Virtual Marine Biology Field Camp: coloring pages

March 23, 2020

A few of you have asked for projects for your kids to do between our episodes. We’d love to see your kids coloring these images of the outline of a Chinook salmon, a spyhopping orca (check out our social media logos for inspiration), and a pair of leaping Pacific white-sided dolphins. Email colored images, or your own drawings, to team AT oceansinitiative DOT org. Need some inspiration for your drawings? Check out our photos by following us on Instagram.

We are thinking about summarizing these interviews into an e-book of the most commonly asked questions. We’d make it free to download, with a suggested donation to support our conservation mission. If you submit your images by email, we may use your child’s drawing (with first name and age) in our book.


Virtual Marine Biology Field Camp: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

March 22, 2020


Hi all. We apologize for not being able to respond personally to the thousands of messages we are receiving. We’re two scientists (with a kid stuck at home) and are struggling to keep up with this venture on top of our workloads doing science and running a nonprofit. Thanks for your patience. If you see someone asking a question you can answer, please do! We’re all trying to get through this mess together.

Here are the most frequently asked questions:

1. What time is it where you are? Here is a great tool to find out your local time at 11 am Pacific Or google “Current time in Seattle” to see the time difference between your home and Seattle. (Yes, that is a typo in the graphic. It should say PDT, not PST, because we’re in Daylight Savings Time. But you can still type Seattle into Google or to find out the corresponding time in your time zone.)

2. Where can I see the first two videos? They should be on a videos tab on our Facebook page. (Most people are seeing it on the left in their computers but we’re not sure about the app.) We’re trying to copy these videos to our website (or YouTube) for families and teachers who don’t use social media. Thanks for your patience.

3. Can we add subtitles or translations? We’d love to! We don’t know how. We’re trying to copy the videos to our webpage. When we do, we’ll make them downloadable in case anyone wants to translate or add captions. Please know we’re volunteering as much and as fast as we can.

4. How can I help? First, you already are helping by spreading the word about Oceans Initiative’s work. Many of the foundations and individual donors who support our conservation nonprofit measure impact by the size of our audience. It’s a measure (albeit an imperfect one) of our reach. Like, comment, share, and invite friends to join us.

For those asking, here is the best way to make a tax-deductible, charitable gift in Canada or USA. Those donations go directly to our nonprofit’s conservation mission. But please know that there is no charge to join these events, and there is no pressure to give. We understand first hand that families have been hit hard by this challenge. We’ll keep up these events as long as there is need, interest, and capacity.

Thank you for your support. We love seeing your kids’ photos and drawings. Thanks for joining us. Please stay safe and healthy.

Virtual marine biology camp

March 19, 2020

During the school shutdowns, we’ve decided to launch a (very) informal, impromptu, virtual marine biology camp. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram, and you should see us in your news feed when we go live, Mondays and Thursdays at 11 am Pacific time. For Paddington Bear fans, you’ll note that this is conveniently timed to coincide with elevenses. We’ve been using this as an excuse to bake yummy treats, for educational purposes of course. The recipes help us practice our reading and math skills. What are you making for Monday’s elevenses?

Thanks, GeekWire, for the great profile of this event. We did this primarily as parents of an almost six-year-old kid who is really missing her friends. Please like, comment, share, and tell us in the comments below what you’d like to see us cover in future episodes. We’ll keep this up as a free community service as long as schools are closed, kids are interested, and our nonprofit team has the capacity to keep up with demand.

Coronavirus community service: a virtual marine biology camp?

March 13, 2020

We’re scientists. We’re also parents. Our daughter is stuck at home as public schools in our area have been closed for 6 weeks. Yikes! How do we entertain and educate them, while we all figure out how to work from home?

We have a fantastic team of biologists at Oceans Initiative, each of whom runs at least one fascinating project. We’re planning to live stream an event Monday 16 March 2020 at 11 am (Pacific). Choose your favourite platform. We’ll be streaming simultaneously on Instagram and Facebook. No need to sign up. Just like and follow the pages, and we’ll “see” you Monday at 11. (When we studied at University of St Andrews, we loved the tradition of “elevenses” when scientists met in the lobby every morning at 11 to drink tea and coffee, eat pastries, and talk about science.)

