour sheet. We were also specifically recording surface active behaviours (such as tail slaps and breaches) and foraging behaviour for our own projects. Sounds simple enough, but when you have anywhere from 5 to 50 whales in sight, 360 degrees around the boat, things got pretty crazy (but crazy in the best way possible, this is what we were here for!).
An orca breaching (left) and J26 – “Mike” swimming past the Gato Verde (right) during our data collection.
Since Beam Reach 112 had some of the most orca encounters while out on the water, this routine was continuously practiced and fine tuned, but every so often there were days without orcas where we could experiences some other aspects of life at sea.
While the orcas are away:
One of our other main focuses while living at sea was learning about sailing. We had lessons beginning with all the basic parts of a sail boat, and progressing through raising the sails, choosing an appropriate sailing course, steering, tacking and jibing, and learning the right of way rules. It was great experience going through all the steps required in order to sail, and to help eachother learn along the way. We even had the opportunity to sail with some near gale-force gusts making it all the more exciting.
Preparing to raise the main sail
We also quite often had some other playful cetaceans visit us while the orcas were out at sea. Dall’s porpoises would bow-ride infront of us, most often near the Lime Kiln. We would lie on the front on the boat and watch them swimming just a couple feet below us. Some would even turn on their sides to get a better look at us and then come up to give us a splash, seemingly on purpose. We even thought we could hear them clicking on our “listening hydrophone” we had deployed one day as they approached our stationary boat.
Other research we conducted while the orcas were away included CTD casts, which took the whole team to lower the CTD (an instrument used to obtain a depth profile of temperature, salinity, and various other water measurements) 60 meters into the water, and then use a winch to crank it back onto the boat. I also fished for salmon and analyzed fish finder data from the boat for my project while the orcas we away, and had great success doing so!
The CTD in the water (left) and the crew waiting to haul it back up (right)
Salmon fishing off the boat (left) and a successful catch of a juvenile Chinook (right).
Beam Reach is a program that provides extensive learning opportunities and self discovery for every participating individual. Each person has their own personal experience, however different from another, and helps to broaden minds and mold a more rounded individual. Among the many educational opportunities students were educated in sailing around Haro Strait was one of the most enjoyable. The captain of the beautiful Gato Verde, Todd Shuster taught us the in’s and out’s of sailing. To understand how “easy” Beam Reachers had it with only 3 sails (screecher, jib, and main sail) we watched an educational video on sailing “Around Cape Horn” made and narrated by Irving Johnson, which inspired the following video. Once the basics were taught we put our knowledge to the test…
42' catamaran - Gato Verde
On October 10, 2011 each student had a round at being the helmsperson at the Gato Verde. The helmsperson practiced calling jibes and crashing through the stormy waters off the coast of Kellett Bluff. Students not driving the catamaran had to focus their concentration on helping the boat jibe. One student on port and another on starboard when the helmsperson yelled “READY TO JIBE?” they respond “READY”. The helmsperson, knowing the students were ready yelled “JIBING” and one student would release the jib sheet while the other would pull in the slack on the opposite side of the catamaran. After jibing the Gato the working crew got to relax and enjoy the experience of sailing around “Cape Kellett Bluff”. It was safe to say the 30 knot wind gusts made for an eventful and wet sailing experience. Although the crew was chilled and soaked to the bone, the cargo did arrive safe and dry into Garrison Bay!
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!