Melanie Norman's Diary


Wednesday, June 15, 2005 Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Monday, June 13, 2005 Sunday, June 12, 2005
Saturday, June 11, 2005 Friday, June 10, 2005
Thursday, June 9, 2005 Wednesday, June 8, 2005
Tuesday, June 7, 2005 Monday, June 6, 2005
Sunday, June 5, 2005 Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Friday, March 4, 2005  

Wednesday, June 15, 2005 The next morning, I said goodbye to the remaining volunteers before heading off with Kirk at 7:30 a.m. We all became very close during our stay together, and I hope to continue the friendships. 
 
Kirk and I set off to explore nearby Orcus Island before heading our separate ways. I have a week’s travel in the Canadian Rocky Mountains before flying home. 
 
On the ferry ride back to Vancouver Island, I reflected on the journey of the past 10 days. I feel privileged to have worked with the Whale Research Center and thank Earthwatch and Alcoa for providing me with the opportunity. Orca are an incredibly complex and intelligent species, and I am glad to have contributed to the research and share the passion for their conservation. One day, I hope to return to the orca of San Juan Island.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 We went to the research center again in the morning. Yauski and Dorothy worked on preparing a “best of” photo CD for all of the volunteers, while Ha and I worked on data entry. 
 
The boat left at 11:30 a.m., and it was a glorious last day with really flat seas and lots of sunshine. The whales were very mild, and we followed only three (the L12’s). We said goodbye to Tom, who has been a very enthusiastic captain, sometimes jumping up on the roof of the boat to get a better look at the orca! 
 
Back at the house, it was data entry again. Yauski and Ha tried to kayak for a while, which made Kirk very nervous. DeeDee had a swim with the seals, which were intrigued by this new sea creature. It was very funny to watch them sniff and duck around him. 
 
That night, Dorothy and DeeDee cooked for us so we could sample some food typical of their homelands. After dinner, Yauski surprised us all with a song to say thank you. He is an excellent opera singer, and we were all impressed with his rich baritone voice. Ken showed us a few videos taken during the whale research, and then Adam gave a slide show on some skiing he did in the Himalayas, Switzerland, and Italian dolomites for a documentary. Very adventurous! Then came the goodbyes to the staff followed by ones to DeeDee, who was leaving very early the next morning. I felt very sad to leave everyone and the research center after such an amazing time together. It really was the experience of a lifetime.

Monday, June 13, 2005 I woke up a bit sore from the paddle this morning but felt good after a few stretches. At the research center, Ha and I worked on data entry before heading out to the boat again at 11:30 a.m. 
 
We saw a navy ship out at sea that emitted sonar as the whales were moving by. Ken filmed the event and used a hydrophone to record the whale vocalization and the sonar. It is uncertain how the naval sonar affects the whales, although it is believed to be negative. In the Bahamas, whales have beached themselves soon after contact with sonar activity, and autopsies have revealed brain hemorrhages. The research center is trying to collect more information on the impact of sonar on orca. 
 
Out on the boat, DeeDee and I shared the behavior log. I recorded the first page before handing it over. We had J and K pods today. There were a few breaches, but in general they were fairly mellow. As we pulled back into Snug Harbor, DeeDee decided it would be a good time for a swim and plunged into the water nearly fully clothed! That inspired Ha and me to swim, so we headed to the beach near the research center for a dip. The beach has no sand, only smooth, round gray pebbles. They were great to warm up on after the frosty dip!  Kirk donned a wetsuit and went for a snorkel. He found a large purple sea star again, and we all took turns holding it. Their little suction feet feel so strange.
 
After dinner, we headed back to the research center, and Astrid gave a presentation on what they do with all the data we collect. It really put everything in perspective and showed that what we are doing is very useful. Using the global positioning system (GPS) data, they track the whale migration paths over time and correlate this to their behavior to see where the main feeding locations are. The documentation of the individuals has shown that some matriarchal lines are threatened because they have no females or high mortality rates. Astrid is a lively presenter and held us enthralled for the evening.

Sunday, June 12, 2005 After making French toast for breakfast, we headed to the research center. I did some data entry until 11 a.m., when we were told the next boat trip would be at 4 p.m. With no more entries left to do, we headed into town to have a Sunday lunch. 
 
