Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A week at Coastal Explorers camp

Making discoveries on the beach
The campers started their first day at camp by meeting everyone and learning about the various habitats of Fort Worden. They then participated in two fun learning activities, one outside activity where they tried to find all the hidden unnatural items on the un-nature trail and another where they identified natural objects from the Natural History Exhibit. The afternoon was spent on the beach where campers participated in a scavenger hunt and later made beach art.

Hidden pond exploration
On Tuesday the campers went to the Marine Exhibit where they learned about the four different types of marine invertebrates as well as the animals in the touch tanks. They also got to feed some of the animals! In the second half of the day, we explored a hidden pond and a lagoon in Fort Worden.

Boating on the Martha J
On Wednesday we started the day with a learning activity about marine mammals. Campers learned about what classifies a marine mammal and about how blubber protects some marine mammals in very cold water. In the afternoon the campers split into three groups to go on a boat to test the salinity levels and temperature of the water. They also collected and observed plankton samples. The captain of the boat made every group their own bull kelp horn which the campers got to blow for the rest of the day. While off the boat the campers pulled Scotch Broom, an invasive plant species that is harmful to the Fort Worden habitats, and picked up trash on the beach.

Building bugs
On Thursday morning the campers observed and identified different insects through microscopes. They then used this knowledge to build their own bugs out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners! Thursday afternoon had more fun forest activities! After we walked to the beginning of the trail we started a really cool learning activity called Each Two Teach Two. Campers got in pairs and went down the trail two at a time. They then received a letter about a certain tree or plant that could be found on the trail and were responsible for teaching the next group to come down the trail. We finished the day with a nature hike and the walk back to the Natural History Exhibit.

Beach fun
On our last day, we got to go down to the tide pools! Before we started we learned about beach etiquette. The campers then collected different creatures that they found under rocks and in the pools and observed them. After snack we walked further down the beach to look at the different layers of the bluff. When we got back to the Marine Science Center the campers got to go into the Natural History Exhibit to learn more about the layers of the bluffs after having their own experience. In the afternoon we split up into five groups to build sand creatures on the beach.

Personal Notes: I had previously been a camper for multiple years and it was a really cool experience to do the camp as a counselor. I learned a lot about responsibility and now understand how much hard work every counselor and staff member puts into each day at camp. I would definitely recommend being a counselor to every camper. Thank you to all the campers! I hope you come back next year.

HAYDEN RINN is a seventeen-year-old volunteer summer camp counselor at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Gray Whale Project

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is trying to raise $10,000 for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by August 31 to ensure that we can continue to help stranded seal pups and other marine mammals. Donate to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network today to see your donation matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor! 

Last week we raised the dead, guiding a seine net full of gray whale bones to shore with the help of a pile of barrels, hardy swimmers, some borrowed boats, and a gaggle of great volunteers. Collectively we breathed a sigh of relief knowing that all our work and worry had paid off and this young whale could become part of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s educational programs and exhibits.

This is the story of how this gray whale got from here:

To here:

Just two and a half months ago, on May 12, 2016, a young, female gray whale (officially identified as CRC-1524) died after floating for several days in Elliot Bay, watched closely by scientists, NOAA, Marine Mammal Stranding Network observers, and even ferry boat captains. Her body was towed to Indian Island where the Navy pulled her to shore and Cascadia Research Collective conducted a necropsy.

As the Port Townsend Marine Science Center covers response for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in eastern Jefferson County, Executive Director Janine Boire was contacted to see if we wanted to collect the whale for its skeleton. She said, “Yes!”

In six days, we planned and equipped a team to wrap and sink the 29-foot, 13,000-plus-pound whale. On May 18, the entire Marine Science Center staff, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers prepped and wrapped the whale in re-purposed Spectra salmon netting donated by a local fisherman. The whale's pectoral fins and baleen were removed before wrapping. She was then towed off shore where her body would be naturally decomposed by benthic organisms, keeping the nutrients in the Salish Sea.

It took only 11 weeks underwater for most of the blubber and other soft tissue to be eaten — much faster than we'd imagined! Every two weeks we visited and filmed the “burrito” as she was fondly referred to during the net-wrapping process. Our collection of muddy water videos allowed us to monitor the decomposition rate and check on lines and anchors.

By the end of July, the bones were ready to pull. There is a fine time balance between removing the tissue and keeping the bones. We had to to get the bones out of the water before the polychaete worms and organisms started to dissolve the bones themselves. Now we just needed to lift a few tons of bones up off the bay floor and onto dry land without a crane or lift!

