SAN JUAN ISLANDS, Wash. - The substance inside the vial is poop, but in the world of whale research, it's pure gold. It's flushed from the digestive system of an endangered resident orca and its chock full of information.
"We get hormones, we measure stress hormones, we measure nutritional hormones, we also measure reproductive hormones and we measure toxins," said Samuel K. Wasser, Ph.D, Conservation Biologist, University of Washington.
Hormones are now considered the most important landmarks in charting a course to orca recovery. But the challenge is finding this miraculous material. You can follow orcas on boats and look for it floating on the surface, or you can turn to the most sophisticated detection device on the planet.
That would be Tucker. His super sensitive nose is connected to 60 pounds of pure enthusiasm. He's one of a group of canine specialists who will chase down orca poop anywhere, anytime, as long as you are willing to play ball.
"They have an enormous play drive, and they love a ball, they're obsessed with ball," said Wasser.
Tucker isn't concerned about the inner workings of an orca or about saving the species, he's in it for fun. But he has to earn it.
The crew finds the orcas, they determine the wind direction, then they fall in behind the killer whales and Tucker goes to work. He darts about the bow sniffing for the faintest odor. And when tracking dogs like Tucker pick up the scent, they have a language all their own.
"Their ear set changes, their mouth opens up," said Wasser. "Their tail is up and wagging, that tells us that they've got scent."
And then he speaks up.
"And so Tucker is whimpering because he knows that he's got the smell but he's already passed it," said Wasser. "They can detect samples a mile away, easily."
But today there's a problem. Tucker is doing his job, but the seas are too choppy for the crew to see the orca waste. And as they wait for calmer conditions, an infamous San Juan Islands visitor settles in.
It's suddenly difficult to make out a sailboat a few hundred feet away, not to mention a small sample of floating orca doo. The crew is forced to leave the whales and head for better weather. They'll use the rest of the afternoon for training.
The team deploys a bowl full of previous collected orca waste and takes off. They'll start downwind several hundred yards away and wait for Tucker to get a whiff.
Within minutes he's on it and guiding the crew right back to the sample. It's a proven system that Wasser and his team say has a huge payoff.
The scientists get an invaluable look inside the body of the whales they are studying and all Tucker asks in return is for a little fun time with a ball.
The samples Tucker is finding are leading to breakthroughs in orca research.