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Nonactuarial Pursuits of Casualty Actuaries

Thar She Blows!

by Ginette Pacansky and Marty Adler

There are few sights in life more breathtaking than that of a 50-foot humpback whale breaching high above the Pacific Ocean and then thundering back down into the water. Or a glistening, black, six-foot dorsal fin of an orca emerging stealthily from the depths of the water, just feet from you. Our Fellow, Chuck Gegax, and his wife, Ginette Pacansky, an actuarial student, are avid whale enthusiasts who focus their vacations in search of sights like this. Interested in whales since childhood, their intrigue with these cetaceans has allowed them to share in the awe of numerous sightings as well as to pursue an understanding of the migration patterns and social structures of the different species.

The two spent a recent vacation on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington state. The San Juan Island chain is a group of several small islands frequented by three orca pods (called J, K, and L pods) of resident orca whales. Orcas, also known as "killer whales," can be classified as either resident or transient. While transients travel in very small pods and do not stay local to a specific area, residents are members of much larger pods, which remain local to a specific area. These pods are based on a matriarchal society, whose social structure is led by the elder females. Once born into a pod, an orca remains a member for life. The summertime salmon migration off San Juan Island attracts these resident orcas. Chuck and Ginette planned their trip for July, the peak of the salmon run, to have the best chance for an orca sighting. They were not disappointed.

At Lime Kiln Point, the dominant female led one of the resident pods within feet of the shore. Lime Kiln Point, on the west side of the island, is the most likely spot in the continental U.S. to view whales from shore. The scene was incredible. The females, with the shorter dorsal fins, were easily distinguishable from the males, whose dorsal fins can exceed six feet in height. Mothers swam by with their new calves. Chuck was lucky enough to capture a breaching male in a photo.

Another highlight of this trip included a boat trip in which a pod in sleep formation swam directly under the boat. (Orcas don't sleep as humans do; they swim closely together and take frequent shallow breaths when they sleep.) Shiny black dorsal fins surrounded the boat and one could feel the spray as the orcas exhaled.

Chuck and Ginette have organized several group whale-watching trips with actuarial friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. These trips traveled under the Golden Gate, 30 miles out to sea, past the Farallon Islands. It's near these islands that many of the great whales come in search of food during the summer. These trips were full-day excursions and have proven to be a real test of survival for many actuaries. The choppy seas and unpredictable weather off of San Francisco can make for a very uncomfortable day if one is not prepared with the proper clothing and seasick precautions. No matter what warnings Chuck and Ginette gave their fellow actuaries, some did not feel the need to follow them. One trip made so many people sick that it practically put the whole department on sick leave. Even the sickest passengers on the most recent trip, however, seemed to perk up when they spotted upwards of a dozen humpback and blue whales feeding. It was phenomenal! The boat was surrounded for about an hour with whales coming so close spectators could see barnacles on their backs.

For our Fellow, what began as a childhood interest has turned into a passion for an amazing and endangered group of animals. Whale watching provides a rare opportunity to see sights most people never see and sharing these times with friends and family makes for many treasured memories. A greater interest in whales will also lead to a more solid future for the animals. "After all," they say, "as actuaries, we know from survival functions that extinction is forever."