-  Sandy High Teacher Andy Wex uses experience as whale researcher teaching oceanic sciences

Sandy High School science teacher Andy Wex gets to teach his students about marine conservation as he experiences it firsthand.

In February, Wex visited the Bahia de Petatlan, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, as part of the Whales of Guerrero Research Project. The local waters serve as the winter mating and calving grounds for a pod of what is estimated to be 25 to 50 humpback whales.

The particular pod — part of a larger group of whales that make their home on the West Coast, from British Columbia to Mexico — has never been studied. The project plans to be the first.

The five-year research project, now in its first year, plans to study the pod’s population and determine if there are whales in the area consistently. The project also hopes to help the region eventually be recognized and protected as a marine wildlife area, and help develop the local economy by educating boatmen on how to offer safe and sustainable wildlife tours.

Wex said the area has been incredibly overfished by the local village, which is as close to a hunter-gatherer society as a place could be in modern times.

“The real hope is that it will become a model for a sustainable recovery of a stressed environment that will also help locals,” Wex said.

During his seven-day trip to Mexico, Wex spent much of his time on the water. “We spend six to eight hours on the water a day,” Wex said.

He and other researchers would spend that time listening to whale songs by hydrophone and looking for the whales, mostly hoping to catch a “fluke shot,” the moment when the end of a whale’s tail breaches the water.

A whale’s fluke is like a fingerprint: each is unique. Capturing photos of the whale flukes will help researchers determine population, and if a particular whale was studied previously.

Wex also helped with outreach while there. As an educator, he gave workshops in the village to kids and anyone who would listen about the importance of whales to the ecosystem. He also helped raise awareness and raise funds among the residents who live along the beach.

But his work didn’t end with his trip home to Sandy. As the instructor of Sandy High’s oceanic science program, Wex has been teaching his students about his hands-on work.

Wex also is the adviser of Sandy’s Aquanauts, the club extension of the program.

Through his involvement in the research project, Wex has been able to provide his students with a sense of ownership in an ongoing scientific study and conservation project.

“They’re both learning and making the ocean a better place,” Wex said. He believes this reflects the Aquanauts’ — and also his own personal — motto, “conservation through education and action.”

The students are wasting no time in establishing their ownership of the project. Throughout the year, Aquanaut students have been working to raise money to adopt one of the whales. On Tuesday, April 8, Whales of Guerrero Founder and Director Katherina Audley visited SHS with photos of whales that are part of the pod to help students choose which whale they’d like to adopt.

With the adoption, Aquanauts will be listed in a whale guide as the organization that donated to its research and study. “We even get to name it,” Wex said.

Although he has yet to consult his students, Wex holds onto the hope of naming their whale Ferdinand, if it’s a male. “Like the bull,” he said.

But Sandy’s Aquanauts are not focusing their efforts on just the one pod of whales — they’ve also turned their efforts toward other whales that call the Pacific Northwest their home.

“It’s a big year for whales,” Wex said. In the past he has had students focus their conservation efforts on sharks, but this year it’s whales.

In the next couple of months, Aquanaut students hope to hold a screening of the documentary “Blackfish.” The film explores the ethics of keeping orcas, and whales in general, in captivity.

Although admission to the screening will be free, Aquanauts hope to raise money through donations for the Free Lolita Fund, an effort through the Orca Network to help the captive orca Lolita.

After being captured from her pod in the Puget Sound, Lolita has been living in captivity for more than 40 years. Lolita performs by herself at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

The students of Aquanauts believe that Lolita, as a naturally social animal, has been in captivity long enough, Wex said.

During oceanic science field trips to the San Juan Islands, students get the chance to see pods of orcas that live in the Puget Sound area.

“We know her family,” Wex said.

Aquanauts hope to bring in donations with the slogan “Bring a Pacific Northwest girl home.”

Wex and the Aquanauts are working to finalize a date for the documentary showing.

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