Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Magnificence of Marine Mammals, Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Throughout the 1990s, whales generated increasing interest among the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s members and supporters. In the Fall 1997 Octopress newsletter, docent Chuck Louch contributed a fascinating account of humpback whales lunge feeding in Frederick Sound during a boating trip he took along Alaska's Inland Passage. One year later, Louch wrote an informative essay about the echolation patterns of resident and transient orcas.

Echolation patterns of resident and transient orcas,
Fall 1998 Octopress

In the Fall 1999 Octopress, PTMSC Volunteer Coordinator Anna Bachmann described the organization’s first foray into flensing (the practice of removing tissue from the skeleton of a carcass). A deceased 25-foot gray whale had washed ashore on a beach facing Protection Island on July 5. It was one of dozens of gray whales that washed up on Puget Sound beaches that summer for reasons unknown.

On Aug. 8, with the permission and supervision of the appropriate state and federal agencies, a crew of 20 volunteers, swathed in rubber gear and armed with an assortment of carving knives -- even a machete -- made their way to the young whale's remains. Their mission was to remove and bag up all the bones for further cleaning. The whale was so advanced in its decay that the bones were almost falling out and, in just five hours, the primary job was done.
The bones were then sown into net bags and submerged to allow shrimp, crab and other detritus eaters to clean the remaining flesh away. After coating the bones in a protective “glue,” they became an integral part of the PTMSC’s classroom display in the Museum, where they are still used today in for education purposes.

During the 2012 rollout of “The Story of Hope,”described in Part 1 of this blog, the PTMSC launched “Whales of the Salish Sea,” a 3-day education program piloted with Port Townsend School District 5th graders in 2011, and still offered today as part of the Maritime Discovery Schools initiative. The Winter 2012-13 Octopress explained:

Students were immersed in orca education for three days, learning about plankton, marine food webs, orca communities, marine mammals, and more. Students engaged in classes which pushed them to think differently, ask questions, and form conclusions, much like real scientists. In the program’s final day, students used forensic techniques to determine the demise of PTMSC’s orca “Hope” and participated in a mock town hall meeting about tidal turbines in Admiralty Inlet... The experience equips students to participate in important decisions about their local environment and seek careers in science fields.

Winter 2012-13 Octopress

In that same issue, Octopress editors took pride in announcing that, for the seventh year, the “Free Science Classes” program would be offered to cash-strapped schools to bring a total of over 700 students to thePTMSC for hands-on, interactive, place-based science education to help students meet the state’s learning standards. The class topics in 2012-3, thanks to generous donors and sponsors, were: “Marine Mammals: Form, Function and Food” and “The Diverse Ecosystems of the Salish Sea.”

If it seems the PTMSC cannot get enough of whales, look no further for validation than the most recent skeleton articulation project on tap. In April 2016, a juvenile female gray whale in distress was repeatedly sighted in central Puget Sound and eventually died. The whale’s carcass was towed to a site on Indian Island provided by the U.S. Navy. PTMSC and AmeriCorps staff and a number of volunteers assisted in the subsequent necropsy and prepared the carcass for controlled decomposition. The PTMSC plans to articulate the skeleton for educational use in its classes and exhibits, providing insights into the environmental threats affecting gray whales.

2016 Gray Whale Project
Today, ocean debris – particularly plastic – is a major focus of marine conservation efforts around the world. PTMSC was a front-runner in this effort, already calling out this emerging issue, as noted in the Spring-Summer 1988 Octopress edition. Titled “Trash in the Ocean,” the feature said:

The litter of plastic trash, becoming commonplace on even our most remote beaches, poses a serious threat to wildlife, which fortunately is gaining some much-needed attention. Heartbreaking images of birds and mammals entangled in our familiar misplaced trash are beginning to reach us all, reminding us of the tragic effects of our society's carelessness with its wastes... Our recent love affair with cheap, convenient, non-recyclable products has had enormous unseen costs, only one of which is the problem of the pollution of the marine environment.

The newsletter noted that nearby residents are already taking positive steps.

Locally, the City of Port Townsend and Jefferson County sponsored a Spring Clean-up Rally from April 16-31st. Volunteers of all ages from numerous community groups hit the roads, parks and beaches with trash bags, in what will hopefully become a yearly event.

Indeed, the event is now part of the annual Port Townsend Earth Day Beach Clean Up, sponsored by the PTMSC and Washington Coastsavers in support of International Coastal Clean-Up Day.

Harbor seals and elephant seals were the focus of a newsletter feature written by Addington-MacDonald in the Summer 1995 Octopress. Noting that harbor seals are year-round residents of the Salish Sea, she wrote:

Last year, however, we were visited by two migrating Northern Elephant seals... Elephant seals molt every summer. They haul out (come ashore) to shed skin and fur in patches. They do not eat during the molting, which takes about three weeks. The ill look is normal. They rest on shore and cool off in water. Water quality and biological conditions may cause a molting Elephant seal to haul out in unusual places. It was remarkable to see one hauled out at Ft. Worden since they generally prefer more remote islands and the outer coast. A very young seal, like the one we observed molting here, may not know the rules yet.

Northern elephant seal, "Buddy." 

While unusual, there would be more opportunities in the coming years to educate Port Townsend’s residents about elephant seals. Danae Presler, the AmeriCorps MMSN educator working at PTMSC in the spring of 2013, described how residents of a downtown apartment complex were startled to find a 400-pound seal on their back patio, in this PTMSC blog posting.

The episode was also artfully documented in the video “Port Townsend Marine Science Center - The Link to Action.”

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