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Sandy students explore whale habitat in the San Juans

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: ANDY WEX - Sandy High School students prepare for a kayak trip in the San Juans on May 19. Thirty members of the Aquanauts science club took the trip to explore and experience marine life.Students in the oceanic science class at Sandy High School get to do more than just imagine the ocean. Last month, for example, 30 students and two teachers went whale watching in the San Juan Islands in Washington.

The trip was part of a package offered through Friday Harbor Laboratories, a marine biology and oceanography research and educational facility maintained by the Universioty of Washinton. Each year, school clubs such as The Aquanauts at Sandy High School are invited to spend a weekend at the labs.

The Aquanauts, under the leadership of Sandy High science teacher Andy Wex, spent a large portion of their trip at a camp site near Lime Kiln state park.

Lime Kiln is widely known for whale watching, Wex said. “In fact, every June a choir goes out there to welcome the whales back to the San Juans,” he said.

When the Aquanauts weren’t kayaking to whale sites or chartering whale watching cruises, they were exploring the labs. At night, they enjoyed their campsite and had some surprises there as well.

“What really surprised me was that about 200 feet from where we tented, there was a big pod of 25 orcas right there off the cliff,” said Aquanaut Logan McClain, a junior.

“What surprised me was the lack of showers,” remarked fellow Aquanaut Tucker Idler, also a junior. His novice comment sparked a ribbing from the group.

“Tucker, this was your first time camping?” Wex asked. “No wonder you brought that huge air mattress.”

Both Idler and McClain said they signed up for the class because it looked interesting, and when they speak about their trip (beyond the griping about camp site accommodations), it is clear their assumption was correct.

“There was one orca in that pod that was supposedly 102 years old,” McClain said. “I guess they measured it back in 1933 and marked it, and it was pretty much an adult when they found it.”

“There were also a few baby orcas that had a yellow shade to them,” said Idler.

The Aquanauts’ wonder moved beyond the whales. They made a 6-mile kayaking trip on the ocean. Learning that distance surprised Idler, maybe even more than the lack of showers did.

“Six miles, really?” he exclaimed.

“We saw one harbor seal,” McClain said.

“Correction, I saw four harbor seals,” Wex retorted.

“I accidentally caught a sucker fish,” said Idler. “There was a big wave, and he ended up on my kayak.”

While students like Idler and McClain recount their experience from the perspective of young adventurers, others in the group find different things to value. Wex said in the five years he’s made the trip, he’s managed to inspire many kids to go into oceanography.

“I would say every year I produce a half dozen kids who are interested exclusively in marine sciences and oceanography,” he said. “They see the research that’s being done at Friday Harbor Labs, and they see the potential for work in that realm. In fact, I had a graduate come back and give a presentation on her work on coral reef study in the Caribbean through OSU.”

Junior Tenikqua Nacoste is new to the Aquanauts. She said her experience on the San Juans trip gave her a sort of epiphany about her future.

“I decided that I’m not going to teach small children anymore,” she said. “On this trip, I got to touch stuff. I got urchin hugs. They’ll wrap themselves around you. It’s really amazing.”

Nacoste said she was most surprised by the vivid experience she had in seeing the whales.

“I thought I would be on the boat and I would be like, ‘hmm, whales,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, whales!’ But I liked the whales in San Francisco better, because orcas are jerks.”

Her comment, referencing a previous Aquanauts adventure and directed at the predatory nature of orcas, is met with amused correction from Wex.

“Orcas are like the us of the sea,” he said. “Their brain size in proportion to their body size makes them as intelligent as and closer to us as mammals than anything else.”

Another Aquanaut, junior Tim Blank, agreed with Wex that orcas are not necessarily “jerks,” and described the trip as a valuable one.

“I actually learned a lot, which is one of things that I like doing,” he said. “I want to learn as much as I can about the ocean, just in case it’s a field I want to go into.”

Blank said he most enjoyed learning about the two types of orca whales.

“The transient ones have a range from pole to equator,” he said, “and they will eat anything and everything. Then there are the resident ones that stay in one location their whole lives and eat a selective diet.”

Wex explained the division of orca types in terms of evolutionary theory.

“Supposedly there were pods that were in the same life path, and there was an event that made some pods more like wolf packs,” he said.

While he likes talking evolutionary whale theory with his teacher, Blank also found time to enjoy another part of the trip.

“I learned how to kayak, which was fun,” he said. “It was really wet and my back hurt, but it was fun.”