Still more questions than answers | Guest Column

By Melissa Will

“Where are the whales?” and “When will they be here?” seem to be the questions I find myself answering every few minutes. I am an intern at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse for the summer conducting research on the killer whales or, as 90 percent of those surveyed prefer, orcas.

Besides the previously mentioned questions, what most people wonder is what kind of research are we really doing and why do we base ourselves on land.

For the past 19 summers, Dr. Bob Otis has been working at the lighthouse collecting data from the shoreline. Data that are being collected primarily focuses on whale and boat behavior but also includes daily temperatures, boat counts and tidal changes.

This year alone, J pod is averaging about two minutes between each whale and, the chance for seeing a whale from Lime Kiln Lighthouse (between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) within 100 yards has averaged about 40 percent consistently for the past eight years.

Overall, the main focus of the research is to make behavioral observations from a land base in addition to environmental observations to determine if there are any correlations that exist. In not so many words, why are the whales doing what they’re doing.

Taking into account that these resident whales are on the endangered species list, it has become critical to determine what is and what is not a factor to their survival. One of the assumptions made by most visitors to the park, including myself, was a negative impact by boating traffic on the whale’s environment. It would seem logical that the surplus of boats on the water would somehow impact their behavior or quality of life. Because the government has listed it as a possible threat to their survival, it adds to our desire to be land-based, allowing for little interference.

Dr. Otis has established a study area directly in front of the lighthouse and has been collecting boat behavior data for years. So far, no correlation has been found regarding boats in the area in relation to the behavior of the whales. However, one also needs to consider the regulations put in place by the whale watching industry, in particular their agreement to stay a half-mile off the park’s shoreline when whales are in the vicinity.

When I stated that there are no correlations between the whales’ behavior and the presence of boats, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one at all. It simply means that we have not detected one to be of statistical significance as of yet. In studies as such, time is of the essence. The longer a study is allowed to run, the more data can be collected and, therefore, evidence of long-term trends can come to light.

As lovers of science and animal behavior, we confess that after all these years of data collecting there are now more questions than answers. We still don’t know why they do what they do; all we can offer are hypotheses.

The only answer we have for sure is that there is still much research to be conducted.

— Melissa Will is a member of Ripon College’s Class of 2009. She is majoring in psychology.

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