There is an oyster grill right on the harbor front, so we each tried a fresh oyster. After lunch, we walked around the jetty and checked out all the boats. We found a great aquarium on the wharf—sea stars, nudibranchs, and sea cucumbers. We then drove to Roche Harbor on the northern side of the island to look at the luxury yacht that was donated to the research center last year. It is three stories high, with bedrooms below and a huge dining area in the center. Maintenance of the boat is very expensive. Each trip costs around US$1000, so it is rarely used by the research center. However, it would be very useful to follow the whales over winter into more remote and rough seas.
 
As we were getting ready for the afternoon boat trip, we received news that sea conditions were even worse than yesterday. Most of us elected not to go, which gave us a couple of leisure hours. Kirk and I decided to go for a sea kayak, which was fantastic. Kirk was a kayak guide for 15 years and was an excellent companion. After a few problems adjusting the old kayak, we were on our way. 
 
We hugged the shoreline, which was very scenic with trees that came right down to the water and bright green algae. We saw a harbor seal pup, huge purple starfish, and bald eagles. The harbor seals were very inquisitive and popped their heads up to stare at us as we passed. We paddled four kilometers (2.5 miles) south to Lime Kiln Lighthouse, where we encountered the whales! Very unexpected, as we had thought they were much farther south. It felt like we were in the water with them—very different to being on the boat. I was in heaven. Each day has been a new and exciting experience. 
 
Every so often, a whale would pass us as we cruised back. We had dinner at the ex-volunteer’s house again and chatted to a few locals.

Saturday, June 11, 2005 It was a bit warmer this morning and was one of the first mornings I didn’t need to pull on a huge jacket! We had leftover dessert for breakfast and all burst out laughing when DeeDee showed us pictures of where he had buried one of the crabs that had been stinking out the harbor (not just a molt!). We went to the research center, and I did some data entry before heading out on the boat at 11:30 a.m.
 
Wow! That was a wild ride! It was deceivingly calm in the harbor but extremely rough out at sea. I took a tablet to survive the ride. Waves and water sprayed all over the deck, and we had to hang on tight. The whales put on an amazing show—perhaps fired up by the weather or maybe because it was a superpod again. One whale breached five times in a row! Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does. It was a terrible day to catch a good photo, though. All the customers on the boat were thrilled, although some of the younger children were scared and seasick.
 
Back at the research center, Kirk gave us a presentation on the phases of the moon and tide pooling. He manages an education center close to San Francisco, and he gave us excellent insight into how the position of the moon influences the tides, and then how the tides cause zonation in the marine creatures. 
 
The whales came past the house in the afternoon, really close to shore. DeeDee and I walked back to Snug for dinner, which was cooked by another resident on the island, Loren. Beautiful fish—the seafood here is out of this world!

Friday, June 10, 2005 We went to the research center to identify the whale photos until 11:30 a.m., when we headed out on the boat again. This time, I took a seasick tablet just to be safe! 
 
Today, we had transients for the first time—very exciting!  The difference in behavior and shape compared to the residents was very obvious. The transients had sharp, pointy fins and moved quite slowly and stealthily through the water. Somehow, it felt a lot more sinister. They were great to photograph, though, as their slow exhale means they are above water longer. Twice, they changed course and headed straight past our boat—the closest yet!  The male had a taller dorsal fin—about two meters (6.5 feet)—than any of the residents. 
 
A couple of hours later, we got a radio call saying a humpback whale had been spotted farther out. We tried to find it, but it stayed underwater for up to 20 minutes at a time, so, unfortunately, we had no luck. 
 
We headed back to shore and then had the rest of the day free. I took the opportunity to get some postcards written and then explore the island. We went to Lime Kiln Lighthouse and then for a walk in the forest around Snug. After dinner, we had some drinks and a bit of a debate on the whaling issue in Japan. It was interesting to hear Yauski’s opinion of the situation. We went to bed refreshed and relaxed after some free time.

Thursday, June 9, 2005 I woke up quite tired this morning. For some reason, the boat trips do make us all feel tired. 
 
DeeDee was in our cabin already for breakfast. He doesn’t sleep much, as he doesn’t want to waste time! 
 
We went to the research center for the morning, where DeeDee and I entered the data. I read it out while he typed, accentuating each letter to overcome the language barrier. It was quite funny to listen to me going “Eeee,” “Cee,” “Rrrr,” but it worked, and we got everything done.
 
