Cascadia Research marks 30 years of world-class scientific exploration

About 150 people gathered last weekend at The Loft on Cherry Street to party and pay homage to a nonprofit wildlife research group that has grown to become a heavy hitter in the world of marine mammal science.

Thirty years ago, 10 graduates from The Evergreen State College formed the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective and parlayed their undergraduate work on harbor seals and Nisqually Delta environmental research into a full-time research gig.

From its modest, uncertain beginning, Cascadia has gained a reputation as a home to rigorous scientists not beholden to anyone, simply going where the science takes them.

Through the years, the leader of the down-to-earth Cascadia crew has been senior research biologist John Calambokidis. He, like the other Cascadia co-founders, shunned graduate work and began picking off federal and foundation research grants to study whales and contaminants, whales and underwater sound, whales and ship strikes, whales and distribution patterns, whales and feeding habits and other topics too numerous to list.

Through hard work and discipline, Calambokidis and his colleagues at Cascadia have carved out a distinguished seat at the table of international whale scientists studying blue, humpback, orca and other whale species.

Near the end of a string of stories and testimonies spanning Cascadia’s rich and quirky history, Calambokidis received a mighty compliment from Ken Balcomb, the San Juan Island-based scientist who has reached revered status in whale circles for his decades of research and advocacy work on behalf of Puget Sound killer whales.

“John’s been the man of most integrity of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” said Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. “Somewhere out in the ocean, there’s a whale with John’s name on it.”

Another telling tribute came from former Secretary of State Ralph Munro; he and his wife, Karen, became whale conservationists overnight after encountering a SeaWorld capture crew using underwater explosives, buzzing aircraft, power boats and nets to herd and entrap six orcas in Budd Inlet in February 1976.

This was at a time when it still was legal to capture orcas in the wild and sell them into captivity at zoos and aquariums, a practice that decimated the three Puget Sound orca pods.

The Munros were in their sailboat that day. They watched the violent whale capture and heard the whales inside and outside the nets, crying to one another in their little-understood language.

I was on the shoreline, a TESC student, working as a reporter for the Cooper Point Journal, and was struck deeply by those same eerie cries. Those sounds are etched in my memory and the Munros’ memories forever.

“When we went sailing and saw this accidentally, it changed our lives,” Munro said.

It turned out to be the last whale capture in the United States, the result of lawsuits and public pressure championed at the time by Munro, his boss, Gov. Dan Evans, state Attorney General Slade Gorton and others in the small whale-conservation camp.

“I guess that 10 percent of the public was with us, 10 percent was against us and 80 percent had no opinion,” Munro said. “At the time, there was no science being done on whales in the wild; it was all being done in the aquariums and zoos. The science that Cascadia and other research groups have developed in the wild has taught us 10 million times what we knew before.”

With 10 full-time employees, Cascadia has 57 active projects in 2009 and nearly 400 projects under its belt since its inception. The Cascadia researchers have published 108 studies and reports in scientific, peer-reviewed journals or books.

When a whale or whales show up in South Sound, prompting a news story, Cascadia’s number is the first I call.

Most of the group’s research work is done from three rigid-hulled inflatable boats that they navigate miles off the coasts of California, Costa Rica or British Columbia in search of whale encounters of the closest kind. Some of the boats have logged more than 50,000 nautical miles.

“It’s amazing that 30 years have come and gone,” said Barb Taylor, an early Cascadia contributor and a researcher at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif. ”Thirty years and nobody’s dead yet – that’s the best thing I can say.”

A bemused grin on his face, Cascadia co-founder Jim Cubbage watched as 600 images of Cascadia men and women at work and play crossed the screen behind the stage. There was one of a young man in his 20s with a shock of black hair and that same bemused grin.

“It feels like a birthday party or a graduation party or a retirement party – I’m not sure which,” Cubbage remarked.

Definitely not a retirement party from my vantage point. Cascadia still has plenty more to do in the name of marine mammal conservation and education.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444