2017 Letter to Supporters

Hello OBI Supporters!

This is Monika, co-founder and President of the Orca Behavior Institute. As we launch our annual limited edition T-shirt fundraiser, we are in the middle of our third field season. With a couple years of experience under our belts, we’re now finding our footing as a small independent research group and are beginning to build the long-term databases that will support our research goals. We wanted to take this opportunity to answer some of the most common questions we get and fill you in on what we’re doing and where we’re going from here.

What are you guys about?
OBI was founded on the beliefs that good science can be done by diligent, passionate citizen observers and that the best research occurs in an environment of openness, collaboration, and the synthesizing of multiple perspectives. We put a high value on quality basic data collection, big picture thinking, and the observations of non-scientists who are in the field on a daily basis. We’re a passionate group of individuals that put our time into this work as a labor of love. Jimmie and I do most of the field data collection, but our Board members are also directly involved in our research projects. We have existing partnerships and collaborations with organizations such as the Pacific Whale Watch Association, Orca Network, The Whale Museum, the Orcasound Hydrophone Network, Reed College, and the University of Gothenburg.

What exactly are you researching?
Our mission statement is to conduct non-invasive behavioral and acoustic research on killer whales of the Salish Sea and beyond. We’re always hypothesizing and discussing ideas of what we could look at and what might be going on as we observe orcas and see new things, but we are currently focused on three main projects:

Southern Resident Killer Whale behavioral budget – Anecdotally many people have noticed changes in how the Southern Residents are behaving. In general they seem to be spending less time socializing and resting and more time traveling and foraging. To put some numbers to these observed trends, we are replicating a historic study to quantify the changes. Jimmie is focusing on this topic as part of his Masters thesis work.

Southern Resident Killer Whale acoustic repertoire changes over time – Monika’s undergraduate thesis work noted some shifts in pod repertoires compared to the original work done by John Ford in the 1980s. There seems to be continuing shifts in how calls are used and who they are used by, differing from what has been observed in the Northern Residents. OBI is making current recordings to document what is happening now, and Monika is comparing these to historic archives to see what has changed and start speculating about why.

Transient killer whale changes in the Salish Sea – As the Southern Residents have visited less frequently in recent years, transients are becoming more and more common. We’re documenting these changes and looking for patterns in what’s driving the habitat usage in the Salish Sea by this lesser known population of killer whales.

How do you collect data?
About three-quarters of our data is collected from shore, and the rest is collected by boat either on our vessel Serenity or aboard a commercial whale watch vessel. We take our observations with a pen and paper, with our only additional equipment being a hydrophone and cameras. We will observe killer whales from anywhere we can see them from land, and anywhere conditions allow when on the water. When we are on the water, we operate in full accordance with all vessel regulations and additional PWWA whale watch guidelines, meaning that we never approach whales closer than 200 yards, operate at slow speeds near the whales, and limit our viewing times. We model our behavior after the commercial whale watch fleet, with the only difference being that we’re writing a few more things down.

Do you have a research permit?
Federal research permits are required when scientific activities may result in “take” of any marine mammal species, where “take” is essentially defined as any harassment or harm. Our shore-based viewing has zero-impact, and we’ve confirmed with NOAA that our on-the-water activities do not require a permit. Some very important cutting edge research is done by several groups who have research permits in order to collect fecal and prey samples, tag animals, take high quality identification photos, and/or fly a drone near the whales, but we feel additional valuable observations can occur from a distance. In keeping with our mission for non-invasive research, none of our research projects require any type of close approach that would require us to have a federal permit on the water.

How are you funded and what do you spend money on?
Since all time put into our work is purely volunteer and our data collection methods are fairly simple, our annual operating costs are low. Some of our equipment such as the boat and our camera gear are personally owned and usage is donated to OBI. Our main expenses include gas and moorage for the boat, the one-time purchases of useful field equipment such as our hydrophone and range finder, and the operating costs of running a non-profit. Our current annual operating budget is under $2500 per year, and we are funded 100% off private donations from supporters like you.

What’s next?
Now that we have several years worth of data collected, we’re starting to put together our first studies for publication. The importance of long-term data sets is huge, but we’re just starting to build ours. We rely heavily both on previous research and citizen science sighting databases to help put our work into perspective. Just like the reports I submit to eBird about the birds I see on a recreational hike or trip help bird scientists study broader picture trends, the reports shared by knowledgeable boat and shore based whale watchers to groups such as Orca Network are invaluable for putting our observations into a broader context. In the coming year we’ll be excited to share with you more details about our first research projects in the form of both publications and lectures.

I hope this helped you learn a bit more about who we are and what we’re about here at the Orca Behavior Institute. Thank you so much for your continued support, both financial and otherwise!

Monika Wieland Shields President, Orca Behavior Institute