Gray whale bone retrieval took two days — one day to float the whale by adding flotation at a morning low tide, then towing it to shore on the evening high tide, and one day to scrub, label, and move the bones to a greenhouse to dry.

Using the tides to our advantage, an ingenious volunteer built sufficient flotation to lift the bones using plastic barrels and a surplus helicopter cargo net. We swam the barrels out at a minus tide with assistance from a volunteer boat pilot. Our swimmers tied them on underwater, mostly to the head — the heaviest part. Then we waited for the evening high tide. It worked!

Once ashore, the water subsided leaving a pile of netting, seaweed, crabs, and what was left of a graceful gray whale. Most of the lumbar and caudal (tail) vertebrae were still together, which made identification and inventory easier, but the middle was a jumble of ribs and thoracic and cervical vertebra all covered with a fine layer of barnacles.

The bone-recovery team took over, setting up a trash pump for washing bones and cutting away the lines and netting. Several crabs tangled in the net were rescued as well. Bones were numbered and identified by marine veterinarian Dr. Pete Schroeder along with other experienced volunteers. Scraping barnacles off the surface of the bones took the most time, but the bones cleaned up well.

Clean bones were loaded into empty flotation barrels and pick-up trucks. Since we were on Indian Island Naval Magazine property, Navy security required that all of our whale crew and vehicles pass security screening. We had an escort with us at all times and needed to come and go as a big group.

Bones packed, boat ramp washed, and all volunteers accounted for, we headed over to Marrowstone Island and the backyard greenhouse of a dear friend who graciously lent us the space to dry the bones.

This was truly a team effort from necropsy to drying the bones. There will be more opportunities to get involved as we clean, repair, number, and articulate the bones to display the skeleton. Thanks to everyone involved.

Photos 1 courtesy of NOAA | Photo 2 & 4-9 by Marine Science Center | Photo 3 & 10-12 by Wendy Feltham

BETSY CARLSON is the Citizen Science Coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Check out our citizen science projects and learn how to get involved.

In the past, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network Hotline and training for the team of Marine Science Center volunteer responders has been funded by a highly competitive grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unfortunately, funds are very limited and this year our grant was not renewed. We urgently need your help to protect the future of our marine mammals in the Salish Sea. Please donate today to help us raise $10,000 for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by August 31.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Learning From The Story of Hope

Can skeletons talk?

If someone had asked me this question before I came to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, my answer would have been “of course not!” But after serving for ten months as the Natural History Exhibit AmeriCorps member at the Marine Science Center, my answer is a little different.

Of course, a skeleton doesn’t have vocal cords or a mouth to talk with, but there are other ways to make yourself heard.

"Hope" the female orca skeleton
Hope is a 22-foot-long female transient orca whale who stranded near Dungeness Spit in 2002. You can read more about her stranding and the events that followed on our website.

Through studying her bones and tissues, scientists learned more about the challenges faced by marine mammals living in the Salish Sea. In addition to an infection of brucellosis, Hope had the highest levels of PCBs (a toxic man-made contaminant) ever recorded in a marine mammal.

After her bones were carefully cleaned and articulated by a team of Marine Science Center staff, Hope was moved to her new home in our Natural History Exhibit. Since the exhibit opened in 2012, thousands of visitors and students have come to view the skeleton and learn about orcas.

Over the course of my time here, I’ve spent countless hours in the Natural History Exhibit. In that time I’ve seen Hope speak to students, tour groups, and families, including visitors from other towns, states, and even other countries. Hope speaks to people through the power of her story and the passion she inspires in our staff and volunteers.

Volunteer docents attend a training to learn about the Story of Hope

I have seen Hope’s story inspire people to think differently about their connection to marine ecosystems. For some, it’s the first time they’ve realized that human actions on land — even far inland — can have an effect on the ocean and the animals that live in it. For others who have seen orcas in the wild, it’s a chance to learn more about what it’s like to be a marine mammal in the Salish Sea. Hope’s story also speaks to the importance of continuing scientific research to foster a better understanding of ecosystems in the Salish Sea.

Hope has spoken to me about the positive impact that environmental education and scientific communication can have in connecting people with the world around them. Her story is an encouragement to keep working hard and to try to reach out to new people every day about their role in conserving the Salish Sea.

Can skeletons talk? I think the answer is yes, as long as we listen carefully.

CAROLYN WOODS is the Natural History Exhibit and Volunteer Educator and an AmeriCorps Member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

In the past, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network Hotline and training for the team of Marine Science Center volunteer responders has been funded by a highly competitive grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unfortunately, funds are very limited and this year our grant was not renewed. We urgently need your help to protect the future of our marine mammals in the Salish Sea. Please donate today to help us raise $10,000 for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by August 31.