Feel free to email us your questions ahead of time, to get the conversation started. We’ll start out by talking about southern resident killer whales. But let’s brainstorm the next topic for our meeting. This quarantine may last a while. We could talk about Pacific white-sided dolphins, including Erin’s work collecting breath samples to understand diseases in wild dolphins. (That may be an age-appropriate way to talk about viruses.) We could talk about our efforts to keep whales, dolphins, and porpoises safe from fishing gear. One of our team, Natalie Mastick, could talk about her studies of parasites in marine mammals — if we talk on a Thursday, she could stream from her lab and show you some worms, in jars. Or maybe we can figure out how to invite guest speakers when we run out of topics.

Let us know in the comments below if this is a community service you’d use. How are you keeping your kids entertained and educated at home these days? We’re all in this together.

Museum collections: time capsules for parasites of the past

January 31, 2020

“Parasitism may play a role in the recovery of at-risk marine mammals, but without digging in and figuring out if this is a new problem or status quo, we won’t know.” 

— Natalie Mastick

Posted originally at

There are indents on my nose, my hair smells faintly of ethanol, and I am actively working on realigning my spine after several hours hunched over a microscope. I have just wrapped up a fish dissection, but not a normal fish dissection of a fresh or even thawed fish. This fish was caught in 1985. Once captured, it was fixed in formalin and then stored in ethanol, living in a jar in the Burke Museum’s fish collection at the University of Washington for the last 35 years. This dissection is a small piece of the Wood lab’s effort to reconstruct the past of Puget Sound, and the parasites that lived in it. Each fish preserved contains a snapshot of what parasites infected it when it was caught and subsequently stored in ethanol, to live on a shelf for eternity. By dissecting the species commonly caught in Puget Sound and stored over the past century (that’s right, 100 year-old fish!) we are able to see how parasite diversity has changed in the region.

This has important implications for the fish that these parasites infect. Some of the parasite species found in fish use that fish as their definitive host; they’ll live in that fish for the rest of their lives. Other species, however, use the fish as a stepping stone–or intermediate host–to get to their ideal definitive hosts. These parasites wait until their intermediate host gets eaten, hopefully by a definitive host that they can infect for the rest of their lives. The parasites found in the fish represent the transferable parasites that were inhabiting the environment at that time, available to be eaten by a definitive host.

A group of these parasites are parasitic nematodes (worms) of the family Anisakidae, or anisakids, which I discussed in my blog post “Anisakid risk to endangered marine mammals.” These nematodes have multiple life stages, in which they depend on different hosts. Their first host, or primary host, is a copepod, which then gets eaten by a small fish or squid. In this second host, the nematode encysts in the muscle and waits to get eaten by the next biggest animal, hopefully a marine mammal (a whale, dolphin, seal, sea otter, or sea lion). Unfortuantely for the worm, from there it gets eaten by another fish. But evolution prepared them for this! Anisakids can keep getting eaten by fish and encysting them until they finally reach a marine mammal. Then, once they finally reach a warm-blooded host, they inhabit the stomach or intestine and reproduce. Those eggs are then sent out into the marine environment through the host’s feces, where they can get eaten by a copepod and the whole life cycle can begin again.

Aniskaids might play a bigger role in marine mammal health than previously thought. Once in the intestinal tract of a marine mammal, anisakids absorb nutrients from the host, taking up energy that would otherwise be used by the host alone. At larger burdens, large amounts of energy can be taken from the host, effectively acting as an energy sink. The whale or seal needs to eat more to account for this energy lost to its parasitic stowaways. But for at-risk or endangered species like the southern resident killer whale, which is already nutritionally stressed, parasitism by these nematodes may represent an additional stressor inhibiting the recovery of the species by acting in concert with other stressors.

