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San Juan Island Killer Whale Ethology

Who would guess that a private, liberal arts and sciences college in the heart of Wisconsin would serve as the gateway to a rare research opportunity — studying the behavior of killer whales thousands of miles away?

Off the craggy shores of San Juan Island, Wash., from a historic lighthouse, Professor Emeritus of Psychology Bob Otis has led scores of students — eager to observe and learn from the behavior of killer whales — on a life-altering adventure. Every summer, this Ripon professor exits his farm in Wisconsin to observe, study, mentor and share. In doing so, Otis enlightens himself and others to the beauty, power and behaviors of the orca.

He arrives at the lighthouse in May as the orcas move into Haro Straight between Vancouver, British Columbia, and San Juan Island and remains until September, when the whales pursue salmon, their primary food source, into the greater Pacific. Every year, from May 20th to August 10th, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Otis and his team of interns from Ripon College and universities around the world record data on every group of killer whales that passes within half of a mile of the lighthouse in any direction. The group records observations relating to boat activity and whale behavior and sounds. Globally, only a handful of similar research opportunities exist.

Despite growing up in Bellingham, Wash., with whales in his “front yard,” it wasn’t until after coming to Ripon College that this animal behaviorist discovered a passion for them. It happened during a 1988 visit to his hometown. “I saw an advertisement to go whale watching,” he says. “We did, but we didn’t see any whales. That really challenged me.”

Two years later, Otis took a semester sabbatical to study orcas via The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., and Lime Kiln Point State Park. Thanks to an offer by the park to use the lighthouse as his laboratory, Otis’ research and community education continues.

“Ripon offers a person like me the opportunity to explore the things you’re passionate for,” says Otis. “I get a chance to bring in students from all over the world each summer. As the summer unfolds, other people join me.” Like an open book, Otis eagerly welcomes visitors to the lighthouse.

Each spring and summer, Ripon College students join him on the island to participate in research and study. While observing the behavior of killer whales that regularly forage the waters around San Juan Island, students focus on factors that may pose a threat to the orcas’ existence, including food supply, boats, pollution, captivity and whale watching. Field trips to the surrounding islands, observations of whales in both the wild and in captivity, and talks by researchers will supplement individual research projects.

This field experience is a rare research opportunity, with only a handful of similar ones available around the world. The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington, and Lime Kiln Point State Park are destinations for more than 200,000 visitors and whale watchers annually.

“The whales come by just about every day,” says Otis. “We record everything we see and hear from the time the whales enter the study area until they leave.” Click here to gain access to the the Lime Kiln Lighthouse hydrophones.

The valuable, long-term data will continue to have an impact for years.

For Adam Weiss ’03, assistant director of the Guinea Worm Eradication Program at The Carter Center, the research opportunity was “as much about the whales as it was about us as individuals.” Weiss is among several Ripon College students to travel to the lighthouse as part of Otis’ 15-day Liberal Arts In Focus course, “The Ethology of Killer Whales.” “Bob’s research is the same way,” Weiss says. “If you want to understand anything about the world, try understanding the whales. It’s about relationships among all that exists.”

While some students, like Weiss, get only a few weeks in May to observe the orcas, others benefit from summer-long internships. All agree the experience takes them beyond whale behavior by also offering insight into humanity.

There is a community of killer whales that frequent the waters surrounding San Juan Island each summer. Otis and his student interns study three family pods, named J, K and L, which travel close to shore in front of the lighthouse. Observers discover that baby orcas remain with their mothers forever; that a pod consists of several older females with their children and children’s children; and that orcas are identified by their unique markings. “Each spring when I get back out there, I see Ruffles, Grannie and the kids who are growing up,” says Otis. “There’s a mystique to it that I just love.”

And he’s not alone. Diane Gardetto ’92, of Friday Harbor, is a park interpreter at Lime Kiln Point State Park who first caught whale fever as a 2001 intern at the lighthouse. “The experience was life changing,” she says. At the onset of that summer, Gardetto maintains she didn’t expect that years later she’d still be researching whales and educating the public about them. “Being out studying the whales gave me more information about whether I wanted to do field research,” she says. “I’ve dedicated my life to this stuff. I love it.” Gardetto and her husband T.J. make their home on the island.

And so go other stories from students, friends and Ripon faculty who’ve either participated in Otis’ research studies, or simply hung out and observed. “The whales come by just about every day,” Otis maintains. “We record everything we see and hear from the time the whales enter the study area until they leave.” The data collected is used to evaluate a variety of questions, including whether or not the presence of boats affects orca behavior. A wide variety of boat and whale behaviors are recorded.

“When we started, we were concerned about the possible effects boats had,” says Otis. “Over the years, I’ve moved away from that question because I don’t believe we have the science to definitively determine the effects of boats.” Thus far, Otis hasn’t found that the number or behavior of boats changes whale behavior. “But, that doesn’t mean they are not being affected,” he adds. From where Otis operates on San Juan Island, the issue remains a “hot potato.” There, whale watching is a dominant industry. According to Otis’ research, the number of whale vessels “watching” orcas, which averaged 4.4 daily in 1990, rose dramatically to 20 in 1996. Since then, that number has dropped somewhat. Still, San Juan Islanders wonder whether whale watching contributes to a declining whale population.

There are around 85 killer whales visiting the area now. Ten years ago, there were more than 90. Over fishing, pollution and natural causes are more likely the culprits, suggests Otis. “We just had four babies in the last few months,” he adds. The best way to protect the orcas and ensure a solid population, according to Otis, is through research and public education.

By continuing to gather and analyze data over a number of years, Otis and his students hope to ask and answer avariety of unknown questions related to the orca. “We have a database now that allows us to ask questions we couldn’t have dreamed of asking 15 years ago,” he says. Doing such longitudinal research, he maintains, is today, a lost art in science.

The database also ensures the study of whale behavior continues even as the mammals depart Haro Straight toward the Pacific. Back on the Ripon campus, psychology students work to evaluate the meaning of various sounds and behaviors recorded during the summer. They gather around computers in a lab dedicated to orca research and pour over recordings and video. “We try to video tape and record the whales as they are going by,” says Otis. “We can synchronize the video and vocalizations to see what was going on at the time.” For every moment a whale passes by, students have also recorded how far offshore it is, the types and numbers of airplanes and boats present, the direction it swims, and its behaviors, such as breeching and eye hopping, among many others. In the lab, they align all the data to represent one moment in time.

For 25 years, Otis hasn’t just researched orcas, he’s observed them in the midst of human reaction — people delighted by “Mother Nature’s superstar.” An animal behaviorist, it seems Otis is also a “human behaviorist.” Naturally, this professor’s intrigue extends beyond the orca to the mammal’s impact on humans. “People scream and yell when the whales come by,” he says. “It does something to them.” So, seven years ago, he and his students began gathering data on the reactions and behaviors of humans as a result of whale watching.

“When killer whales swim by, it doesn’t matter where you are from or your political background,” says Otis. “I like to think of them as the big equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, everyone asks the same questions.”

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