The first time I saw a whale

The first time I saw a whale on the Oregon Coast was last summer while taking the marine mammals class offered at HMSC.  It’s only a month long class but we had field trips every week and many of those trips were just to look for whales migrating along the coastline.  Gray whales are particularly awesome because when making their summer migration they are nearly always visible from land.  We had been seeing whales for a couple of weeks pretty far offshore but the whale sighting I remember most was about halfway through the class.  We were up at Boiler Bay standing above the cliffs just to the south of the parking lot.  It was pretty foggy when we got there and we weren’t really expecting to see anything because of the weather. Out of nowhere a whale surfaced just off the cliffs below us closer than any whale e had seen before.  We immediately jumped the fence to get to the lower section of cliffs hoping to get a super close up of the whale.  The next time the whale surfaced it was literally 10 feet off the cliffs and about 20-30 feet below us.  I could see into its eye.  I had to consciously make an effort not to piss my pants.

In a related event almost exactly a year after my unforgettable experience…

The little boy at the visitor center last week didn’t hold back his excitement when he saw his first whale.  He and his family walked in about 5 minutes before closing even after our words of discouragement.  Generally we will tell people that walk in near closing that there isn’t enough time to see anything so its best to come back in the morning.  The little boy and his family didn’t seem too interested in letting 5 minutes of their lives go to waste.  This kiddo walked straight to the display case of miniature carved whales, stared at them, and presumably in an expression of utter disbelief, excitement, and enlightenment peed himself.  I can hardly blame him. I felt the same way when I first saw a whale up close.  I am sure this experience will be forever engrained in his memory (or at least the memory of his extremely embarrassed parents). I would venture to say after my experience and the experience of this child that every person nearly pees him or herself when seeing a whale for the first time.


Yesterday was the most chaotic day at the VC while I’ve been interning here.  Chaotic days are definitely more fun than a non-chaotic day.  Here’s how it goes.  First off, no coffee.  This is nearly always a good start to a chaotic day.  Coffee is definitely a must each morning and as it was the weekend there was no coffee in the dining area yesterday.  This is something I expect on the weekends but the rest of the day was very very unique.  Both my supervisors, Becca and McKenzie, were absent yesterday.  It’s the first time both of them have been gone at the same time and this is problematic because they are the first line of defense when something goes awry.  So when things went bad, as they did, there weren’t really many people to go to.

In the morning Athena was heading up an invertebrates class for high school students and she was the only one around so she was stressed out.  Athena out.  Just a few minutes later another huge unannounced group of university students came in to have a vet lecture with Dr. Tim and Kristen.  Dr. Tim and Kristen out.  Next another unannounced group of vice presidents and administors from China came expecting a tour from Shawn Rowe.  “Okay lets get Shawne.”  No Shawn for 15 but he eventually showed.  Phew hopefully nothing else too crazy happens. Nope next there’s a leaky shrimp tank that is spilling water all over the floor.  Becca and McKenzie are gone, Kristen is in a class, so we got Tim to help us mop up.  Next the last unannounced group shows up.  This was a group of OSU students taking a Physical Oceanography course.  Apparently they were expecting a tour of the facilities but nobody had any idea what they were talking about.  So I ended up canceling the estuary tour at 11 and brought the group all over Hatfield and talked about research, student involvement, and then the estuary.

To make things more chaotic the only certified octopus feeder at Hatfield yesterday was Athena and she was doing her inverts class.  The show must go on so she came out and rocked the octopus feeding.  Our only volunteer in the morning disappeared for awhile and then two guys with firearms on their sides came in to end the day.  Kind of stressful but definitely kept me on my toes.  The day went by more quickly than any other of the summer.

Help me out…be curious

Good estuary tours

As mentioned in previous blog posts, one of the main jobs for the interns at the Visitor Center is giving estuary tours to the public at 11am.  Diana, Nick, Julie, and I trade off giving these tours depending on who wants to do it on a particular day.  It’s not uncommon for one of us to give tours multiple days in a row when the other person is doing the Ocean Quest presentation for that day.   In general, I prefer to do the Ocean Quest presentation because it is very structured and straightforward.   There are very few surprises during the presentation. On the other hand the estuary tours are very unstructured and vary in topic from day to day.  This has its ups and downs and can make them pretty challenging.  In this blog post I am going to outline what a good estuary tour is like.