In the lab today I was dissecting herring. Herring are an important forage fish in the Pacific Northwest. They form large schools and can be found in open ocean as well as bays. Herring are eaten by humans, fish, and birds, and they also make up a large part of the diet of some marine mammals, including whales, seals, sea lions, and porpoises. They form a foundation of the food web, so that the parasites that they harbor can continue on to a marine mammal, even if they are not consumed by one directly. By assessing how the abundance of anisakid nematodes has changed in herring and other fish, both small and large, that are common prey to marine mammals, I am uncovering how the risk to anisakid infection has changed locally over the past century.

While we are still in the dissection stages and not the analysis quite yet, I think we may see an increase in anisakid abundance. Marine mammals are key to the spread of anisakids in the marine environment, and surprisingly enough some marine mammals in this area have been increasing in number since protections were put in place in the 1970s (think of the skyrocketing populations of sea lions and harbor seals in the area). With more definitive hosts shedding eggs into the environment, the likelihood of infection of fish and subsequently of other mammals increases. I expect that this will be evident through the historical record we’re currently examining.

It is important to determine what parasite abundance in the ecosystem was like in the past because it provides context for what we see today. A component of my research is assessing how parasitized marine mammals in the area are now, and if parasites are likely impacting the health of marine mammals more than they were in the past. If we don’t know what the past was like, we can’t tell if marine mammals today are any worse off now than they were before, especially the at-risk ones like the endangered southern resident killer whale. If at-risk species are facing a more significant threat from parasites today than they were in the past, then those threats could be incorporated into their management. Parasitism may play a role in the recovery of at-risk marine mammals, but without digging in and figuring out if this is a new problem or status quo, we won’t know.

We’re Hiring!

January 29, 2020

UPDATE (March 05, 2020): Thank you to everyone who has submitted an application. We were truly impressed by both the number (almost 200!) and quality of applicants. Due to our organization’s small size and the sheer number of applicants, we had to interview people on a rolling basis and are currently in the the final stages of the interview process. Thank you again for your time and interest in working with Oceans Initiative and please keep an eye on our social media channels for information on upcoming projects and job openings in Canada and the US.

Four PAID Field Technician Positions Available: Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Research, Summer 2020. 

June 25 – September 4, 2020 (1 month minimum; start/end dates flexible; preference given to applicants available for the entire period), with a possibility of extending fieldwork through September. 

Oceans Initiative is a team of scientists on a mission to protect marine wildlife. Our US team is based out of Seattle, WA. We are currently recruiting 4 highly motivated field technicians to collect behavioral and AIS data on killer whales and vessels from land-based study sites on San Juan Island for our summer 2020 field season. Experience with theodolite tracking of cetaceans, and SRKW identification skills, are highly valued. Must be able to work independently and as part of a close-knit team where a positive attitude is essential. Applicants with substantial experience in theodolite tracking, project leadership, and project management may be considered for a coordinator role. Applicants must be eligible to work legally in the U.S. for the duration of the employment period. 

The primary goal of this project is to measure the effectiveness of recent efforts to reduce impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on foraging of SRKWs. Data collection involves: recording behavioral observations of SRKW activity in Haro Strait, theodolite tracking of vessel and whale movement, storing and processing AIS data, and documenting small vessel presence and activity within 1000m of the whales. 

Qualification requirements: Student or recent graduate of a biology/marine biology, marine science, oceanography, zoology or related program, or related experience. Excellent communication skills. Experience working as a naturalist on a whale watching boat in the Salish Sea would be helpful. Genuine interest in killer whale behavior, and conservation. Valid driver’s license and clean driving record. Must be able to collect data on uneven terrain, in variable weather conditions (4-37C, 40F-100F, rain, humidity and biting insects). Knowledge of digital SLR cameras and lenses an asset. Familiarity with data storage and management processes. Ability to work on-call, dawn-dusk, for multi-week shifts with scheduled days off. 

Duties include: staying current on location of SRKW through frequent monitoring of sightings network, high-quality data collection, data management, meticulous note-taking, providing daily communication with executive team via Slack, maintenance of field equipment, and some content creation for social media posts.  

