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The woman in the lighthouse

Marine monitors protect sea creatures from construction work


Last updated 12/18/2019 at 11:45am

Madeline Coats

Bridget Macchione uses heavy-duty binoculars to see across the water and look out for protected species during ferry terminal construction.

Residents have expressed concern after seeing a person wandering around the Mukilteo Lighthouse lately. Yes, there has been someone inside the lighthouse. No, it is not an intruder.

Her name is Bridget Macchione, and she is a marine mammal monitor. She uses the elevation of the lighthouse to look for protected species in the water during construction of the new Mukilteo Multimodal Ferry Terminal project.

"Every now and then, someone notices that I'm standing here," she said. "It's pretty obvious when someone is up here."

Macchione is there to monitor the water when crews are pile-driving and building the in-water elements of the new terminal. She is employed by Manson Construction, the marine contractor, and communicates with them whenever a sea creature is heading their way.

She is typically looking for harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, whales, and river otters. Macchione said she gets to use heavy-duty binoculars to see across the water, and then uses an app to record sightings and communicate with construction workers.

She said animals will pass the Lighthouse on the way to the construction site, which gives her time to warn workers to keep an eye on the water. Five other monitors work on the project as well. One rides the ferry back and forth and the others work on-site of the construction.

Sue Ehler works for WSDOT and supervises the marine monitors. She said monitors exist because of vibratory impact drivers being used on the new terminal. A vibration can carry over eight miles of water, she added.

"It's not a force that is going to kill anything," Ehler said. "We monitor because the sound can be a source of irritation and harassment, especially for killer whales."

She said the trick is to catch sea creatures before they come into the radius of vibration. When they do, monitors alert the construction workers and turn off the heavy machinery until the animals have passed through the area. Ehler said critters will occasionally stay for a while, halting construction until they leave.

She said the impact drivers do not hurt critters, but can disturb their foraging. However, when the radius gets smaller, the impact could hurt them.

"It's weird because we want to see them, but we also don't," said Ehler about the mammals.

Ehler said most construction workers understand and want to mitigate any disturbances to sea creatures. She said Manson has been very careful.

"It's a great compromise to be able to protect their environment and help with infrastructure without causing unwanted damage," she said. "It's a really nice coordinated network."

Ehler said Manson works in the winter because the season is a construction window for fish migration. One downside to winter is unpredictable weather, she added. If fog or wind causes too much of a disturbance, monitors will tell construction workers to shut off the machinery until visibility clears.

"We are so lucky the lighthouse people are letting us use this place," she said. "This is a special spot."

The heightened elevation allows monitors like Macchione to see vast distances and protect sea critters from potential danger. There are times when monitors see nothing in one day, but still need to stay alert for 10-hour periods. It's not an easy job, Ehler said.


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