WSG News Blog

Orca Bowl: A Gateway to a World of Water


The dryland underdogs in this year’s high school ocean-sciences tournament beat the odds with upbeat attitude.

“We live in a world of water,” Dean Lisa Graumlich proclaimed, welcoming high school students, teachers, families and fans, together with UW scientists and other volunteers, to the 19th annual Washington Regional Ocean Sciences Bowl. That world embraces even the dry side of the Cascade Divide. Four of the 20 teams competing came from Eastern or Central Washington: two from Ellensburg, one from White Swan on the Yakama Reservation, and one team, the tournament’s special heroes, from tiny Soap Lake.

Once again, the College of the Environment hosted the bowl and Washington Sea Grant coordinated the event. This year’s Orca Bowl winner would get a ticket to Morehead City, North Carolina for the 2016 national bowl.

The competition was intense: “The bonus questions seem harder this year,” opined one member of Seattle’s Garfield High School Pirates during a hallway break. But the spirit of fun ran just as strong. The Pirates set a new mark in buccaneer finery this year. Their A team—Declan the Dangerous, Dave the Dastardly, Alex the Atrocious, and Connor the Cruel—even wore Johnny Depp makeup in their showdown rounds. “You guys should really call yourselves “Garrrrghfield,” one of the Pirates’ toughest opponents, from suburban Newport High School, suggested in a brave effort to resist the Pirate psyche-out.

For the first time, Garfield also fielded a B team, who wore Hawaiian shirts and water wings. “We’re toddlers on a tropical vacation,” explained team member Hayley Miller. “This is our first year, so we aren’t pretending we know what we’re doing.”

Also for the first time, participants in the college’s MESA—Math Engineering Science Achievement—program for disadvantaged high school students joined in the “mashup” matches, when teams knocked out in the bowl’s round robin cross lines, mix it up, and play just for fun. Outside, on the Fisheries Sciences Building’s plaza, members of UWROV—Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles, an undergraduate club—offered Orca Bowlers a chance to guide two submersibles tussling over tossed rings in a portable pool.

“It’s just fun!” exclaimed UW oceanography professor Mark Warner, one of four moderators emceeing the matches. “I’ve done this for at least 15 years, whenever I can, if I’m not out at sea.” Has he seen students from Orca Bowls in the past choose marine studies? “I teach a sophomore class, and I’ve certainly seen kids from Orca Bowl coming into the department.” But it’s hard to discern causality. “We ask ourselves, ‘Are we making a difference?’”

To that question, the Orca underdogs of Soap Lake, Washington can provide a resounding “yes.” Hardscrabble Soap Lake, in the middle of the state, seems as far from the sea as Jamaica is from snow. Its combined middle-high school has only one science teacher and about 190 students, virtually all on free or reduced-price lunches. “It’s two-thirds Mexican and one-third Ukrainian,” says science teacher, Matthew Brewer.

Orca Bowl came to Soap Lake seven years ago. Brewer happened to glance at the day’s junk mail on the way to the wastebasket and noticed a flyer announcing the tournament. “I asked the students if they wanted to try it and they said yes. It all started there.”

Each year the Soap Lake students placed low in the tournament results, but that only whetted their enthusiasm. “The first week of the school year they’re like, ‘When do we start practice?’” said Brewer. His background was in biology, not ocean science, but he got qualified in oceanography and launched a class based on UW’s introductory oceanography class. “It’s difficult,” team member Nelson Bustos explained. “We don’t have the same experience as people who live over here [on Puget Sound]. But it’s really interesting,”

“I used to be terrified of the sea,” said teammate Samantha Nickel. “Now I see it differently.” So differently that though she’d planned to attend Washington State as her parents did, she’s now set her sights on UW. “I always wanted to go to UW,” team captain Alik Stoyan interjected. “But whenever I did Orca Bowl I got more interested in oceanography. Now I’m going to study it.”

This year 13 students—about a tenth of Soap Lake’s high school enrollment—signed up for Orca Bowl. The Soap Lake inlanders beat teams from two past Orca Bowl powerhouses, Friday Harbor and Everett’s Ocean Research College Academy, and from coastal Shelton and Tacoma. They finally washed out in a double-overtime tiebreaker in the penultimate ninth round against the Garfield Pirates.

The Pirates narrowly beat Newport High School’s B team to win the tournament title and a ticket to the national bowl. But the Soap Lakers’ third-place finish won them a cruise on the schooner Adventuress, and their grace under pressure earned them the tournament’s good-sportsmanship trophy.

“I’m going to bust, I’m so proud of you guys!” Brewer declared. “Next year we’re going to make state!” vowed team member Francisco Flores. And some will go on to studies and careers they never would have imagined without Orca Bowl.