To start out with, I’ve found the number of people on the tour doesn’t really matter too much.  The level of engagement of the group is what really defines a good estuary tour.  I think this can be said of many things in life (I’m sure any teacher/professor could say the same thing).  I have just come to realization because of these estuary tours.  So step one, get an engaged group.  I usually take my tour through the doors leading to the education wing where I can then introduce myself outside the hustle and bustle of the Visitor Center.  I then usually head to the tank farm outside where I can give some interesting facts about HMSC such as the number of scientists working, the number of federal and state organization, etc.  Today was particularly cool because Dr. John Chapman, HMSCs Invasive Species Specialist, was at the tank farm.  He gave the tour a very cool rundown of what the current situation is with the Japanese dock that washed ashore earlier this year.  Nothing quite gets a group jazzed like a world-class researcher giving you a rundown on what’s going on in the biology world.

I then usually head past the US Fish and Wildlife building to the estuary trail and head to the mudflats.  I like to stop at the transition between the highlands and the salt marsh to explain how some plants have adapted to a salty environment.  There is a very distinct visible line where shrubs and trees stop growing and salty plants begin to grow.  I really like looking at this line and then heading down to eat some of the salt-adapted plants.  I try to get everyone to eat pickleweed which just tastes like salt.  After that little adventure we make our way down to the mudflat where we suck out some shrimp with a slurp-gun.  Nobody enjoys sucking shrimp out more than the kids.  They could do this for hours (I have actually had a family do this for an entire hour).  If the crowd looks up to it I head to the part of the estuary trail that has eroded and explain the different forces at work that cause erosion on an estuary and explain different techniques to mitigate erosion.

Lastly I’ll head to the water storage tank and to the saltwater stream and explain how the tank has more water in it than an Olympic sized swimming pool and the saltwater stream is unique because it’s a saltwater stream.  Then we’ll head back and call it a tour.

As I mentioned earlier what really makes a tour successful in my eyes is when the group is interested and engaged.  The more questions the better.  Everyday I hope that my group will be excited to learn about this stuff because it makes the tour way more enjoyable for me.


A little R&R

The last week for me has had very little to do with work and more to do with play.  I was very lucky to have nearly a whole week off from working at the Visitor Center to go to a family reunion at Prineville Reservoir in Eastern Oregon. Prineville Reservoir is about 30-40 minutes outside of Bend and is formed by a dam on the Deschutes River. It is definitely a gem of a place to spend a whole week of summer.   The high desert of Oregon in summer is hot.  90+ degrees hot with absolutely no moisture in the air.  Compare this to the balmy high of Newport around 60-65 and you might get an idea of how much of a shift in climate this was for me.  But it was one that was pretty easy to get use to after a day acclimating to my new abode next to the reservoir.  All the kids ended up camping in tents while the parents stayed nice and cool in their air conditioned campers.  The water level depends on the time of year and the previous winters snow pack and this year the water was pretty high which was good for us.

A day at Prineville usually goes about like this:

Wake up around 9:30.

Read/wait for people to get back from the morning water ski run

Eat a huge breakfast around 10:30

Go wakeboarding/wake surfing

Read and eat a small lunch

Go wakeboarding/ wake surfing


Eat a delicious dinner


Sleep around 10:30



Because the water level was pretty high the ski boats weren’t too far of a walk (previous years the water level is so low that it is a bit of a trek to get down to the water). I had never gone wake boarding or wake surfing before and both those were a blast.  Unfortunately I wasnt quite in “Prineville shape” and the first day I really tweaked a muscle in my arm which rendered my right arm pretty useless for the rest of the week.  Besides that little mishap everything else about the week was awesome.  I had a blast and am rested and ready for the rest of the summer at the VC.

Dialing it in

Among the myriad duties we have at the Visitor Center, the one giving us the most trouble has definitely been Ocean Quest.  Ocean Quest is our 30 minute presentation about underwater volcanoes off the Oregon Coast given to the public every day at 1:30.  Our mentor Bill gave us a “first draft” of the presentation the first week we were working but we werent expected to present until a few weeks ago when we were more comfortable with the material.  At this point we are all pretty comfortable with the material but the challenge has been relating it to an audience of kids, adults, and grandparents.  Our latest move was to cut about 10 slides out of the show that contained material a little too abstract for everyone to understand.  The newer version still goes around 30 minutes and we are able to spend a little more time explaining tricky slides.  Last week I did quite a few of the Ocean Quest presentations and I feel as if I dialed it down a bit more and found ways to make it a little more interesting and relatable.

