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Olalla Elementary School students hear a whale of a tale
Jeff Hogan has a way with words and whales. He instructed and entertained fifth- and sixth-grade students at Olalla Elementary School with stories and research on local orca whales on Nov. 1.
Hogan is the founder and executive director at Killer Whale Tales. He spends the summers tracking and tagging orcas in order to learn more about their lifestyles and behavior.
When September rolls around, however, his real mission starts as he begins traveling from school to school, sharing his love of whales.
Hogan’s own excitement is mirrored in the roomful of students, who sit focused on the man up front. When Hogan asks the kids, “Who wants more data?” three long tables of hands shoot into the air.
Hogan said teachers have told him, “It’s like going on a field trip but we don’t have to leave or pay for the bus.”
Hogan’s two-hour presentation is divided into two parts. He begins by telling the kids where the idea came from for Killer Whale Tales, a process of inspiration that started when Hogan was no older than the kids to whom he now speaks.
Hogan grew up in Colo., far from the ocean waters orcas call home. The course of his life changed in the 1970s when he got his first up-close glimpse of killer whales at a local exhibition.
When the exhibition ended, Hogan called out to the orca handlers and asked them every question he could come up with. Not long after his visit, Hogan had the dream that would be the inspiration and basis for his presentation.
He dreamed he was an orca whale, swimming through the dark waters of Puget Sound. In his dream, his mother and her entire side of the family had also transformed into killer whales.
In his presentation, Hogan continues on with his dream sequence, detailing the nature of life as an infant killer whale in the Puget Sound from his own point of view as an Orca calf.
These whales, which seem so distant and different from us, become present and tangible as Hogan describes them. Students learn the similarities their skeletal structures share with that of a killer whale; they learn how family life for orcas relates to their own home lives; and they learn how their actions have a direct impact on the lives of their aquatic neighbors.
“Are these whales like us, or different?” Hogan asked the roomful of students, before answering his own rhetorical question. “Both,” he said.
After learning about the behavior of the Puget Sound’s orca population, all the information Hogan gathered in the summer comes into play.
Each student is given a graph, and Hogan narrates an actual dive performed by one of the whales they tagged in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. That’s the group local to the Washington area.
“I’ve taken real killer whale studies and turned them into games,” Hogan said. “The students are going to actually play with real data based on scientific studies that I was a part of over the summer.”
Hogan and the students work together to chart the dive of a local orca as it finds a fish, chases it more than 300 hundred feet below the surface and eventually catches its meal.
Orcas don’t eat plankton, as many other species of whale do. The Southern Resident killer whales hunt much larger prey, most commonly salmon, often eating 10 percent of their body weight in a single day. Since males weigh around 11,000 pounds, that daily food intake can reach more than 1,000 pounds.
Their sight is limited in the murky ocean water so orcas search for and locate their food using echolocation. Much like sonar, echolocation works by sending out noise and listening to the returning echo as it bounces off nearby objects.
“These animals are seeing using sound,” Hogan said.
SKSD school board member Chris Lemke, who worked on a submarine during his time in the Navy, attended the presentation and had similar things to say.
“Your ears are your eyes underwater,” he said.
Lemke said he qualifies as a sonar operator so he had the opportunity on the submarine to listen to a vast array of marine life.
“You can kind of identify where you are in the ocean by the marine life,” Lemke said.
Part of Hogan’s presentation involves listening to, and often imitating, orca calls. Students practiced such calls as “the cowboy,” “the drill” and “the duck with intestinal distress,” all named for noises Hogan believes they resemble.
The echolocation these mammals use to hunt and communicate is in danger of being drowned out due to noise pollution, however. According to Hogan, human action around orca habitats can have a detrimental and often devastating effect on the animals.
During one sound clip Hogan played, a ferry can be heard passing directly overhead. That noise is so loud to an orca, Hogan said, that if he were to play an equivalently loud noise for the students, it could damage their hearing for life.
The Southern Resident population is made up of three families, totaling 83 whales. According to Hogan, research indicates that there used to be at least 120 in the area, and perhaps as many as 400 at one point.
Today, the Southern Resident killer whales are in danger from a number of fronts, including chemical spillage, noise pollution and food shortage. Humans impact the habitat and lifestyle of orcas, so Hogan gave the Olalla students an assignment to take home.
“We have them examine their ecological footprint,” he said. “We ask them to look at their power consumption and their water consumption, things that students can control to kind of clean up the environment around here.”
Riley Bennett and Nolan Hubbell are fifth grade students at Olalla Elementary and both heard Hogan talk last year. The two said they each followed Hogan’s instructions over the last 12 months.
“The kids are great about it,” Hogan said. “Kids don’t ask, ‘what can we do?’ It’s like, ‘well what do we have to do?’”
This year was fifth and sixth grade teacher Tina Jordan’s fourth time hearing Hogan speak. She highlighted the special importance of Hogan’s message for the kids in this area because of the direct impact their actions have on the whales.
“It’s a pretty big issue. Adults don’t know, and they should know,” she said.
Killer Whale Tales is funded entirely by grants and donations. There is no charge to schools to have someone come talk.
“I try to bring the field to the classroom,” Hogan said.
In the 2003-04 school year, when Killer Whale Tales began visiting classrooms, they reached more than 700 students, Hogan said. Last year presentations were given at 256 classrooms in 84 different schools. In total, Killer Whale Tales has reached over 60,000 students, mostly in Washington, as well as some along the coast of Ore. and Calif.