Eba the Whale Dog is ready for her close-up. Again.
The latest starring role for the San Juan Islands canine comes in the second episode of the three-part PBS series “The Age of Nature” after previous appearances in the series premiere of Disney+’s “It’s a Dog’s Life” and Episode 2 of Netflix’s “Connected.”
Does Eba leap over orcas “Free Willy”-style? Swim alongside the killer whales? Alas, it’s nothing that dramatic — but she does contribute to scientific research. Eba has been trained to smell whale feces, leading researchers to the excrement that’s used to noninvasively analyze a whale’s health.
Eba belongs to Deborah Giles, a killer whale research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. In 2019, Giles had Eba trained as part of the Conservation Canines project. Founded in 1997 by the research center’s director, Samuel Wasser, the program trains dogs to locate wildlife feces from which researchers can extract a variety of genetic, physiological, toxicological and dietary indicators.
Eba, a mutt who’s thought to be a mix of pit bull and corgi or Jack Russell terrier, was trained on land over five days in June 2019 using whale fecal samples that had been frozen for preservation and then thawed for Eba’s training.
Here’s how it works. On the water once whales have passed by, Eba’s boat is positioned downwind of where researchers expect to find fecal matter. Researchers on the boat watch Eba’s reactions and pilot in the direction she’s sniffing.
“Her body gets stiff at first, like, ‘Oh, I smell it,’ then she starts sniffing up in the air,” Giles says. “As soon as we hit the center of the scent cone, she’ll start whining and whimpering, and as soon as we pass through it, she’ll run along the side of the boat, and that’s what tells me where we need [the boat’s driver] to turn into the wind and drive toward the sample.”
Eba’s reward once the specimens are collected: playtime with her favorite toy.
This approach avoids the invasiveness of a blubber biopsy and generally allows researchers to stay further away from the whales.
While the “It’s a Dog’s Life” episode is more about Eba, Episode 2 of PBS’s “Age of Nature,” airing at 10 p.m. Oct. 21 on KCTS-TV, includes Eba’s work in a story about the interconnectedness of the natural world and the impact that building dams on the Elwha River had on the whales’ feeding supply of chinook salmon. “Age of Nature” shows how the 2014 removal of those dams, as explained in interviews with a tribal representative, fish scientist and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, benefited the local forest and the endangered orca population.
“There’s every reason to believe the whales are taking advantage of those fish that are recolonizing that habitat they were formerly extirpated from,” Giles says. “Every single action we can take that benefits the whales helps. There’s not one thing that can be done to fix this problem. It needs to be multiples of correction if we’re serious about saving this population of animals. Taking down the dams was a great first step.”
Giles has seen her “Age of Nature” episode, taped in 2019 on the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, where she lives, and praised the high production values.
“It was beautifully shot and the story was calmly told,” Giles says. “It laid out the situation in a very professional, respectful manner. The feel of it was somber but it was also hopeful and I really liked that.”
As Eba’s fame continues to grow, Giles says her dog gets recognized often when out and about.
“I just passed by somebody who said, ‘I recognized Eba before I recognized you,’” Giles says. “We have people stop us on the dock and say, ‘Is that Eba? We recognize her from [this or that].’”
“I got chastised by a buddy in California who said, ‘You should be posting every day, several times a day,’” Giles says, chuckling. “I really should be. Eba’s adorable even if she’s not on the front of the boat.”
“The Age of Nature” airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, on Seattle-area PBS affiliate KCTS-TV.