Thursday, June 25, 2009

Off the Olympic Coast with NOAA

Along the Olympic Coast of Northwest Washington State, NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) and the ground presence of the National Park Service are inexorably connected. NOAA administers the 3,310 square mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary but has a minimal presence on the beaches where the National Park Service has multiple back and front country rangers on duty along the 73 miles of wilderness coast between the Quinault and Makah Nations. Park Service personnel are trained to respond to sea mammal standings as well as other reporting and education procedures.

NOAA's science craft Tatoosh often plays host to scientists and wildlife survey teams. It played host to eight coastal Park Rangers and educators for a few hours in late June.

It is this relationship that is the impetus behind NOAA hosting a group of Park Rangers for an off-shore tour this last week. The rangers and one local teacher met at NOAA’s science boat Tatoosh that is based out of La Push, Washington.

The tour began on the south side of James Island through the narrow mouth of the Quillayute River into the open ocean were conditions were akin to a lake. The only complaint was that there was an abundance of high thin clutter clouds that amounted to a slightly less than powder blue-sky day. As we rounded James Island and headed north, Mt. Olympus towered over the Olympic Peninsula towards the southeast.

Cake Island is just a few miles off shore from famous Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park.

First stop on our excursion was Cake Island which serves as a major rookery for a number of seabirds. Chief among them are Puffins and Common Murre, but also include Cormorants and Western Gulls. As we arrived, a Bald Eagle was raiding the colony and chaos was the rule of the moment. While the island is set aside as a place for the birds to call their own, peace and quiet was not to be had as the gulls raided and the Murres took flight, momentarily leaving their eggs behind and in peril.

Murres and Puffins among other species litter the water around Cake Island.

Common Murre


Next was a pair of islands to the north aptly called Sea Lion Rock and then Carroll Island. Sea Lion Rock is a low lying, surf beaten stone that has a high point just 50-75 feet above the sea and is the reign of sea lions. A few hundred yards to the north at Carroll Island, Sea Lions and bird life were abundant on the low lying shores that led to the steep cliffs several hundred feet above. In three locations, the ocean cut large caves including one that chopped through the entire island from west to east. From within the caves came the unmistakable social communication of California and Stellar Sea Lions.

Two California Sea Lions greeted us as we approached Sea Lion Rock.

Carroll Island has several caves where Sea Lions find solitude from the pounding surf of the Northern Pacific.

At one point during the tour, our captain shut off the boat’s motor on the northern side of the island and allowed the craft to drift silently first east and then south as we silently listened to and watched the private dramas that were taking place on shore.

Cormorants dominante the landscape adjacent to Carroll Island.

The northwest side of Carroll Island had this population of Stellar and California Sea Lions. The island is used generally as a retreat for males after the breeding season, but on this day, females and pups were also spotted and stirred a scientific inquiry thaty may have to be updated.

The tour was derailed as we began to head north for potentially 30 minutes take a close look at Ozette Island off the western most point of Washington State near Cape Alava. In transit, our captain came over the speaker and said that a whale had been sighted. Sure enough, a Humpback was fishing a current and the boat captain began playing a game of hide and seek with the massive fisher. Based on experience and guesswork, our guide would move the boat to a spot where the whale would probably surface and then turn off the engine.

The tail of a Humpback whale is usually a signal that the whale is going into a dive that will last for five to seven minutes. Wait patiently, he will most likely return to the surface is the same general area.

Time after time, this strategy was rewarded with the preceding “blow” and then surfacing of the whale. While we never witnessed a full breech (the whale jumping completely out of the water), the estimated 55 foot whale consistently provided us with many sightings.

The most we saw of a humpback whale that we kept company off of the Olympic Coast on a Tuesday in late June.

After the trip, I thought about my limited role as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service and how it relates to NOAA and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. I now have more of an affliction to the wildlife that lies just off the beaches where I educate visitors and patrol on a daily basis. The partnership is now in sharp focus.

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