We headed out on the boat again at 11:30 a.m. This time, I recorded the boat log. Every 15 minutes, a description of our location—the northings and eastings, surface water condition (0 to 5; still to rough), current direction, whale configuration, and number of powerboats, sailboats, kayaks, and barges—needs to be recorded. Again, the whales were very placid today. I don’t think we had a single breach. 
 
We got back a bit before 3 p.m. and headed to the house to enter some more data. Dorothy and I worked on identifying the photographs again, this time J and K pods. It is enjoyable, except sometimes you get a really tricky photograph and get frustrated after half an hour with no luck. After a couple of hours, I needed a break. I headed out onto the balcony and read a book on transient orca, which are very different to the residents we are working with.
 
At 6 p.m., we were picked up by an ex-Earthwatch volunteer and taken to her holiday house for dinner. There seems to be a lot of volunteers who become hooked and return every year for more. 
 
The house was lovely. We played around with the huge kelp on the shore and skimmed pebbles before dinner. After dinner, we had a presentation from Ingrid, an orca researcher from New Zealand. She had only just arrived, but I picked up on the accent immediately! The presentation was excellent—very interesting and inspiring. 
 
The orca in New Zealand are very different from those in Puget Sound and rarely breach or tail lob. We were given insight into their behavior—the young learn how to hunt from the old and interact with Ingrid when she scuba dives with them. Many receive injuries from boat propellers or get beached while hunting stingrays in shallow water. However, the rescue success is high, and they often seek out contact with humans afterward, perhaps because of the intense contact during the rescue. I was very impressed with Ingrid’s work and interested in the great differences in orca populations around the world. 
 
We headed home late, and I went to sleep as soon as I hit my pillow.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 We woke to the sound of rain this morning. It must have been poor visibility, or perhaps the whales continued on their northern path, as the pre-dawn whale watch failed to locate the orca. 
 
We headed to town in the morning to check out the whale museum and do some laundry. The whale museum had some fascinating information. Every day we learn something new about orca, and it adds to my passion for the research. The stories of captures during the 70s were heartbreaking—orca are very social creatures and soon die once isolated in captivity. 
 
At 2 p.m., we headed back out on the boat. It was drizzling, and the ocean was quite rough, so most of the time I had to sit down and concentrate on not being sick. The whales were not very active, mainly milling and traveling slowly north. We were back at shore by 4 p.m., and we headed to the research center to enter the data and identify the photos. Dorothy and I worked on the photos, which was enjoyable. It was like puzzle solving, and you need to have an eye for detail. We learned quite a few whales during the process, so hopefully once back out on the water we can name a few. We went back to the house at 7 p.m. for a tofu peanut stir-fry.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005 This morning, we were picked up at 9 a.m. and taken to the research center to learn about what to record on the boat, the whale research database, and photo identification techniques.
 
There are three logs to record; whale behavior, the boat log, and non-orca marine sightings. The database is quite similar to the rehabilitation database I use for my job. Entering the data is fairly straightforward although time-consuming, as up to 10 pages of data can be collected with each trip.
 
We went back to Snug Harbor for lunch, discussing how difficult it is to identify individuals from a dorsal fin and saddle photograph because of such subtle differences between each whale—a tiny unevenness on the edge of the fin and “false” saddle patches from different light conditions or shadow from the dorsal fin. 
 
In the afternoon, Ken took us to Whale Watch Park to watch the orca moving north. It was a superpod—J first, then K and L pods. We watched with binoculars while Ken filmed. At 4 p.m., we headed back out on the boat for another trip. We had six tourists accompany us this time, so it was a very full boat. I took the behavior log, and we encountered the whales within 10 minutes. It was a bit overwhelming at first, as they were very active and I had to try and remember the names of all the behaviors. I got into the swing of it, and it felt good to do some work and contribute to the project. 
 
Today was even better than yesterday, as we were able to get really close to the whales and there were few boats. There were numerous breaches, spy hops, tail lobs, and even a seasnake (aroused male)! We also saw the newborn calf and took the first picture documentation of it for the database. Very exciting—Astrid was ecstatic! 
 
We arrived back at Snug for a delicious dinner of apricot chicken and Mediterranean salad. We are very spoiled—usually volunteers camp and cook for themselves. After dinner, we sat around chatting. DeeDee has now collected seven crab molts and lined them up on the roof of the hut. He makes us all laugh with his antics. 
 
