A summer research adventure tracking whales… and their scat

November 12, 2013

To most people, collecting whale poop might not seem all that appealing. One Nelson Institute student, however, had the experience of a lifetime doing just that.

Makie Matsumoto-Hervol, a senior double majoring in geography and environmental studies, held a summer internship helping with research on endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Her job: collect samples of their scat.

Makie found the internship through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program of the National Science Foundation. She submitted an application with the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at the University of Washington. Close to her hometown of Redmond, Makie was delighted to be selected and receive her assignment. 

"I had just started developing interest in field and lab work," says Makie, "so it was a perfect opportunity for me as an introduction to the sciences."

During the first six weeks of the summer, Makie collected whale scat around San Juan Island. She and other members of the research team traveled the Salish Sea in a small motorboat, accompanied by a conservation canine (a specially trained detection dog). When the dog detected scat, the team maneuvered the boat toward the whale waste and scooped it out of the water.

"There is still so much
I'd like to do. I just want
to try all of the interesting
experiences that come to me."

Whether or not the team ventured onto the water depended on the weather and if whales were spotted. Historically, the whales could be seen almost every day during this period in the summer, but during Makie's six weeks on the island the whales were only spotted on 16 days. This decline has worried many marine biologists and emphasized the importance of the team’s research.

Southern Resident Killer Whales are believed to be endangered due to dwindling Chinook salmon populations, toxins in the water and stress from boat traffic. Studies of the whale scat will help determine the interplay between these factors. 

Before her first trip to sea, Makie did a test run scooping faux poop – made of eggs and cereal to mimic the consistency of whale scat. Then she hit the waters for the real deal. It was on her first journey on the boat when Makie quickly learned the high stakes of field work.

"You have to make many judgment calls, but you also have to be quick," she says. "You need a certain amount of skill because there is all this time, effort and money being put into collecting the samples. I learned that the space you take up on the boat has to be useful."

Makie spent the last two weeks of summer back in the lab in Seattle analyzing the samples collected. Although she was no longer under the pressure to correctly scoop the scat out of the water, Makie felt new pressure in the lab to carefully handle the samples.

All of the research team's efforts collecting scat resulted in only a few grams of samples for analysis. And the powdered poop Makie worked with in the lab could easily be blown away with a sneeze or breeze, so intense concentration and caution were required.

With such attention to detail, however, the unpleasantries of the research samples also became more apparent.

"In the field, you're so in the moment of getting it, but in the lab you're looking at it, smelling it and touching it," tells Makie. 

While Makie says she has grown to appreciate the whale species, she also loves birds and is currently working in the lab of UW-Madison ornithologist Mark Berres under graduate student Andy Cassini. After graduation, Makie wants to keep her opportunities open.

"There is still so much I'd like to do. I just want to try all of the interesting experiences that come to me."

Learn more about Makie's summer experience in her first-person report.

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Elise Bayer is a junior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.