2011 JISAO Summer Research Internship
Collecting orca whale scat in the San Juan Islands
I spent the summer of 2011 as a JISAO intern in the beautiful San Juan Islands. I was lucky enough to be placed with the orca scat team. The University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology is currently conducting a study of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. These orcas populate the islands during the summer, where they forage almost exclusively for Chinook salmon. They were placed on the endangered species list in 2005 and their decline is thought to be due to three causes: increased vessel traffic, lack of Chinook salmon, and pollution of the water. A team now is currently working to find out which of these causes has the most apparent effects on the whales.
Jessica Lundin is the current graduate student working on the project. After the sampling season, she will go back to UW and analyze collected orca scat for toxins, including PCBs, PBDEs, and DDTs. The scat is also analyzed for hormones that can tell whether the whale is stressed from psychological stress, perhaps from vessels, or from nutritional stress, such as lack of salmon. Since some populations of Chinook are endangered, this makes it difficult for the whales to forage easily. The team collects the scat in an effort to indentify which causes of stress are most detrimental.
Samples are collected from a 21-foot boat based off San Juan Island. The team consists of Lundin, Deborah Giles, the driver, Liz Seely, the dog handler, and usually an intern. This summer I was lucky enough to be that intern! We had an additional furrier member on the team: Tucker, a Conservation Canine black lab, who worked on our boat. He’s specially trained to verbally cue on whale scat samples. He stands on the bow of the boat, and Liz interprets his reactions to Giles, who steers the boat into and across the wind. Once the sample is spotted, Jessica and the rest of the team scoop the sample, and then I would process the sample in the back of the boat, pouring the pieces into sample tubes. Normally the pieces would be very small, and require large amounts of water to be poured off before capping a full tube. A good day on the water would mean two or three samples, larger than two milliliters each. For such large animals we’d find such tiny pieces of scat!
One day a week I would work on Soundwatch. Soundwatch is a boating stewardship program that records the amount and types of vessels surrounding the whales. Soundwatch publishes an annual report regarding boating traffic around the Southern Residents. In addition, they inform private vessels of the current guidelines regarding the whales, and ways to responsibly boat around the animals. Working with Soundwatch, I got to give back and help educate the public on what a serious situation the whales are in.
This summer was an amazing experience. Not only did I work with a group of brilliant women, but I also got a chance to meet scientists who were studying all different aspects of the Salish Sea. It was a fantastic two months, filled with new lessons and experiences, and I thank JISAO for making it a reality for me. Thank you also to the entire orca scat team for their guidance, as well as the other scientists and whale conservationists I met during my time on San Juan. Thank you especially to Jed Thompson for coordinating such a fantastic summer, and making sure everything went smoothly for me. It was an experience I’ll never forget!
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