On the Water With Our Vollies

Are you interested in doing something good for marine mammals around Vancouver Island?
Are you interested in having a great time out on the water and seeing some Orcas?
Are you interested in working within a great team and an awesome crew?

Then join as a Volunteer for the Straitwatch South Program with Cetus Research and Society!

Connel, our intern from the UK, prepping the boat for the day.

Some of the goals of Straitwatch include creating statistics about the number of vessels around a group of whales, as well as noting incidents concerning the Whale Wise Guidelines. In order to take much of the data needed for reports and papers, volunteers and interns are required – and very much appreciated!

Along with the tasks of acquiring all of the data necessary, the Straitwatch driver and crew spend a lot of time out on the water approaching boats and doing educational talks to private boats about the whales around Vancouver Island and the Whale Wise Regulations.

A Volunteer’s day begins around 9:00am at the Dock B31 in the Oak Bay Marina. Here lies the Straitwatch Zodiac. Here, you’ll meet both the intern and the driver of the boat, and begin with the preparations for the day. Besides checking the engines, you’ll have to check all communication devices as well as the radar and the security tools prior to leaving the dock. Of course we have to also make sure that we have enough sheets for all the notes we’ll make during the day.
If this is also done you just have to put on one of the waterproof pants and you’re good to go!

On my first day as a Straitwatch volunteer, I was given a short introduction to all the things on the boat and the intern showed me how to fill out the sheets for the Vessel Counts and the Incident Scans. After preparing the boat for the trip, the driver’s task is to first find out where the whales can be found this day.

Leaving the Oak Bay Marina

You’ll leave the marina at about 9:30am, and on all the days I’ve been out, we headed straight to the San Juan Islands. The Whales are often travelling up and down the Haro Strait, which is right between the southeast tip of Vancouver Island and San Juan Island.

Depending on the weather and sea conditions we generally spot the first whales within an hour of leaving the Marina; therefore, the first count and scan generally starts at 11:00am.

During a count, you have to count all vessels around the whales within a radius of one kilometer as well as the slow zone of 400m. In addition to that you have to note the Waypoint from the GPS, the coordinates and all available information about the whales, the sea and the weather. It sounds daunting, but with the teamwork, the count is really quick thing.

The next important task of the crew is the incident scan every two hours. During this 20minutes you’ll watch the scene carefully and note all incidents – if someone is breaking the Washington State Laws (Whale Wise Regulations). If necessary we take pictures of these situations.

Whales seen from a safe distance... 200 meters away.

Between the counts the crew tries to keep out an eye on the scene and reach some private boats to talk with them about Whale Wise Behavior, such as to not drive too close to whales and to not drive too quickly when whales are near. Sometimes it happens that boats are entering the area where whales are foraging or swimming way too quickly. During these times we attempt to reach the boat before they get too close to the whales.

Besides the Counts, Scans and Talks the crew also does research work. Depending on the behavior of the whales and their configuration we try to record some vocalizations with a hydrophone. We estimated the direction of the whales and “parked” our boat along side but not too near of their route. One end of the hydrophone is in the water and the other is connected it to a laptop. Sometimes it happens that while parked the whales change their direction a little bit and appear close to the boat. In these situations the interns and staff might try to get good pictures of the animals for identification reasons. This is done in order to monitor each animal’s health.

Marie, taking a photo of an incident.

During my days on the water, most of the contacts with private boats have been very friendly and understanding. The people really appreciate that someone cares about the Whales and that you help them to behave in the right way. To get the statistic data about these talks you also have to mark a waypoint on the GPS and note some information about the boat and its passengers.

Usually the work on the water ends around 5:00pm and depending on your actual location you are back at the Marina between 6 and 7pm. And If the conditions are good you are going high-speed the whole trip!

You see, there’s always something going on when you are out with Straitwatch. It was very interesting and so exciting to learn something about Orca Whales and take part in this important preservation work. The Drivers as well as the Interns were great and it was always fun. Especially the high-speed ride back to the Marina in the evening was awesome!

So don’t hesitate and be a part of a great team and an important organization! To apply for volunteer or intern positions, email info@nullcetussociety.org.

Philip Gerlac, the author of this post.

Philip Gerlach is from Hagen, Nordrhein-Westfalen. He and his girlfriend, Nina, came to Victoria on the 14th of April this year and have been volunteering for Cetus all summer.

Thanks to Philip, Nina, and all of our other volunteers. Without you we would not be able to do the great things that we do.

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