It is very interesting hearing about everybody’s homes. We all lead very different lives.

Monday, June 6, 2005 We were woken at 6:15 am, although most of us were already awake as the sun rises at 4 a.m. J and K pods had been spotted just offshore, so we were to head out at 7 a.m. It was a rush of activity—Dorothy, Ha, and I trying to shower, eating breakfast, and packing lunch quickly. 
 
We boarded Stellar Sea and met the captain, Tom, and his dog, Elmer, who loves to come and watch the show! After only 10 minutes on the boat, we came across K pod. The calf fully breached, and the adults were half breaching. We watched in awe—it was an amazing sight. 
 
At one point, two orca headed straight for us, and we watched them swim under the boat. I love the sound of the whales exhaling and the lingering mist. We followed the whales south along the shoreline of the island, with cameras frantically clicking. It was very cold, and my face was so numb I could barely move my lips to talk! We docked in the early afternoon and had an hour before heading to the research center. It was low tide, so we strolled along the mud flats. There were large crab molts and hundreds of small green- and purple-spotted crabs that skittered everywhere when a rock was upturned. 
 
Back at the research center, Astrid gave a presentation on the history of the whale research and the current population status. She has been volunteering every summer since the early 80s and has a wealth of information. We also watched a video of the 41 different whale behaviors so we know the lingo for the recording sheets. The research center is right on the beach, with excellent ocean views for spotting passing orca. 
 
The last volunteer, Yauski from Japan, arrived. At 6 p.m., we walked back to Snug Harbor, which is only two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the research center. The skipper’s wife and daughter had cooked another feast, this time spaghetti with meatballs. 
 
DeeDee has chosen to sleep in one of the research boats docked at Snug Harbor. I lie in bed, looking forward to using our new knowledge on the boat tomorrow.

Sunday, June 5, 2005 I left on Thursday night at midnight after a farewell dinner with my family. The flight to Sydney went fast, and before I knew it, I was on a plane to Honolulu. I slept for much of the flight and then arrived in the balmy night air of the tropics. The Hawaiian shuttle bus driver was a real character and gave us a talk on making the most of your life and time in Honolulu. He kept saying “open your eyes, so much to see” while racing down the roads. Luckily, I arrived at the hotel in once piece!  From my room, there was a beautiful view of a mountain sparkling with lights. 
 
The next morning, I explored Waikiki Beach. It looked like the old-fashioned movies, with hundreds of people surfing long, rolling waves. Before long, I was in the water with them. The waves were fantastic—easy to get up on and then rolling for 200 meters (655 feet) to shore. Sun burnt and tired, I was back at the airport that night and on my way to Vancouver. The Canadian man sitting next to me told me about a whale stranding just south of Perth the day after I had left. The in-flight news had some brief pictures of the stranding. It felt strange seeing Perth on the news, especially about whales. 
 
We landed in Vancouver on Saturday morning, and I transferred to the domestic terminal to catch a flight to Vancouver Island. We had only just taken off when the pilot announced to prepare for landing!  It was a 30-minute low, scenic flight across the densely forested green islands. After checking in at my motel in Victoria, I spent the afternoon exploring the famous Buchart Gardens. They were amazing, beautifully manicured and very lush. I couldn’t believe they were growing in an old limestone quarry—how’s that for rehabilitation! 
 
Sunday morning—the first day of the orca expedition! I caught the bus to the Washington ferry terminal and settled in for the two-hour ride to San Juan Island, where I would spend the next 10 days researching the orca of Puget Sound. I passed the time chatting to a U.S. forestry student, which was very interesting. Upon arrival, I had lunch at a café before ringing for pick-up.
 
The town of Friday Harbor is gorgeous, very small and quaint. I was excited and a bit nervous to meet everybody. I was picked up by Brandon and Kristen, who are interns at the Whale Research Center for the summer. We then headed to the airport, where Dorothy, the U.S. volunteer, was waiting. DeeDee (Dietmar Bago, the other Alcoa volunteer) from Romania and Ha from Vietnam were already at Snug Harbor. DeeDee gave me a beautiful carved wooden box from a sacred place in his homeland. He was very happy with my gift of an aboriginal boomerang.
 
