Deborah Giles, research scientist for Sam Wasser's University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, was featured in the Seattle Times article "What killed hundreds of mighty gray whales? Beloved Puget Sound visitors may hold clues."
Gray whales are lumbering back into Puget Sound, and scientists have plans in store for some of them.
The mighty grays undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling from Arctic feeding grounds to calving areas in Mexico, then back north again come spring.
A small group of about a dozen whales pause along the way, sticking around in northern Puget Sound typically from March through May, though some arrive earlier, and linger longer. These whales, nicknamed “Sounders,” feed on ghost shrimp, snuffling large pits in the mud in the intertidal zone along shore.
Other researchers will be studying the Sounders this spring. John Durban, senior scientist with Southall Environmental Associates, an environmental consulting firm, and Holly Fearnbach, of the research nonprofit SR3, will survey the Sounders with a drone, to gather photos and assess their body condition. Calambokidis will do photo identification, and gather samples of their breath and skin.
Even a dog will be involved: Eba, a dog trained to sniff out the whale scat, including fish-eating southern resident orcas and krill-eating baleen whales. Deborah Giles, research scientist for the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca, will work with Eba to gather gray whale scat that will be analyzed for stress and pregnancy hormones, nutritional status and more.
Because the whales feed in the near shore, from the base of the food chain, even sucking up sediments and mud, their scat also could provide information about toxics in the environment, Giles said. “They are sucking up everything in that near-shore habitat,” she added.