Pacific Northwest
Oceans Initiative researchers Kimberly Neilsen (L) and Catherine Lo on the lookout for orcas on San Juan Island. STEPHANIE REISS / OCEANS INITIATIVE

WA - Where There's a Whale, There's a Way. Keeping Field Science Going in a Pandemic

Deborah Giles hasn’t been able to let her usual crew onto her small research boat this year. To keep her research on the Northwest’s endangered orcas going despite the coronavirus pandemic, the whale biologist has recruited within her household bubble.

Now her husband Jim Rappold and their specially trained dog Eba make the team.

While Rappold drives the boat, Eba stands on the bow and sniffs the salt air for hints of orca feces – full of hormonal and chemical clues to the orcas’ well-being – bobbing in the water.

As Rappold steers, Giles works with Eba and quickly processes scat samples she scoops out of the sea. Every 30 minutes, she also records data on any interactions between the orcas and nearby boats.

“Normally I have somebody that's just dedicated to that. This year, I just have to set a timer and do it myself,” said Giles, a researcher with the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology.

Researching whales is never easy. The wide-ranging mammals pop up only briefly and unpredictably from their vast ocean home. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it that much harder.

Budget constraints, travel restrictions and laboratory closures have put a lot of wildlife biology on hold.

But whale researchers in Washington have also reengineered their work to keep critical science going despite the life-or-death need for most humans to avoid each other. No longer able to work side by side, biologists have streamlined what they do.

John Calombokidis with the Cascadia Research Collective monitors gray whales in Puget Sound. He now does much of his fieldwork solo.

“I have to drive the boat, take data, take photographs and collect some of these skin samples by myself,” Calambokidis said. “But I kind of like doing that.”

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