Impact Series

Whale consultants launch free, digital marine biology camp to entertain and inform youngsters

Oceans Initiative marine biologists Erin Ashe and Rob Williams with their daughter Clara and their dog aboard their research vessel. (Oceans Initiative Photo)

The scientists running Seattle-based Oceans Initiative more typically apply their marine mammal expertise to research on endangered orcas or conservation of white-sided dolphins in Washington’s Puget Sound.

But the upside-down world of the new coronavirus and the closure of their nearly 6-year-old daughter’s school inspired them this week to launch what they’ve dubbed their Virtual Marine Biology Camp.

Tune In: Oceans Initiative’s virtual marine biology camp streams Monday and Thursday at 11 a.m. PST

“We thought maybe it would be fun for a group of us to be able to hang out online and talk about whales and dolphins and other marine life,” said Erin Ashe, executive director and scientist with the nonprofit institute.

Absent skilled tech support or a communications team, Ashe and her husband Rob Williams, who is chief scientist with the organization, used the tools they had available. They’re live streaming their camp on Facebook and Instagram, responding to questions sent in ahead of time and during the session.

They expected a half dozen kids to tune in.

Oceans Initiative’s Williams and Ashe. (Oceans Initiative Photo)

Instead, some 1,500 viewers nationally participated in their initial session on Monday.

“Since we’re all stuck in our homes and isolating, this is a way to bring each other together,” Williams said.

The PhD-holding whale scientists readily acknowledge that they’re not professional educators or media producers, but are thrilled with the chance to share information about the Northwest’s rich marine ecosystem and help kids feel more connected to the environment, wherever they live.

“Our community has really stepped up and actual teachers are sending us tips,” said Williams, and others are giving pointers about how to set up their cameras to better effect. “People are helping us fill this void while kids are stuck at home.”

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With their initial success, Ashe and Williams are hoping to host the camp every Monday and Thursday at 11 a.m. PST to help families occupy some time while kids are out of school due to the coronavirus.

Upcoming broadcasts include a conversation with an Oceans Initiative scientist who’s studying orca poop to see if it contains parasites that could sicken the region’s struggling orcas. They’ve scheduled a shark expert to join them next week. They’re planning to talk to a wildlife photographer colleague who uses images to find unique, identifying features on marine life in order to count and track individuals. The scientists want to help kids think about how they could apply that tool to photographing their own cats and dogs.

In their normal day jobs, Ashe and Williams have done research to help inform Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force. They’ve published scientific papers examining the effects of vessel noise on orcas and their ability to hunt salmon. The nonprofit has studied the inadvertent killing or “bycatch” of local porpoises and dolphins in salmon gillnets. Farther afield, the organization helped develop a low-cost, animal counting tool kit that can be used in developing countries to tally populations.

Families shared drawings inspired by Oceans Initiative’s initial camp on Monday. (Oceans Institute Photo)

The scientists are excited to connect more broadly through the daycamp. Williams is already thinking about outfitting their research boat with a camera that could capture the action in the field.

“It would be so fun to go out looking for whales and dolphins out in the Salish Sea,” said Williams, using the name for the stretch of inland water that runs from Puget Sound up into British Columbia.

For kids and adults living anywhere, he said, “it would be fun to see in real time, this is what a day in a marine biologist’s life looks like.”

The scientists are delighted by the positive response to their camp. Through it, Ashe said she has a new appreciation for how hard it is to be an educator.

“It underscores how incredibly valuable teachers are,” she said.

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