The trials and tribulations of killer whale research

Can my memory stretch back that far…? Back to this April when I revisited Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies (MLS), to assist her once again with her research in Monterey Bay, attempting to track down some enigmatic killer whales…? (Those smart and elusive animals that experienced spotters on the bay’s many whale watching boats often only find once in an azure-blue moon).

Well, in all honesty I will say that my memory is pretty appalling at best, but I will attempt to recapture the fragments that my leaking-boat of a brain still holds.

I was staying with Peggy for two weeks… Two weeks of intensive research… Out on her boat ‘Sweetpea’ every day on the hunt… Photographing dorsal fins left, right and center (the established method for identifying individuals)… Recording reams of written data on their behaviour, numbers, interactions with other animals… Slowly, slowly building up a network of data that on its own may seem insignificant but, over the days, months and years, becomes a valuable repository of information to be used as crucial evidence in some future moment of political or business decision making that may impact the lives of whales for better or worse… Important, scientific inquiry… Long, exhausting days at sea from pre-dawn to dusk, plus hours of imputing data into computer programs, processing photographs and establishing whale ID’s…

Well, that was supposed to be the general idea… Assuming that we could get out on the water… BUT, assumptions have no control over the weather or the ocean. (When have human assumptions, thoughts, wishes or demands ever convinced such powers of nature to obey?)

For almost a week of my two week stay we remained grounded on dry land. The wind blew and the waves in Monterey Bay frolicked in response; adorned with more gleeful, white tiaras of foam than I have ever seen in the bay, (more even than Peggy is generally used to seeing). We grew accustomed to the official sea reports displaying advisory warnings for boaters and we enjoyed the view from Peggy’s window; watching the waves run away to join the circus and come back to put on a show. We could but sigh wisely, nod our heads and acknowledge that this was just one more example of the complications and challenges of being a cetacean researcher.  And, with the amount of work which Peggy ALWAYS has lying in piles and on long lists all around her, the week was of course put to good use.

During our second week, providence saw fit to deliver a mixed bag of offerings, the highlights of which were:

  • Almost, but not quite, capsizing and living to tell the tale
  • Being rained on intensely, and for long periods of time
  • Chasing strange smells, oily slicks and elusive reports of killer whales hunting prey
  • Being an object of sport for fast paced dolphins, while simultaneously navigating round humpback whales, testing an underwater camera and preventing an excited dog from falling overboard
  • Briefly spotting three orcas, before inadvertently, but ever so quickly, losing them again

Let me elaborate…

Almost, but not quite, capsizing and living to tell the tale

Well, we almost made it out of Moss Landing harbor, certainly no one can say we lacked enthusiasm for the task. This was to be our first day out and we had Blue Ocean Whale Watch’s naturalist and MLS volunteer Kate Cummings at the wheel. The sea was still only just returning from the circus (and wondering what had gotten into itself) and we had heard some strange, curious warnings about the perils of Moss Landing’s harbor mouth… But we heeded them not. Peggy and I had spent several hours preparing gear ready to take to the boat and the three of us worked hard on stowing it all securely. Whiskie the Whale Spotter, the seasoned sea-dog that she is, was on the boat, wrapped up in her many layered outfit, ready to sniff out a few whales for us.

And all went well. For about the first five minutes. And then… It didn’t go so well after that.

As we turned the corner from the main harbor and out towards the harbor mouth, the waves being pushed and channelled in from the open water outside the harbor suddenly appeared to be rearing up in front of us, dauntingly and unexpectedly high. In that strange way that time often does backflips in moments like these, and even though Kate had slowed the boat almost to standstill as we questioned the wisdom of any attempt to exit the mouth, all at once we were right in the center of it, with the channel narrowed around us and the waves coming towards us, proudly presenting their highest and most powerful peaks.

And then there it was… Neptune’s moment of glory… A wall of water right in front of the bow and bearing down on us… Everyone grabbed hold of something, anything, and somehow Whiskie got herself to safety further back in the boat… Sweetpea climbed painfully up the blue-grey wall, and I remember wondering vaguely in frozen-brain state if she would flip over as she neared the peak, then the wave smashed onto us and was gone. In a second, the boat, us and Whiskie were drenched, and there was water filling the tiny deck all around us, with boxes of equipment that had been knocked from their carefully stowed positions floating pathetically in it.

And somehow we were now sideways on to the waves… A dangerous place to be… And the next wave was showing no mercy but heading straight towards us… If it hit the boat sideways it would most likely flip it, and us, over… But Kate was at the wheel and, although she was still new to captaining a boat, she kept her cool, gave some power to the engines and turned the wheel… Just in time. The next wave hit as we were almost perpendicular to it and we were carried, in a lurching-awkwardly-to-one-side kind of way, on its crest, like some virgin surfer having a miraculous moment of beginner’s luck, back in towards port.

