This is Part Two of Greg’s account of his day spent with the conservation research team in Washington conducting an ongoing Orca study. Click here to read Part One.
With a big day out on the water ahead, the team rises bright and early at 5:45am. Tucker, Waylon and Gracie are let out to play in the wide open pasture land outside the donated research house on San Juan Island and then fed an early breakfast of dry food mixed with yogurt and canned pumpkin. The yogurt provides essential probiotics, while the pumpkin helps keep their stools firm even after being on the boat all day, which can cause digestive issues. They eat early, letting the food settle prior to getting on the boat. While the dogs are enjoying their breakfast, Elizabeth and her team begin communicating with their extensive whale-scouting network throughout the islands. This network is comprised of other University of Washington researchers, tour boats, fisherman and friends.
Once alerted of an Orca sighting, the whole team ignites into frenzy of activity. The group mobilizes and makes the 15-minute trip to Snug Harbor where the research vessel, Moja, is moored. Tucker is fitted for his new Ruffwear K-9 Float Coat™ – his last Ruffwear Float Coat lasted over 700 hours of use in the harsh marine environment and is only showing signs of some fading. At the harbor, the fog is thick. Completely socked in and word is that the research area is just as foggy.
After a short trip to Roche Harbor – home of the Roche Harbor Lime Company (exporter of Lime to the entire west coast) – we decided to test our luck and head out on the boat into the research area where the Orcas had been sighted earlier. To our delightful surprise, the fog cleared right in front of us as we headed out of the harbor. Although it was a fairly long 15-mile trip to get to our research area, the crew was busy as soon as we left the harbor scanning the water and shoreline. Elizabeth and her research team not only record whale-sighting locations, they also record the GPS locations and species of any other mammals spotted. This information is then shared with NOAA at the Marine Mammal Center.
Tucker, the only dog who joined us on this trip, rides in his crate while in transit to and from the research areas. When he is in his crate he knows he can relax. When he is out of the crate, he knows it is time to work. He also likes to stay in his crate while in transit because well… he hates water! Other than being great at detecting whale scat, his fear of water makes him perfect for this job. It ensures the crew that Tucker is not going to go diving overboard for a swim – at least not on his own will – turning the whale scat mission into a dog rescue mission.
During our trip out we spotted two Minke Whales. Although very beautiful to watch, we had to move on because these were not the whales we were studying. An hour from the dock, we arrived at the research area where whales had been seen earlier. Tucker was let out of his crate, Elizabeth attached her Flat Out™ Leash to Tucker’s K-9 Float Coat and he immediately sprung into action. It was incredible to watch Tucker as he stood on the bow of the boat as if imitating the classic Titanic scene while working his nose in the wind and rotating his head back and forth in 90 degree swings like radar. He signals when he is on a scent by changing his behavior – he gets very animated and starts to lean closer to the water, completely pulling his weight against the leash relying on Liz’s strength to keep him out of the water – and the haul loop on his Float Coat not to break! If he moves to the right or left side of the boat, Elizabeth signals to the driver to steer in the same direction. If Tucker lets up and looks back, that’s his signal that the boat passed the scat and they need to turn around. The whole scene is a dance of communications between Tucker, Liz and the driver of the boat.
Once in the vicinity of the whales, it is easy to locate them. All you have to do is look for the crowd of commercial whale-watching boats and you know exactly where they are. The Conservation Canine team records the number of boats around a given number of whales. Today, there are 12 boats following a group of three whales – an off-season slow day. On a busy, peak-season day, they will count on an average of 45 boats within the same half mile range of the whales. On an overcrowded day this past summer they recorded an unbelievable 100 boats following the same group of four whales.
This increase in human traffic around the whales is one of three factors scientists estimate is impacting the whales coming into these waters. The other two potential factors are the decline in the whales main food source – the Chinook salmon – and exposure to high levels of toxins in the water. The unique approach of studying the scat allows scientists to evaluate all three of these factors with the same sample. No other research method can study all three factors at the same time.
Within 10 minutes of letting Tucker work his magic, he alerted that he was on to something. His demeanor changed immediately. He leaned down closer to the sea, so immersed in his detection role that it seems as if he completely forgot that he is terrified of water! Another 10 minutes of following Tucker’s direction and we located the scat and were milling – using sterilized cups attached to wooden poles to scoop the tiny samples of whale scat out of the ocean. Once on board, the samples are spun down to a workable 4-5 milliliter sample, processed and packed in dry ice to be shipped to the lab at the University of Washington.
The best part about locating scat, to Tucker at least, is Tucker’s reward – well-deserved play time with his ball. Tucker works for hours tirelessly for the opportunity to play with the one thing he loves more than anything – a toy ball attached to a rope at the bow of the boat. While Tucker is tossing his ball around, the team mills and processes the fecal samples found because of his amazing work.
When you finally find and secure a sample, the enormity of this project hits home. Here we are, an hour out at sea, with an unbelievable, hydrophobic black lab who can smell and direct a research crew to the smallest sample of whale feces in the middle of this vast Pacific Ocean. And within the 4-milliliter sample of scat recovered, the researchers can determine the whale’s species, sex, identity, toxins, diet, stress levels, nutrition and more. Because the Conservation Canines are gathering this information from the scat, they do not need to get close to the subject animal, reducing the environmental stress on the animals. I am proud that Ruffwear can help support this organization by providing gear that assists in such powerful and important research.
Over the next five hours, we traced a number of whales and Tucker indicated a few times but we did not find another sample. We were ready to call it a day when Tucker indicated again and led us to our second, and last, sample of the day. On board the Moja, if the team locates and processes a single sample in a day, it is considered a very successful day. So, with two samples collected, today was a great success!
Once back at base camp, I had one last task prior to heading home. The next study on the Conservation Canines’ radar is continuing their research on the impacts of oil exploration in Alberta, Canada. Before heading out, I spent a few minutes fitting Gracie and Waylon in Ruffwear boots so they can spend extended periods of time in the field for this study. Both did the “new boot dance” as expected, but I know they will get used to them in time and be thankful for them in the snow!
Thanks to the Conservation Canines for allowing me to join them and see first-hand the incredible work that they do as well as for allowing Ruffwear to provide gear to help them perform their tasks and providing great product feedback along the way.
To learn more about the Conservation Canines, check out their website: http://conservationbiology.net/conservation-canines/