Let me tell you a bit about presenting

WEEK 3 and the VC is running about as smoothly as it possible could considering we are implementing a state of the art wave tank for the public.  Much of the week was spent brainstorming ways to create an erosion exhibit friendly to both children, adults, and grandparents.  The idea is that the public will create their own erodible beach and see how different structures on the beach are affected by waves.  We are playing around with miniature jetties, trees, dynamic revetment, etc.  It’s all pretty fun and nearly all of Tuesday was spent playing with sand and Legos.  Not to shabby of a day if you ask me.

Our new octopus, Aurora, was moved from the back to the front tank on Sunday.  Pearl was released because she laid a couple thousand eggs.  Normally octopuses stop feeding after the lay eggs but that wasn’t the case with Pearl.  The aquarist and the vet decided because she kept feeding she would still be a reproductively viable female in the wild.  Aurora spent much of Sunday exploring the much larger tank in the VC.  It was really fun to the curiosity get the best of her.  She was playing around with the anemones and quickly found out they sting.  Today the aquarist turned off the lights above the tank and put a shade on one side of the tank to give her a break from the public and allow her to acclimate to the environment.

The most interesting part of work right now is Ocean Quest, our 30 minute presentation on deep sea volcanism off the Oregon Coast.  The powerpoint has been a work in progress…first we have to learn about this stuff, then present it, and finally reevaluate to see what parts of effective and which are not.  We worked out a lot of the kinks with the initial powerpoint and now have one that is more relatable to people of all ages.  The most valuable lesson learned this week: know your presentation before you give it.

Crab Butter

The beginning of anything new and exciting always seems to end up in a blur and last week at the Visitor Center was no exception.  What has struck me most since starting my internship is how much work goes on behind the scenes to make the doors open every day at 10am.  When I show up around 9:30 to turn on all the lights, the ball has already been rolling for a few hours for the aquarists.  Their job is to make sure all the tanks in the Visitor Center as well as in back are working properly.  Recently they have had issues with herring dying over night for some unknown reason.  I was able to work an aquarist and fish out the dead herring from an 8ft tank just before visitors started arriving.  It doesn’t sound like much but when you couple that with leaking shrimp displays, overflowing touch tanks, and whatever else the morning brings, it can be quite the adventure.  Troubleshooting these issues everyday really keeps the doors open to the public.

Last week was also a lot of firsts for me and the most interesting was definitely the estuary tour.  We (the VC interns) give estuary tours at 11am every day to whoever wants to go.  My first tour had an elderly husband and wife as well as a mother with her two kids.  It was pretty fun trying to juggle the interests of the kids and adults.  I ended up using the “slurp gun” to dig out some shrimp from the estuary to keep the kids fascinated and then explained more about how HMSC functions to the adults.  Overall it went really well and I think everyone had a pretty good time.

Lastly, the most interesting thing I found out this week wasn’t at the Visitor Center but actually up at Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Manzanita.  After catching and boiling a crab, I had the privilege of eating the heart of the crab as well as the crab butter.  The butter was comprised of all the liquified crab fat.  When the crab is done boiling, you flip is over, open the carapace, and voila you have crab butter.  It goes on anything!


Wait, it rains here?

Another Hatfield adventure began for me last Monday, this time as an Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholar.  I am working at the HMSC visitor center under the mentorship of Bill Hanshumaker, a marine education specialist whose passion is free choice learning.  I forgot to post on the blog last night (oops) but now I have the unique opportunity among the other interns at the visitor center to talk about the first day of actual work on the floor.

Among the eclectic duties as a visitor center intern, by far my favorite today was showing kids the touch tank.  Some were pretty frightened of touching the urchins and the anemones and others didn’t even blink an eye and just went for it.  It was very entertaining to watch.  Last spring I took a series of classes out at HMSC all about marine biology so I thought I had pretty good grasp of the touch tanks.  I learned very quickly that people know how to ask difficult questions that my classes did not prepare me for.  All the better…I like being kept on my toes.

I am looking forward to giving estuary walks and presenting on deep sea volcanic activity in the upcoming weeks, as well as anything else that I can do to help out around HMSC.