My name is Makie Matsumoto-Hervol and this summer I was given an amazing opportunity to participate in field collection and laboratory analysis working with Southern Resident Killer Whale scat. These whales, declared endangered in 2005 are threatened by three probable factors: dwindling Chinook salmon numbers, toxic pollutants in the water, and vessel traffic. The Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington investigates the interplay between these factors through a non-invasive study by collecting and analyzing Southern Resident Killer Whale scat.
I first began my adventure at San Juan Island where my mentor Jessica Lundin, an environmental toxicology graduate student, introduced me to my new family, the orca scat team. For six weeks on a small, 21 foot motor boat named MOJA, I traversed the west coast of San Juan Island tracking whales and their scat.
To find whale scat, a Conservation Canine (Tucker, Sadie May, or Pepsi) sat at the bow of the boat with the dog handler Liz Seely. When a Conservation Canine detected scat, they actively moved around the edges of the bow alerting Liz, who then communicated with the driver Kari Kosi or Deborah Giles to maneuver towards the orca scat location. When the scat was visibly spotted in the water the two research technicians Amanda Phillips and Sara Potter and I utilized plastic beakers to scoop the scat pieces. As the scat was delicate and had a limited buoyancy of about 45 minutes, it was critical that the team communicated effectively and moved quickly to prevent the scat from sinking. The scat came in a variety of colors including red, white, green, brown, yellow, or tan, and had a distinct rotten salmon smell. Though on a good day, the compiled pieces could be more than 100mL, on an average, long hours on the boat often resulted in 10mL or less of scat!
In August I traveled back to the University of Washington and spent the last two weeks of my internship preparing the scat samples for toxicant, hormone, and DNA analysis. Working closely with Jessica, we re-examined the sample’s field descriptions, centrifuged, and removed the excess seawater from each sample. The samples were carefully swabbed for DNA analysis conducted by NOAA and then vacuum freeze dried, resulting in a powdered whale poop ready for hormone and toxicant analysis.
Through my internship I became immersed in unique and passionate communities both on San Juan Island and in Seattle, collaborating with scientists, field researchers, and whale enthusiasts. In a life jacket, I learned the necessity of moving fluidly and quickly in unexpected situations while in a lab coat, I learned the necessity of thorough, patient, and detailed work. A huge thank you to Sam Wasser and Jessica Lundin for their guidance, the orca scat family and whale community on San Juan Island, as well as the JISAO staff. I could not have hoped for a more exciting summer adventure, thank you for an unforgettable experience!