Preferred applicants will be available for the entire 2 month period, with the potential of extending into September. Those with first hand marine mammal observing experience and/or experience working on whale-watch vessels in the San Juans, are especially encouraged to apply. If you have experience with theodolite tracking of cetaceans, please mention this clearly in your cover letter, and mention the software you have used to track cetaceans.

This position is PAID (remuneration dependent upon qualifications and experience) and housing on San Juan Island will be provided. While technicians will have to provide their own food and transportation to and around the island, one round-trip ferry ticket will be provided–any additional trips off-island must be covered by the individual. 

Interested applicants must send a cover letter, CV and dates of availability to before April 3rd, 2020 to be considered. Applicant must be authorized to work in the US as we cannot sponsor overseas visas. Preference will be given to applicants who can stay through the entire project. Application review will begin immediately. More information about Oceans Initiative can be found at  or by contacting us directly at

Thank you,
Erin Ashe, PhD
Rob Williams, PhD
Laura Bogaard, BASc

PS: We have seen this ad shared to other sites, where it has been described as a paid internship. This is well suited for an early career researcher, or a naturalist wishing to gain experience in science, but our team is unable to provide the one-on-one mentorship we would normally expect in a paid internship. We are looking for people who are ready to work as paid field technicians. These are short-term, contract positions to carry out specific tasks. They are not intended to become full-time salaried positions, or to support data collection for your graduate degree.

Anisakid risk to endangered marine mammals

December 04, 2019

“There are vulnerable marine mammals around the world. If these species are also facing an increase in parasitism, that may be an added stress impacting their rate of recovery.” 

— Natalie Mastick

Posted originally at

Until last year, my research revolved around whale foraging behavior. I studied the foraging behavior of humpback whales for my masters and spent several summers in the San Juan Islands studying southern resident killer whale behavior in response to shipping noise with Oceans Initiative. When I met Chelsea Wood, a parasite ecologist at the University of Washington, while scoping out PhD advisors it dawned on me that there was a whole other scale of foraging ecology to consider in whales— that of the parasites living within them.

I had worked with sick marine mammals before and assisted on a handful of necropsies at that point. Parasites were relatively commonplace, but generally not the cause of rehabilitation for the sick animals or death for those we necropsied. I had grown accustomed to ignoring parasites and assuming their effects were negligible. But after meeting Chelsea, it was clear that parasites may play a bigger role in animal health and survival than I had given them credit for. I had been studying southern resident killer whales with Oceans Initiative for several years, working on assessing the impacts of a suite of threats to the population. I thought more about the role parasites might play in an endangered species like the southern resident killer whales, whose recovery is inhibited by multiple stressors. For marine mammals that are already facing a multitude of threats, parasites could be an additional burden that might make the difference between a healthy and a sick animal.

Marine mammal parasites are nearly as widespread as their hosts. Parasitic nematodes of the family Anisakidae, or anisakids, are transmitted to marine mammals through the fish that they eat. Anisakids travel up the food web from copepods to fish or squid until they reach a marine mammal, their definitive host. They inhabit their host’s intestinal tract, reproducing and sending their eggs back into the ocean via their host’s feces to continue the cycle. These parasites can infect a wide range of fish species, leaving many marine mammals vulnerable to infection if their prey harbor anisakids.

There is evidence that anisakids are on the rise around the world. This led me to wonder, are these parasites increasing in the prey that marine mammals eat? And could the most vulnerable marine mammals be at risk to increases in parasitism? This seemed like an important question to address from a recovery and management standpoint. There are vulnerable marine mammals around the world. If these species are also facing an increase in parasitism, that may be an added stress impacting their rate of recovery.

The first chapter of my PhD has focused on answering these questions in some of the most at-risk species— those listed as threatened or endangered in the Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List. My lab-mate Evan Fiorenza recently completed a major meta-analysis of the publications on anisakid prevalence over the last 60 years. I compared the ranges and diet species of all IUCN listed species and ESA listed populations, resulting in 14 populations that overlapped with this meta-analysis dataset, ranging 30 years. I also subset the data to look at the species with the most data to see if there was a trend in any of the most well-represented diet species, grouped by the mammal that eats them.

