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April 15, 2014 at 9:45 AM

Researcher aims to unlock secrets of harbor porpoises

By Kimberly Cauvel / Skagit Valley Herald

ANACORTES — Small, dolphin-like creatures frequent the marine waters here, but they are so shy compared to their extroverted, tropical cousins that little is known about them.

A marine biologist who spent 10 years swimming with energetic bottlenose and spotted dolphins in the Bahamas moved to the Pacific Northwest on a mission to change that.

The Pacific Biodiversity Institute’s Anacortes-based Harbor Porpoise Monitoring Network hired Cindy Elliser in January to take the five-year research project to the next level. Since it began, the project has grown to include three acoustic monitoring sites where underwater C-PODS record the porpoises’ calls off the shores of Anacortes, Cypress Island and Port Townsend.

Volunteer observers also visit Washington Park to tally how many harbor porpoises they can spot in Burrows Pass, the narrow channel between Fidalgo Island and Burrows Island.

From the acoustic and visual observations gathered so far, the network has found the animals are less common in the area between May and July. But where the bulk of the population goes is unanswered, along with many other questions.

“I think what’s really exciting is that the porpoise research here is kind of where dolphin research was 20 years ago, where we just don’t know a lot about them,” Elliser said. “And we know so much more about dolphins than we did 20, 30 years ago.”

Elliser joined the harbor porpoise project to offer her skills and expertise in identifying individual animals, which is useful in learning about where they go, whether the same animals come back and how they interact with one another.

Her work here is different than snorkeling in the clear, 80-degree water of the Bahamas.

Here, she spends a day or two a week hiking to a cliff overlooking the choppy, dark waters below. Her eyes scan the water for the glimmer of a distant fin in the sun, or the two-second roll of a back breaking the surface just long enough to “puff,” which sounds like a distant sneeze.

More than a handful of harbor porpoises danced in the afternoon sun at Burrows Pass on Monday, including at least one adult-calf pair that surfaced together.

“They don’t fly out of the water. … They are very under the radar,” Elliser explained. “They’re not very flashy on the surface, so when we see little glimpses of things it’s exciting.”

Watching for the reserved harbor porpoise is no easy task. Catching them on camera is even tougher. Yet Elliser has managed to collect enough images in less than four months to identify four individual porpoises using nicks, scars and flukes on their dorsal fins, or patterns on their sides.

She and other project members named the four Odyssey, Lightkeeper, Astrid and Nip, who appears to have injuries from a boat propeller.

Identifying the porpoises will help the network learn more about the animals’ habitat use and movement.

“It will tell us their range, and if we’re able to identify animals over successive years, it will tell us something about their residence,” Project Director Aileen Jeffries said. “The photo ID adds a very important dimension to our project.”

Astrid, for example, was identified earlier this month in both one of Elliser’s photos and a photo a volunteer snapped in 2012, suggesting the same animals may return in successive years.

The project’s ultimate goal is to learn enough about the porpoises’ habitat needs to direct conservation efforts and to raise awareness about the quiet harbor porpoise, which is overshadowed by orcas, harbor seals and active Dall porpoises.

When Elliser isn’t scanning Burrows Pass through a telephoto lens, she’s often reviewing photos in hopes of recognizing a few more fins or applying for grants and permits to further the network’s research.

“We’re starting to put our tentacles out, so to speak, but it takes a little bit,” Elliser said. “It takes a lot of manpower, a lot of manpower hours and money.”

The group is applying for permits to use boats to expand their observation range. A boat would help them figure out where the porpoises go when they traverse Burrows Pass.

Comments | More in General news | Topics: porpoises, Puget Sound

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