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Handler Liz Seely and canine Tucker survey the water around the San Juan Islands to purloin killer whale feces from the sea.

Tucker is a very good boy. Oh yes he is. His fine-tuned snout has sniffed out even the most elusive of orca feces floating atop the Salish Sea, some as far as a nautical mile away. All in the name of science. 

One of the many scat detection dogs in the Conservation Canine program at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, Tucker retired this year as the number-one dog for locating killer whale number twos. During his tenure the 13-year-old black Lab mix—with a fear of the water!—helped find a majority of the 348 fecal samples analyzed for a research endeavor that may determine the fate of the region’s orcas.

A lot of whales are getting pregnant, but they are losing a large portion of their pregnancies,” says Dr. Sam Wasser, a UW professor of biology and the lead author of a recent study on the whales’ predicament. “They don’t have enough food.” Like you and other Pacific Northwesterners, southern resident killer whales primarily feast on Chinook salmon. And those whales are finding precious little.

The proof is in the poop.

See, between 2008 and 2014, UW and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers were up to a different sort of whale watching—whale scat watching. “Every scat is a kind of miracle,” explains Jennifer Hartman, who works at Conservation Canines. She’s seen Tucker—aquaphobic Tucker—in action, leaning over the bow of the boat and into the fishy scent trail emanating off a gooey, snotty, and occasionally pancake-batter-esque orca waste. (The descriptor “egg drop soup” gets used quite a bit.) 

Turd tracking is tough; sometimes seafaring stool sinks within minutes, sometimes the smell is gone with the wind. But scoop one from the sea, and that gelatinous treasure is data gold. These nuggets of information help researchers tell a clearer story about the goings-on of our local orca population. 

Now that Tucker has aged out of his dooty duty, a cattle dog named Jack is taking his place, says Wasser. The only problem: With overfished salmon and thus fewer whale sightings, there’s not much crap for Jack to do…or whiff.

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