by Dr. Kayla Causey

Our last and final trip of the season was with the 3rd class from Wood Canyon Elementary. We took them out aboard the Ocean Adventure right after their peers had braved the morning winds. Fortunately, the conditions had calmed down a bit, and we were still hopeful that we could find a whale(s).

We left the dock around 11:24, in 55 degree water with the tide moving out. Our Beaufort State was back to a “2” and the white caps were mellowing out along with the winds. We headed up coast, around the Dana Point headlands to see if the conditions were even better on the other side of the bluffs. On our way, we stopped by the sea lions hauled out at the navigation buoy.

We didn’t see anything up the coast above the Point, so we decided our best bet might be to head down coast, now that conditions had calmed down. We searched and searched for any indication of a gray whale, but still had no luck. We finally saw a large pod of common dolphins traveling down the coast at around 12:23 (see the waypoint on our track below). The dolphins were traveling in about 18 fathoms, and doing their “typical” bow riding and wake surfing. We couldn’t stay with them long because we needed to head back to the dock if we were to make it there by 13:00. It was about this time that I realized we probably weren’t going to find a gray whale that day. I found myself feeling disappointed that our final trip of the season was so…anticlimactic. As much as the scientist-side of me knows that it’s still important data when we document the absence of gray whales, just as much as when we document their presence, the educator in me couldn’t help but feel like we were letting the scholars down by not finding a whale.

It was about the time that I’d convinced myself this was a failed day and that I should just go kick rocks when I overheard a young scholar say, “What is this? A dream come true?!” as he was watching common dolphins bow ride right below his feet. It woke me up a little and made me realize that this was probably the closest most of these students have ever been to a marine mammal. For some of them it was the first time they’d ever been on a boat out on the water (although most students count touring The Pilgrim replica or an aircraft carrier as “being on a boat”). I also realized that what I perceive as “typical” dolphin behavior is still really exciting, especially to these young scholars. For these students, this trip was a climactic end to a STEM unit on whales that they’d been studying in their class for the past several months. All these realizations were validated yet again when the students broke out in song… yes, in song… on our return trip to the docks. I mean really, does it get any better?

As we headed in, I had a chance to reflect on some of the moments we’ve shared with Capistrano Unified students this season. The false killer whales were amazing, of course, the spy-hopping gray whales wearing kelp necklaces were certainly unique… but what really sticks out in my mind are the individual students… the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who started off the trip terrified and in tears, yet came to life once we sighted dolphins and then whales… the boys who were so proud to share their knowledge of whales with me… the individual students who took on their role as researcher with the earnestness and gusto that I would expect from the next generation of marine scientists… the 5th grade girls who said they wanted to do what I do when they grow up…  As much as this season was a huge success in terms of data collection, it was more of a success because of the interactions we had with these scholars. We are proud of the experiences we’ve been able to provide them and hope that they’ve gained an appreciation for these amazing animals and the ocean as a result.

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