Earthwatch Expedition 2015…

This is Heather speaking.

While the adult peregrines were busy teaching their juveniles their life skills, I went off on a tangent to explore something I’d like to share with you… All photos are mine.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Common Dolphin          Photo by Heather O’Connor

Since I moved to California in 2011, I always wanted to learn more about whales and to volunteer again for Earthwatch.  Searching the website, I found a project that would be perfect. “Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun”

On Summer Solstice, June 21st, I was taking the AMTRAK “Pacific Surfliner” train south along the coastline. It arrived in San Juan Capistrano and I taxied to meet Warren Stortroen, a well known Earthwatch volunteer,  and then we headed  to the  project headquarters at Dana Point. I’d be on Team 1 with five other volunteers.

The first night, the Principal Investigator, Dr. Lei Lani Stelle of the University of Redlands, introduced us to the details of the project telling us how important a long range study was. We would be collecting base line data.  Collisions between whales and boats have been steadily on the rise due to more activity in commercial marine shipping and travel and increased numbers of people on pleasure and fishing crafts. Disturbances have been shown to alter the activities of traveling and foraging whales and dolphins. Even stand-up paddle boards and kayaks could be included for disturbing the normal behavior of marine mammals. You know how you feel when interrupted continuously! It cannot be good for their survival, in my opinion, which seems to match other people’s ideas.

The PI, college grad students and Team 1 were ready to get going! After we made our own breakfasts, packed lunch, days were spent taking GPS locations and time of all whales, dolphins, ships, ferries, fishing and pleasure boats, kayaks and paddle boarders.

Heading out to sea at the harbor entrance, there were buoys with the familiar reclining Sea Lions.

Seal lions reclining on the Dana Point buoy

Navigation buoy at Dana Point                 Photo by Heather O’Connor

I took my newly purchased 70D Canon camera with the 100-400mm lens. Great fun “rocking and rolling” and shooting the most wonderful dolphins and whales from the boats that we used!

Observations and photography were made from hired boats and some from onshore.

 Photo by Heather O'Connor

Leaping dolphin

Long-beaked and Short-beaked Common Dolphins in great numbers leapt and frolicked. Shane Keena, husband to the PI and a very fine photographer, could identify the difference between the two easily!  He gave me some highly appreciated photography tips, too.

They and Bottlenose Dolphins were seen miles off Dana Point. Hours were spent on our various duties of data collection which we alternated amongst us.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Distinctive markings on the Risso’s Dolphin

The shape of the whale and dolphin dorsal fins can be used to identify individuals. Notches and unusual shapes are noted. Photos of them are very valuable. Three graduate and college students taught us all our duties when the PI was busy. They’d been working on this project out of their own personal fascination and chosen course of study.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Team 1 observers and Lei Lani

After a ferry to Avalon on Catalina Island, we took a smaller hired boat to collect data on the Risso’s Dolphins, which was a new species for me! It had a blunt forehead and becomes white with age due to scarring. I understand they are a very scrappy dolphin, often attacking each other.

Close inshore we passed a rocky beach with numerous Sea Lions and a Harbor Seal. Later in the day, we spent a few hours exploring Avalon on our own before returning to the Dana Point Ferry.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Sea Lions on Catalina Island

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Sea Lion snagged with fish hook and lure on Navigation buoy

We passed another navigation buoy with Sea Lions and one unfortunately snagged with fishing gear.

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Fishing lure wound on Sea Lion …   Something that shouldn’t happen

One afternoon, my wish came true. I’d seen Blue Whales in books and knew they were the largest whale out there, so there it was!

Photo by Heather O'Connor

Whale watching boat aiming  to get a bit too close to the Blue Whale, in my opinion

It blew, it spouted, it rose to the surface and showed its immensely long body to us. Its dorsal fin is set far back on its body, so I saw lots of back before the tiny dorsal fin showed itself. And then the fluke was flipped up, so as to show off or say “Hello.”  I guess just normal whale behavior.  So satisfying !

Evenings were spent helping with dinner and cleaning up, then going over the data that we had collected.

Some afternoons were spent at the condominium, inputting data into the computer to produce a fascinating report of all we had seen. A visual report making sense of the numbers. A map of the transects that we worked !

Dana Point, CA

The data goes here… GPS points, species, weather, etc.

This research produces a real life demonstration of the interaction between people and marine mammals.

This was my 11th Earthwatch Expedition as a volunteer to collect much needed data for the sake of science and the Earth. I couldn’t have spent my time doing anything better than this!

Photos by Heather O'Connor

Warren Stortroen, his 88th Earthwatch Expedition

Warren, who I mentioned earlier, was on his 88th expedition! So glad to have met him.  Ever since he retired in 1996, he’s made it his priority to continually contribute his volunteer energy to Earthwatch.  An admirable effort, I’d say!

Curious about the oceans,


Common Dolphin    Photo by Heather O'Connor

Long-beaked Common Dolphin                    Photo by Heather O’Connor


About Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch

The Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch is here to inform birders, students and all people who are eager to know about these handsome peregrines. We want you to enjoy and be able to use our on-site powerful spotting scopes. We are available to answer your questions about the pair of falcons that have been observed for many years.
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6 Responses to Earthwatch Expedition 2015…

  1. Teddy llovet says:

    Very cool pix and report of your experience, Heather. An ocean and marine life high!

    • Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch says:

      Thanks, Teddy. It was such a natural high, as you say! Would like to do it again. ~Heather

  2. dale mcvay says:

    great photos Heather!
    the new camera and lens are fabulous!

  3. SallyK says:

    What a wonderful opportunity and great pix.

    • Pacific Coast Peregrine Watch says:

      Thanks, Sally. I’ve always enjoyed working on Earthwatch Expeditions. They offer opportunities that tourists never seem to encounter. I meet people, go places and learn so much in a totally different way. ~Heather

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