Thursday, February 2, 2017

Way of Whales Conference 2017

Way of Whales
The view from the Coupeville ferry. Photo by Mattie Stephens
The time has come and gone for the annual Way of Whales Conference, or as I like to call it, Whalefest 2017. Coupeville high school was the host, and in order to arrive in time, Jan North, Betsy Carlson and I caught the 8 am ferry to make our way into Whidbey Island. When we arrived, I caught a whiff of the local agriculture before setting up our exhibition table while Jan and Betsy signed us in. We displayed skulls of all kinds, including a steller sea lion that took many as a bear skull. Our save the shore sign was displayed and many a pamphlet were spread around to give the good word. After speaking to a few visitors to our booth, I was able to walk around and explore the other organizations and their tables while awaiting the day’s many presentations.  
Our proud table! Photo by Mattie Stephens
As I wandered, looking at all the tables, gathering stickers and snacks, I realized how nice it was to be surrounded by fellow “whalers.” My goal of the conference was to expand my marine science network, including my interesting new friends, London, and her father. I spoke with them after overhearing London is heading to New Zealand to work with a graduate student – something I didn’t expect to have in common with a nine year old. London is invited to come to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC) and train her brain on our many cetacean skeletons.
The first presentation was by Howard Garrett of Orca Net, welcoming us all to Whalefest. After introducing the day, he spoke about freeing Lolita, an orca taken from the Salish Sea in the 70s, currently kept at Miami Seaquarium.
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Howard Garrett of Orca net. Photo by Betsy Carlson
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John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective and others. Photo by Betsy Carlson
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The second presenter was John Calambokidis. He gave a presentation about Sounders – local gray whales. It was fairly early for a PowerPoint, but I was wide awake when he presented awesome videos of gray whales he received from suction cup video tags. I met him afterwards, and he knew the professor I worked with in Galveston. He said he would happily be in correspondence.
I’ll remember you all when I’m famous.
Val Viers, an environmental physicist, spoke on his 15 year quest to learn about orcas and acoustics in the Salish Sea. He presented interesting and rare footage of orca communication sequences matched with recorded orca actions and position. What I found most interesting was Val’s deciphering of an orca mother scolding her offspring, which we were able to see on film. Val and his son work with PTMSC and installed our hydrophone, a device that allows us to hear boat and animal noise underwater. We work with his son Scott in the Salish Sea hydrophone network, monitoring ship noise and orca/marine mammal communication.
Current hydrophone network of the Salish Sea. 
Lastly, we watched a beluga whale documentary on the endangered St. Lawrence whales. An orphaned baby beluga is found alive on the beach with time running out. The responding scientist tries something unusual – releasing it back into the wild in hopes another mother will adopt the calf as her own. I’m no movie critic, but the message of the movie was critical – there needs to be widespread knowledge and support of environmental and animal stewardship. Without a change in human behavior, the environment of these whales will deteriorate.
Drone footage of St. Lawrence beluga whales. Photo by Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit
Whalefest was closed with a special music video about saving the Salish Sea and played a part in explaining the inter-connectivity of the diverse organisms. Helping people connect emotionally with a place like the Salish Sea can inspire them to protect it. This resounds soundly with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s mission of inspiring conservation of the Salish Sea. The Way of Whales conference and its presenters, all wonderfully well-spoken and knowledgeable, moved strongly for the Salish Sea's conservation. I enjoyed my experience at Whalefest 2017, hope to return, and would recommend a visit to anyone.

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Matthew (Mattie) Stephens is an AmeriCorps serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

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