We had the afternoon to relax and get to know each other, and then had a delicious salmon dinner with the rest of the research team. We were introduced to Ken Balcomb, the head of the research center, and Astrid van Ginneken, who will be helping us in the day-to-day activities. We also met the fifth volunteer, Kirk from California. Everyone is so friendly, and it is a real mixture of nationalities! We went to bed with the possibility of an early start if the orca were close.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 I leave tomorrow night to begin the orca expedition. I am now very excited and can’t wait to head off! 
 
A lot has happened since my last diary entry. I received the orca expedition pack from Earthwatch about a month ago. It was very helpful in planning my travel and learning more about the research I will be involved in. Reading about the orca and their matriarchal structure, vocalization, and hunting methods has been fascinating. I am looking forward to learning more.  
 
I have four flights and one ferry trip to get to the rendezvous meeting point in Friday Harbour—phew!  I have broken up all the travel with a night in Honolulu followed by a night on Vancouver Island before heading to San Juan Island, where the research station is located. My fellow Alcoa volunteer, Dieter Bago, made contact with me during the week, and we have been discussing travel arrangements. I have also organized a week’s travel after the expedition and will be backpacking through the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
 
I have been learning all I can about my local marine environment, as I think it will be interesting to share information on our home countries with the volunteers of various nationalities. I recently had a volunteer morning with my local coastal restoration group, where we identified the various species of fish living on the reef for CALM (Conservation and Land Management government department) to use for marine management in the area.  I have also attended a couple of information sessions at the Aquarium of Western Australia, where I learned a lot about the marine life of Western Australia
 
In April, I had a week’s holiday at Ningaloo reef with my university friends that we had planned a year in advance.  Ningaloo reef is located within the coral coast of Western Australia.  Here, I swam with the endangered whale shark and snorkeled with turtles and many bright, colorful fish.  It is a remote location, and the reef is carefully managed to ensure the growing tourism in the area is sustainable. I look forward to sharing all these experiences with my teammates. 
 
My local newspaper is running a before and after story of my involvement in the orca expedition. This will be excellent in raising awareness of Earthwatch and the orca research.  The first story has just come out this morning, and already many people I know have seen it and contacted me! 
 
I have quite a lot of work to finish off before I leave, so best get back to it.

Friday, March 4, 2005 It has been approximately a month since the morning I was notified of my successful Earthwatch application. Sometimes I still can’t believe that in three months I will be in the USA studying the population dynamics of killer whales!
 
I am a rehabilitation environmental research officer, and I conduct research on plant establishment and the sustainability of rehabilitated areas. Recently I was based at Alcoa’s Huntly mine for four weeks instead of the city office to gain experience in operational environmental issues. 
 
It was February and my last day of work of what had been a fantastic and eye-opening experience. I started the day as usual, checking my emails before heading out in the field. I noticed one from Earthwatch but thought nothing of it, as the application form had said that we would be notified in January if successful. So, after reading my other emails, I opened it and nearly fell off my chair in disbelief when I read ‘Congratulations, you are going to the USA to study orca!’ I re-read it twice before it really sunk in, then jumped up and ran around the office, so excited I could barely speak! At this stage, I didn’t know orca was another name for killer whale, but I quickly found the expedition briefing on the Earthwatch website. I then rang my research supervisor, family, and friends to share the good news. I had tailored my application to studying dolphins in New Zealand, so you can imagine my surprise at killer whales in the USA!
 
I applied for a marine-based project as I am involved in dune restoration with my local Coast Care group and am keen to learn more about ocean life to give me a greater understanding of coastal management. I live only a 15-minute bike ride from the ocean and love it—swimming, surfing, or snorkelling most days in summer. 
 
Following notification of my successful application, I made an appointment with the marine biologist at the Aquarium of Western Australia to see if I could get involved in any research projects before I go. Unfortunately, funding is limited for marine research, but the chat gave me a good understanding of the basics. I am used to taking measurements on trees, etc., so the difficulties of collecting information on moving sea creatures were highlighted. I have signed up for a few training information nights to learn more and meet interested community members with whom I can share my experiences when I return.
 
I have heard the region is stunning in its scenery, so I have also been investigating places to travel for a week after the project. It is amazing how many friends and people I have met lately that have been to British Columbia, Canada, and western USA. All are offering advice on places that are a “must see.” I feel extremely lucky to have been selected for the program and want to make the most of the experience!

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