ANACORTES — After years diving with dolphins in the clear waters off of Florida and the Bahamas, Cindy Elliser moved from one corner of the nation to another on a mission to get to know the lesser-known dolphin relative, the harbor porpoise.
After two years in Anacortes, where she spends hours stationed on bluffs overlooking Burrows Pass and even more sorting through images and data files, she is able to call about 35 of Puget Sound’s harbor porpoises by name.
Scanning through photos from a trip to a lookout at Washington Park, Elliser points out Bolt, known for scarring that resembles a lightning bolt, and Treasure, recognizable by spots that form an “x.”
All it takes is a good snapshot of a fin or side with unique markings to determine who’s who. But getting those shots takes persistence; the harbor porpoises are known as shy creatures.
They are reluctant to show themselves, but Elliser has committed to waiting, watching and working on getting to know those who frequent Burrows Pass and other parts of the Salish Sea.
The porpoises may not be as eager to play above the waves like their cousins in the Bahamas, or the orca whales who share the same waters, but are an important species nonetheless.
“The health of these guys, they are a good indicator of the ocean health because they are the top of the food chain,” Elliser said. “So if something’s going on with them, that’s a good indicator that there’s something else going on through the food chain.”
About a year ago, after an eight-month research job with the Pacific Biodiversity Institute, Elliser founded the nonprofit Pacific Mammal Research. She now works with a part-time staff member and an intern from Anacortes High School.
Between the three, and with contributions from a handful of citizens, the group continues to identify harbor porpoises.
Picking out individual animals helps establish baseline data, such as how often the same porpoises visit Burrows Pass and how they interact with other porpoises.
While the species is known to live along the West Coast, and its near disappearance was noted in the mid-1900s, little else is known.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published nine population estimates for the harbor porpoise along the state between 1998 and 2013, but included the disclaimer “there are no reliable data on population trends of harbor porpoise for coastal Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia waters” in each report.
“We don’t even know how long they live … (And) there’s a debate about whether they’re social or not,” Elliser said. “We don’t know anything about where they go and why they go to places. Which animals are coming there, how often and why.”
Answers to those questions will help researchers springboard into other projects, such as identifying and protecting critical habitat for the species, and spot changes in the population over time.
“Everything we know about the orcas, everything we know about most mammals comes from knowing the individuals and tracking them over time. It enables you to learn more through other avenues of research,” Elliser said.
For the record, she said harbor porpoises are more playful than people think.
“We’ve seen them doing things you never hear about harbor porpoises doing, so you just have to be out there long enough to see them doing it,” Elliser said.
Elliser started her nonprofit work with a focus on the harbor porpoises, but won’t stop there. She plans to soon start a harbor seal identification project.
“We want to learn as much as we can about the mammals here in the Salish Sea and the things they have to deal with, particularly with human impacts and climate change,” Elliser said.
The sheer number of seals in the Salish Sea presents a challenge. But Elliser said it’s just as important to learn more about this marine mammal as the porpoise.
“We don’t have a lot narrowed down as far as local populations, like where they go and if they stay,” she said. Finding out can help track whether they are affected by boat traffic or water pollution, for example.
Elliser is expecting a software program from a Conservation Research group in the United Kingdom this month. Other groups have used it to track gray seals in Scotland, she said.