And that was pretty much that. We were all in one piece. Kate was a hero. The boat was a complete mess. We were sodden and shaken. And Whiskie did not seem to care… So much for our day on the ocean, but that did not matter. We were alive and we had just been given a powerful lesson; never, ever, ever, not even in your sweetest dreams, be lulled into thinking that Life Is Safe. It is beautiful, it is a mystery, it is a miracle, and it may even love you… But the Promise of Life will forever also hold uncertainty, fear, pain, danger, death and decay in its outstretched, benevolent hand. Still, you know, always look on the bright side…

Being rained on intensely, and for long periods of time

A much simpler tale to tell, and far less dramatic. We did eventually get out to sea and we did have several days ON the water. However, we also spent some not insignificant periods of time, IN it too. It rained on us. Lots. And then some. Not every day, but on a couple of particularly sodden days, the rain really did seem to want to make up for the fact that it had left us dry on previous occasions. (Never forget… the distinct lack of obedience coupled with uncertainty held in the benevolent hand.)

Now, I enjoy rain. And I look back on those water-logged days with a kind of childlike glee. We had our ‘might save your life if you fall in the ocean, and should at least prolong it, but don’t wear to a fashion parade’ suits on, so we had some protection. But still, after a day at sea, we all managed to arrive back in port with water inside the suits, inside our boots, inside our gloves and inside our ears. Our make-up had given up, run down our faces and slid off onto the deck of the boat, and our hands took on that wonderfully endearing, wrinkled prune texture.

The PROBLEM, or should I say CHALLENGE, with the rain, was visibility. In dearest little Sweetpea, (and I should add that she is open to the elements on all sides), we can only see about three miles in any direction under the best of conditions. Low, grey, dark clouds, with rain hitting waves and casting spray, a breeze and anything greater than 1 on the Beaufort scale (used for measuring surface wave state), do not constitute good conditions. MLS‘s data sheet where the data recorder (sometimes myself, sometimes other volunteers) records various measurements, has boxes for, amongst other things: sea state, visibility and cloud cover. Visibility can be marked as EX, GD, FR or PR; it does not take much to decipher the short hand. On our most rainy day at sea, I was driving the boat while Cindy Thomas, who volunteers with both MLS and Blue Ocean Whale Watch, was recording data. So I cannot be totally sure, but I would hazard a guess that she entered PR for the majority of that day.

In short, during our rainiest days out in Monterey Bay, we did not see any killer whales. In fact, on one day I don’t think we saw any sign of life under the waves at all. We did however spend the eight or so hours faithfully scanning every inch of ocean, (with each person informally taking turns to assume responsibility for one patch of blue-green-grey-ness be that, bow, aft, port or starboard), talking in companionable good humor, dancing some must-get-warm jigs, wishing we’d brought bigger flasks of hot tea, and occasionally being brave enough to pull down our yellow/orange jelly-baby-suits to pee in not-quite-ladylike fashion over the back of the boat.

But now, this whale of a tale has miraculously grown legs and run away on them, so for the rest of those bullet points, (left dangerously hanging somewhere near the top of this post), I’ll have to complete them in my next post… And I’ll be very happy if you’ll be kind enough to come back and read them soon.


2 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of killer whale research

  1. Wow! Thanks for this Amanda. Such an involving account and a great insight into the day to day routines and (sometimes literal!) ups and downs of cetacean research. All told with a lovely balance of drama, philosophical reality and humour. I was on the edge of my seat when you were describing the day you almost, but not quite capsized – even though I know you’re back on dry land, and lived to tell the tale! As I read, I felt as though I was there right with you, bracing myself against that wall of water! So true about the reminder such moments give in highlighting our illusions of safety! Well done to Sweetpea’s captain Kate – she truly is a hero! And what a wonderful character Whiskie the Whale Spotter is – I love the way she takes everything in her stride! Thank you so much for sharing these memories and giving such great glimpses into, what is for me, a whole other realm of experience!


  2. Thanks Melanie, I am so glad my posts open up a new realm of experience for you… That was exactly my intention when I started this blog about a year and a half ago… To write about conservationists and conservation/research ‘stuff’ in simple, normal language, and bring to life the people who are working wihin that realm. How can anyone be expected to care about a subject that is not alive and real to them, and likewise, care about the animals (be they cetacean human or other) that are not presented as interesting, complex, wonderful characters? It heartens me greatly to receive your comments, so thank you. And I will of course be visiting your blog soon to read your most recent post… x

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