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

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.

Show your love for the ocean

February 14, 2019

Are you in a healthy relationship with the ocean?

You love the ocean. We love the ocean. Let’s work together to protect it. (PC GGraphics)

Valentine’s Day is all about making sure we don’t take the people we love for granted. Sometimes it feels as though we’re taking the ocean for granted, even though it’s the 71% of the planet that gives us the air we breathe, much of the food we eat, the way we transport goods around the globe, and supports the miraculous wildlife that sparks so much joy. How can we show our love for the ocean?

Right now, people are pulling together to show their love for our endangered orcas any way they can. We use science to find solutions that help us protect endangered species while supporting the people who earn a living from the sea. We are working to reduce bycatch of dolphins, whales, and other ocean creatures by making fisheries more sustainable. Our ongoing efforts to measure and reduce ocean noise can make it easier for whales and dolphins to find food, mates, and navigate an increasingly noisy ocean. Our work on dolphin health provides a glimpse into which pathogens may affect whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals in the Pacific Northwest, and aims to draw a direct link between what we dump into the sea and how the ocean ecosystem is affected.

You don’t have to be a marine biologist to have a positive impact on ocean conservation. The choices we make as consumers can have a ripple effect that encourages industry and policy-makers to embrace ocean-friendlier practices.

Here are five ways to show your love for the ocean. What did we miss? Please share your ideas in the comments!

  1. Reduce your plastic use. Pass on the plastic straw and use re-usable cups. Some of our favorite go-to thank-you gifts are these custom Oceans Initiative pint cups and coffee mugs from our friends at MiiR.
  2. Buy locally and support local artists: 90% of everything comes to us from ships, which are important sources of carbon emissions and underwater noise. Buying locally reduces our shipping footprint. This year, a lot of our gifts include sweets from Seattle-based Joe Chocolates and custom orca stickers from the talented artist, Sophia Trinh. Sophia even offers painting classes, so you can give the gift of experiences, not things.
  3. Choose and support sustainable seafood: Ask your local grocer, farmer’s market, and restaurant about the source of their seafood. It makes a difference. Aim for wild, locally caught seafood that has MSC certification. If you already do this, you can go further to help southern resident killer whales. In the wake of the tragic story of Talequah and the ongoing struggle of the orcas, Chef Renee Erickson made a bold decision last summer to pause serving Chinook salmon in her restaurants. We love giving Renee’s excellent cookbook to our friends and family. Feeling bold? Eat invasive species! Totally guilt-free eating. You’re doing the ocean a favor.
  4. Get out and enjoy the ocean! Go for a walk on the beach, organize a local beach clean-up, surf, paddle, sail, learn about a new whale, fish, or other sea creature, paint or create your favorite ocean art. Have a nap on the beach.
  5. Find a marine conservation nonprofit whose work you like, and support it. Spread the word about their work. Convince a friend to support it. Make a charitable donation in the name of someone you love. It doesn’t have to be us (but we’d be thrilled if you did support our work, of course). Honest. Find the group whose mission sings to you, and get involved.
Pacific Northwest classic gifts (clockwise from top left): Chef Renee Erickson’s cookbook is a love song to the Pacific Northwest; Sophie Trinh’s whale stickers and paintings are magical (& she even offers painting lessons); Joe Chocolate is a sweet, local company; and MiiR’s reusable cups and mugs are lovely and handy in a town that runs on coffee. What are your go-to gifts?

How do you show your love for the ocean?

Underwater noise from airplanes: An overlooked source of ocean noise

November 16, 2018

We tend to think of the air-water interface as a barrier to noise. Planes fly over the ocean all the time, but conventional wisdom tells us that most of the sound bounces off the surface of the ocean, and has little impact on the whales and dolphins that swim beneath the surface. A classic paper from 1972 tells us we only need to worry about airplane noise in a narrow cone under the flight path.

We recently worked with colleagues from Curtin University, Udayana University, and Conservation International Indonesia to measure noise levels from commercial jets taking off from coastal runways in Bali and Australia. We found that under certain conditions, those jets introduce up to 130 dB of noise into shallow waters. Those noise levels are high enough to cause disturbance to killer whales.

Planes fly pretty quickly of course, so any noise exposure is fleeting. But during the busiest periods, we recorded planes taking off every 3 minutes! Below is a map of runways, with coastal runways (<10 m above sea level) in red.

We conducted this study during Nyepi, the Balinese Day of Silence. We did not expect to be able to hear airplane noise over background conditions, but we got lucky. Did you know that fish have a chorus of song, just like the dawn chorus of songbirds? Check out the sounds of fish singing below:

And this is the sound of a small boat passing by our hydrophone. In the last few seconds, you can hear the roar of a jet aircraft taking off from the nearby runway of Denpasar airport, Bali, Indonesia.



Runways of the world, with coastal (<10m above sea level) marked in red


Pacific white-sided dolphin dorsal fin photos and breath samples

October 24, 2018

In August, part of our team traveled to the Broughton Archipelago off the coast of northern Vancouver Island to continue our long-term study on Pacific white-sided dolphins.  This study is multi-faceted. We are studying the health of the population by taking dorsal fin photos for statistical analysis, but we are also studying the health of individuals by looking for pathogens in exhaled breath. We’ve just celebrated the 10th anniversary of this study, but we made a few changes along the way. This year, with the help of Alimosphere, we were able to look at dolphin pods we encountered from a new perspective through the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also known as drones.

Drone footage collected under permit, by Alicia Amerson.

