Coastal Job: Whale Dog
A super-sniffing canine plays a key role on a killer whale research team.
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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.
Eba, a five-year-old mutt, and her human companion Deborah Giles work for the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology in Seattle and are studying the endangered killer whales of the Salish Sea. Eba is trained to locate scat, detecting it from up to 800 meters away. The floating feces contain a wealth of information about the whales’ diet, reproductive health, and overall well-being. The researchers, led by Samuel Wasser, are currently investigating why the whales have so few calves. Eba lives on San Juan Island, Washington, with Giles, who acted as her translator for this atypical Coastal Job profile.
Most dogs would love to have my job. I work with my nose and spend hours on a boat with my human. I ride on the bow and stick my snout in the air and wiggle it like crazy. I have one thing on my mind—whale poop. Even a tiny sniff of its fishy aroma gets me riled up. My tail goes berserk. I can’t help whining. I turn to that big, beautiful smell and breathe deeply. The human driving the boat knows to follow my nose, so off we go.
The smell is here and then there. I kind of have to chase it around the boat sometimes. Giles holds my leash so I don’t chase the smell right into the water. Sometimes—poof!—it’s gone. That’s so disappointing that I’ll just sit down. But usually I can lead my teammates close enough that even their noses can finally detect it. When my human finds the poop, she scoops it into a vial.
I never thought I would have such a dream job. I didn’t even have a home at first. I was a cold, wet pup someone left on an animal shelter’s doorstep. I bounced to a foster home, to my first real home (with Giles’s sister), and finally to my forever home on the island with my most favorite human (despite her faulty nose). At first, Giles went off on the boat with other dogs. Then one day, a trainer rubbed my rope under his armpits and chucked it in some tall grass to see if I could find it. No problem! Because of that, when the researchers needed a new scat-detection dog team, my human and I got official training! At first, the trainers showed me a grayish blob in a bowl, which turned out to be killer whale poop, and then gave me a rope toy. I’d sniff the poop and then get to play. Poop, play, poop, play, poop, play. Got it! Then the trainer hid poop in the grass for me. Next, we moved to the boat and the trainer floated a bowl of poop on the water’s surface. The boat drove downwind to see if I could smell it—that’s how I learned to find a moving target. On only my second day with actual whales I found my first whale poop in the wild. My team freaked out. Out came the rope toy.
You have to be patient in this job. I can nearly be screaming, “Poop that way!!!” and my human can have trouble understanding. The sun can get pretty hot, too. Giles puts my goggles on to protect my eyes. I try not to shake them off; I’m a professional.
In the summer, we go out whenever whales are nearby, but sometimes we don’t find poop. When that happens, Giles can get a little discouraged, but not me. I know there’s more out there, and I can stand on the bow for hours. Giles puts me in my kennel when I need a break, but I can still smell from there. You might call me a workaholic. I just love my job.