As I am still actively analyzing the data, it is too soon to say whether there has been a change in anisakid abundance in the prey that endangered marine mammals are eating. That being said, I am excited to be presenting my preliminary data and analyses at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona this week. With any luck, I will be able to talk to some of the experts on these endangered marine mammals to gather more information about their diets to improve the resolution of my study. When I return, I plan to work on increasing the scope of my study to include species listed under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA), and working with the experts at Oceans Initiative to improve range estimates of these species. But for now, I am excited to soak in new information more from the world’s marine mammalogists over the next week.

Studying Pacific White-sided Dolphins

September 10, 2019

“It’s always such a privilege to study marine wildlife. I am especially grateful to join Oceans Initiative in their research with Pacific white-sided dolphins in truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth.” 

— Laura Bogaard

This summer marks our 11th year of Pacific white-sided dolphin research in the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia, Canada. Since the birth of this project with Dr. Erin Ashe’s PhD research, we have learned so much about this fascinating and under-studied species. The Broughton Archipelago also provides a rare opportunity to study a generally pelagic (open ocean) species in inshore waters. We now think that this habitat may be crucial to their feeding on herring. It also acts as a nursery for rearing their babies. The initial goal of our study was to use dorsal fin photographs for identification to model population level changes from year to year. You can read more about the post-season intricacies of this work from Natalie Mastick’s blog post on our website. 

It’s a 3-day trip on our research vessel, Wishart, from Seattle to Malcolm Island in British Columbia. On the way, we stopped briefly at San Juan Island to check in on our Southern Resident killer whale field team. As we navigated up the inside waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, we spotted a plethora of marine mammal species including humpback whales, transient killer whales, harbor seals, harbor porpoise, Dall’s porpoise, and Steller sea lions. 

We were also delighted to be joined for a few days by Ryan Tidman and Chelsea Xavier-Blower of SeaLegacy. They brought lots of creative energy (and of course, their drones) and helped us with building some fun new behind the scenes content that we are very excited to share on social media in the upcoming months. 

Photo credit: Ryan Tidman

The two action-packed weeks that followed covered three research aims: investigate the effectiveness of a fishing pinger on dolphin avoidance behavior, collect breath samples in order to better understand their individual health, and capture as many identification photographs as possible. We collected almost 700 GB of identification photos and 17 breath samples, and conducted 30 experimental trials for our pinger study. Satisfied, fulfilled, and exhausted we ended our expedition on a high note.

On our last day in the Broughton, we had a rare opportunity to re-sight my favorite humpback whale, Lucky, whom I wrote about in my first blog post as an intern three summers ago. We even got to watch as she and another humpback were bubble-net feeding! This is where humpback whales blow bubbles in a large circular motion, creating a “net” around a school of fish. Then, they lunge up through the school, mouths open wide, gulping large quantities of prey.

It is always such a privilege to study marine wildlife. I am especially grateful to join the Oceans Initiative team in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Where are the Southern Resident killer whales?

August 07, 2019

“We hope that they are finding fish in peaceful, clean waters. And when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.”

— Sarah Colosimo

It’s another beautiful summer on San Juan Island for our field team, where the days are long and end with glorious sunsets. Seal pups and fawns mark the beginning of new life. And the town is bustling with tourists who have come to see the resident star attraction of the islands; but the whales are not here.

We haven’t seen the Southern Resident killer whales since their fleeting visit in early July. Their appearance spanned the course of two days as they performed their classic “westside shuffle” along the shores of the island at a hasty speed, treating those who were lucky enough to witness this brief encounter. As quickly as they appeared, they too quickly disappeared. It has now been over a month since we have seen them.

