As captivating as whales are to observe, there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from what they leave behind. But to find those valuable and elusive excrement samples, researchers need a little help from a furry friend.
Researcher Deborah Giles and her scat dog Eba will be presenting their research and what has been learned about southern resident orcas through it at the annual Ways of the Whales workshop.
Giles will be one of several speakers at the day-long event, which goes from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center. Check-in and registration will begin at 9 a.m. Tickets are $35 or $25 for students and seniors.
Giles, who works at a lab on San Juan Island, became involved with the research in 2009. The idea behind chasing whale poop rather than whales is to be able to study stress hormones in the animals without being the factor that’s stressing them out, she said.
A scat dog can sniff out the samples from as far away as a nautical mile.
The researchers and Eba, the rescue dog turned whale scientist, work behind whales, usually southern residents. They keep the boat 400 or 500 meters away from the sea mammals, keeping downwind. It isn’t too bad, Giles said, because southern residents’ poop smells like “slightly smoked lox.”
“We always warn new people on the project to not bring salmon-y food,” she said with a laugh.
Once Eba helps the team locate the fecal matter, the humans scoop it up to be analyzed. From it, scientists can gain useful information about the at-risk species.
In one of the lab’s first studies, a graduate student at the University of Washington found stress hormone levels in whales were much higher around boats if the whales weren’t getting enough to eat.
“When whales are hungry, boats are stressing them out,” Giles said.
More recent research has demonstrated that pregnancy hormones could be analyzed from the fecal matter as well. New data has shown that southern resident females experience troubling high rates of miscarriages, Giles said.
Presentations on the most recent research and data regarding whales in the region are a major reason the workshop continues to be such a draw for the past 18 years it has been held, according to Cindy Hansen, Orca Network education coordinator.
“It’s partially a social event, and a lot of it has to do with really wanting to learn the latest science and how people can get involved,” Hansen said.
Representatives from Orca Network’s partner organizations will be present with environmental education information.
“(It’s) a great way for people to network and learn about some of the efforts going on out there,” Hansen said.
Coupeville School District’s food service director and former Christopher’s Restaurant owner and chef Andreas Wurzrainer will provide lunch for those who purchase it ahead of time for an additional $12.
Presentations will also be given on humpback whales, leopard seals and salmon in the restored Elwha River. Orca Network leaders Howard Garrett and Susan Berta will kick off the morning with an update on Lolita, also known as Tokitae, the sole surviving whale from the 1970 Penn Cove orca capture.
A post-workshop social time with drinks and food will be held at Ciao following presentations.