Teaching Me What I Need to Know

In my forthcoming bookWriter in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea, I begin with a disclaimer. 

“This is a collection of non-fiction essays, written not by a scientist or marine biologist, but by a storytelling lover of the Salish Sea.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no marine science included in any of the thirty-six essays—readers will learn a good deal about the Salish Sea and Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) as well as how the changing climate and other factors threaten them. For example,  the total marine area of the Salish Sea is nearly 7,000 square miles with a maximum depth of 2,133 feet. Thirty-nine species of mammals, including approximately 8 million individual humans, live in and around the Salish Sea, along with 172 bird species, 253 kinds of fish, 2 types of reptiles, and more than 3,000 varieties of invertebrates that are visible without a microscope. 

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Among those mammals are 73 Southern Resident orcas (as of today), down from 86 when they were first listed as endangered in 2005. Orcas typically eat thirty Chinook salmon a day (if they can find them; the decrease of Chinook populations is among the factors contributing to the decline of Southern Residents).

I learned from marine biologists that killer whales are voluntary breathers; they have to consciously remember to take a breath every time they need air. That means they can’t sleep the same way humans do, or they’d drown. Instead, orcas sleep by shutting down one hemisphere of the brain at a time so they can rest while still continuing voluntary breathing. 

I also found out orcas have a sixth sense—echolocation. When they’re hunting, they make a clicking sound that travels through the fatty tissue in their foreheads. The sound waves bounce back to them in the form of echoes which help them detect where objects, including other orcas, are in the area. This technique helps them detect different species of salmon as well as learn the unique calls that transmit culture and help maintain group cohesion.

So, yes, I did lots of research for these essays, many of which I drafted while serving as the Writer-in-Residence on the Interisland ferry. And, since I’m not a scientist, that investigation included talking to people who know what I need to know to be able to write about life in the Salish Sea. Joseph K. Gaydos, DVM, PhD, and Deborah Giles, PhD, are a couple of people who generously shared their knowledge and enthusiasm, and I ended up writing profiles about them. The book doesn’t come out until March 2022, but here are a few tidbits that might whet your appetite for the collection.

SeaDoc Society photo

“Wild Sea Doctor” Joe Gaydos describes himself as “a vet with a specialty in wild animal health.” After a circuitous route of jobs and study, including work in a wildlife park in southern Zimbabwe, a stint in a small, mixed-animal veterinary practice in West Virginia, and a Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia studying diseases in wild animals, Joe ended up at the SeaDoc Society on Orcas Island, WA. There, he thought he could put his doctoral studies to use, even though he didn’t know how to scuba dive. Had no marine wildlife experience. Didn’t know about sea stars. “They really took a chance on me. I guess it turned out okay,” Joe says, flashing a smile that brightens his entire face. “I’ve been here nineteen years.”

As Science Director, Joe looks for projects that impact policy or wildlife management. “I follow the questions and problems, talk to experts, and get them together to talk about action. We do projects where information will help us move toward a healthy eco-system. It’s not just about whales, but also people, economics, and where we make our investments. That’s where science meets policy.”

How does Joe cope with the urgency of the issues facing wildlife in the Salish Sea? “There are days you can be down, and days you can be up. I was on the Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force. It was nice to see the state play a role and to work with British Columbia.” But, the biopolitics of a task force don’t move quickly. “A lot of recommendations came out in years one and two, and they’re still being worked on,” Joe says. “I hope every day when I go to work that we’re going to get ahold of this.” 

Clearly, Joe finds much in his work that sustains his hope. “I love the animals, being in the water, under the water [yes, he did learn to scuba dive], thinking about them and helping them,” he says.  “And the people I get to work with—I’ve learned so much from all of them. It’s amazing to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

wildorca.org

And then there’s Giles (she goes by her last name, pronounced jylz), a research biologist for the University of Washington’s (UW) Center for Conservation Biology, who knows how to get an audience’s attention. She often grabs it with magnificent slides of Southern Resident killer whales swimming in pods, diving for salmon, or gathering in greeting ceremonies. Sometimes it’s the devastating statistics she reports about dwindling numbers of the Southern Residents in the Salish Sea that lead people to scribble notes. The best proclamation I’ve heard her make, though, was in a video recording of her talk at the World Salmon Forum in Seattle in 2019. 

“Everybody loves a pooping whale.”

The video picked up chuckles from the crowd, but Giles’s serious look remained unchanged until she explained the significance of whale stool. “It means you have an eating whale,” she said with a smile.

Giles knows a great deal about Southern Resident killer whales. She focused on them in her doctoral program at the University of California, Davis and has been the vessel captain for a Conservation Canines Program research boat for over a decade.

“The program was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Wasser,” Giles told me during a Zoom interview from her home office earlier this year.  “In 1997, he started to use scent-detecting dogs to locate fecal samples of endangered species.” Wasser collaborated with Sgt. Barbara Davenport, Master Canine Trainer with the Washington State Department of Corrections. The pair modified narcotics detection dog methods to train dogs to locate stool from threatened and endangered species.

In an interview on CNN in December 2020, Giles described the scat-scouting work as consisting of  a “three-being team. It’s a coordinated dance between the dog reacting to a scent, the handler being able to interpret that change in body behavior of the dog, and then the boat driver really being in tune with not only the dog and the handler, but also all of the other things associated with being on the water.”  

Giles seems to love talking about the team and its work. Her smile broadened, and she started to talk faster. “The dog is on the front of the boat just kind of hanging out and sniffing, and then when she gets a hit, she has a pretty massive behavior change.” 

Find Eba on Instagram: eba_the_whale_dog. Photo by Bryce Mawhinney, Seattle Times.

Giles described how her own dog, trained for the program, responds. “Eba will start whining, licking her lips and heading toward the direction of the scent.” When that happens, Giles uses hand signals to communicate Eba’s intentions to the  driver, who guides the boat perpendicular to the wind up to a quarter of a mile behind or parallel to the whales. Often the driver has to zig-zag to follow Eba’s directions to find the mucusy poop moving in relation to the currents. The sample often resembles a combination of algae and snot as it moves along with the water. 

The team has to work quickly when the dogs detect the scat, because it can start to sink within a few minutes. Scientists scoop it out of the water and send it to Wasser’s lab for analysis. “Dogs never have to go near any endangered animals,” Giles said. And the feces yield much information about the whales’ health. “We can measure DNA, diet, hormones, pathogens, toxicants, and pregnancy noninvasively,” Giles explained. Those indicators help measure species abundance and distribution, resource use, and physiological health.

Giles didn’t hesitate when I asked her about one of the most important lessons she’s learned as a conservation biologist. “We’ve damaged the environment,” she said, and the responsibility to repair it, “is entirely up to us.” She also suggested we should be more like the Southern Residents. “They give us an example of a more pure way of living in the natural world,” Giles said. “They hunt collaboratively, care for each other when another is sick, literally, hold each other up. We could learn from the whales’ deep, deep sense of family and community.”

I’m indebted to people like Joe and Giles. They’ve taught me much more about what I need to know to craft essays I hope will help protect and preserve the Salish Sea and its inhabitants.

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