The absence of the whales we know and love from these inland waters this summer is unprecedented and impossible to ignore. It is particularly prominent for us, given the purpose of our team being on island is to observe these whales. However, the reality begs us to accept that the whales are not here because this is no longer a viable habitat for them. Perhaps the whales have finally realized this too, and are unable to energetically contend with the declining salmon runs, vessel noise, and toxins that have become the reality of the Salish Sea.

Waiting for Southern Resident killer whales on San Juan island. © Farrell McClernon

The story of the Southern Resident killer whales is undoubtedly devastating. Last summer, we watched on from the shore as a mother carried her deceased calf for days on end and as a starving juvenile wasted away until she eventually disappeared. As their numbers continue to decline, with additional missing whales this year, it is hard not to feel as though all is lost and the damage is irrevocable. But we urgently need to escalate our efforts to restore the Salish Sea in the hopes that the whales will return, before we lose them forever.

It is bittersweet to be without the Southern Residents this summer. While we are without our study species in the place that has historically been considered their critical habitat, we can only hope that it is because they have found an abundant source of salmon that is filling their bellies and supporting their survival. If there is anything that these whales have demonstrated to us, it is the ability to endure and persist. Wherever the Southern Resident killer whales are, we hope that they are finding fish, in peaceful, clean waters, and when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.

Supporting women in marine mammal science

May 04, 2019
Photo credit: Aaron Henry

While on the surface, our field may look like more fun than science, marine mammal science is a STEM discipline that requires years of experience and education to land and develop a career. Like other STEM fields, women continue to be underrepresented in senior career positions in the field of marine mammal science and conservation.  Our STEM discipline has many hurdles that make it difficult for underrepresented people to access. In marine mammal science there is an observed “leaky pipe” phenomenon, in which the representation of women in early career positions is lost at the leadership level.  Our discipline can involve a lot of fieldwork, representing time away from responsibilities at home. This is a cost that is unevenly available to marine mammal scientists of different socio-economic backgrounds. In addition, paid opportunities for well-educated individuals in marine mammal science are rare and competitive; opportunities are available only to those that can afford to gain the necessary experience to enter the field. It is not uncommon for young scientists in our field to take on multiple unpaid internships before gaining enough experience to get a full time position, even with a Bachelor’s degree.

Laurel Yruretagoyena, Biologist (left) capturing photographs of Pacific white-sided dolphin dorsal fins in 2018 under the mentorship of Dr Erin Ashe (right) for her long-term work on this population.
Photo credit: Laura Bogaard

Oceans Initiative aims to provide women in marine mammal science the tools and resources necessary to support them as they conduct cutting-edge conservation research. We work to help women develop and become trained to use new technology. We also support them in communicating their findings in peer-reviewed publications, speaking engagements, and meeting with policy-makers. Many of our peers report changing careers or leaving academia because they sense competition, not collegiality in their workplace, and because their contributions are not being seen or lauded. We aim to elevate women by supporting our employees and fostering a sense of community and teamwork, not competition.

Oceans Initiative prioritizes hiring early career female scientists for paid positions to provide mentorship and to advance their skills. We hosted a Women in Marine Mammal Science Workshop at our professional society’s international conference in October 2017 and conducted a survey about gender equality in our field, to which over 600 members of the society responded. We have been working with a team of 6 female scientists to analyze the survey data and distribute our findings to a broader scientific audience in order to address the issue of inequality in our field.

Natalie Mastick, Graduate Fellow in Marine Parasite Ecology (left) and Laura Bogaard, Research Assistant (right) deploying a C-POD off San Juan Island during our study of Southern Resident killer whales in 2017.
Photo credit: Aaron Henry

To continue our efforts to promote women and equality, Oceans Initiative will be hosting additional workshops to provide female scientists with tools to further their careers. Currently we are organizing a workshop in partnership with Alimosphere to teach female early-career scientists how to pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for marine mammal science. We are also developing online tools to reach a broader audience of women and help them gain necessary experience in other research skills, like communicating with stakeholders and managers, publishing, statistics, and using our toolkits for their own research.

Learn more about the Oceans Initiative team.