This year, we are sponsoring our research associate, Natalie Mastick, to start an exciting PhD project in marine parasite ecology. As she explains in a recent blog post, taking photos of dorsal fins is a non-invasive way to study the population that allows us to identify individuals that we can use as statistical samples in models to estimate survival rates, and population size and trends. High-resolution dorsal fin photographs show us distinguishable details such as nicks, scars, and markings that help us to recognize individuals from year to year. The Pacific white-sided dolphin study launched by our co-founder, Dr Erin Ashe, has involved taking, processing and matching dorsal fin photos to previous catalogues since 2007. Some individuals have been seen in the study area since the 1990s, and we have seen one pair of dolphins together on two occasions 17 years apart.

Laurel Yruretagoyena, Oceans Initiative research assistant, aiding Dr Erin Ashe in taking dorsal fin photos for her long-term photo ID study. Look closely, like deckhand Molly Brown is doing, and you’ll see some dorsal fins in the distance!                               Photo credit: Laura Bogaard, 2018.

As a continuation of a study started by Erin in 2015, we also spent much of our time collecting exhaled breath samples from these dolphins. We collect breath samples by positioning a long pole with a petri dish attached to one end over a dolphin as it surfaces and exhales. This is a tricky activity that involves a knowledge of dolphin surfacing patterns, careful boat handling, precise timing, and skillful maneuvering on the bow of the boat. Despite the difficulty, our team was able to collect many breath samples that we will use to assess the pathogens (e.g., viruses, bacteria and fungi) this population has been exposed to. Ultimately, we aim to let the health of the dolphins tell us something about the health of their environment. Understanding how pollutants impact marine mammals and their habitat is essential to informing recovery efforts and monitoring ecosystem health.

A beautiful crisp morning spent with energetic Pacific white-sided dolphins off Vancouver Island.                                                 Photo credit: Dr Erin Ashe, 2018.

Next year, we are hoping to invite Alicia Amerson from Alimosphere to the Pacific Northwest to join us in the field again for a workshop on using UAS for noninvasive marine mammal research. We aim to offer this opportunity to other women in marine mammal science, and to our entire staff. We hope this will provide us with a new tool for collecting breath samples in the future, in a continuation of our efforts to use minimally invasive field research techniques. As we close out our field season, we  are so thankful for the support we have received to do this important work.

Southern Resident killer whale monitoring on San Juan Island

October 13, 2018

This summer, from mid-July to the end of September, we studied southern resident killer whale behavior under varying levels of boat and ship traffic. (This is an extension of our 2017 field season with OrcaSound). The Port of Vancouver has asked ships to slow down to less than 11 knots as they transit Haro Strait. Reducing ship speed can reduce shipping noise underwater, but slower speeds mean those ships take longer to transit the area. Working with Port of Vancouver and SMRU Consulting, we are exploring how whales navigate that trade-off between noise level and duration of exposure.

Do the whales find more salmon if they are exposed to a little bit of noise for long periods of time? Or is it better to get the noise over with quickly? 

Reducing noise is especially important because endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKW) feed in Haro Strait in the summer, and our work has shown that vessel noise disrupts killer whale foraging. While missing one meal might not seem like it would have long-lasting or population-level effects, Haro Strait is a noisy place, which may result cumulatively in many lost meals for the killer whales. We had our team on the western hillsides of San Juan Island all summer to track killer whales in an effort to find out if and how their behavior changes with the slower, quieter ships.

A ship transits Haro Strait by a family of southern resident killer whales. (PC Toby Hall). The theodolite crosshairs allow us to convert horizontal and vertical angles to estimates of latitude and longitude, knowing the cliff height.

To track these whales, we used an instrument called a theodolite. You may have seen them on construction sites or traffic surveys. A theodolite has a telescopic lens that we use to track killer whale movement. After setting a constant reference point, the theodolite can determine the angle between the reference point and the whale we’re looking at. It gets the vertical angle from a gravity-referenced level vector. A computer connected to the theodolite can use those two angles (along with the precise location and elevation of the theodolite) to estimate distances and fixed positions of objects on the ocean’s surface (whales, ships, etc). Your geometry teacher was right—this math does have real-world applications. And we can get all of this fine-scale information noninvasively, without another research boat confounding the effect we are trying to measure. This year, the developer of Pythagoras software generously shared code to let us integrate extremely high-resolution AIS data on the movement of ships, so we could automagically collect precise and accurate data on the ships, while having our expert observers concentrate on measuring the whales’ behavior.

In 2017, the killer whales were worryingly absent from the islands much of the summer, which left us with a small sample size. In fact, for the month of August 2017, the SRKWs were nowhere to be found. This year’s longer field season produced much more data. There were 29 days with whales present around San Juan Island. We had tracking stations set up in three locations along the west side of San Juan Island: County Park, Hannah Heights, and Cattle Point, which allowed us to get close to continuous tracks along Haro Strait. We are excited to analyze the data, which should allow us to determine more about killer whale behavior in the presence of these slower ships.

Video credit: Toby Hall

This work felt profoundly important this year, in a season riddled with heartbreaking news about the endangered southern residents. J35’s calf died shortly after being born, and the mother mourned the loss of her offspring by pushing around the carcass for 17 days. J50, the youngest individual in the southern resident population, was found to be critically malnourished. NOAA launched the first attempt to supplement a southern resident killer whale’s diet with additional fish. Unfortunately she has not been seen since September 7 and is presumed dead. It is abundantly clear than additional conservation effort is needed, and our team worked hard to make this field season count, both in the field and on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

This work wouldn’t have been possible without a super pod of a team. The Oceans Initiative team was led by Erin and Rob, and consisted of our employees Laurel Yruretagoyena, Natalie Mastick, and Laura Bogaard, as well as Toby Hall, Sarah Colosimo, Jess and Chris Newley, and Elizabeth Robinson, who provided additional field support.

Thank you, as always, for supporting our efforts to keep orca habitat clean, quiet, and full of salmon.