From the Mukilteo lighthouse, Michelle Wainstein watches for marine mammals before pile driving work begins on the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

From the Mukilteo lighthouse, Michelle Wainstein watches for marine mammals before pile driving work begins on the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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The mystery ‘lady in the lighthouse’ isn’t spying on you

She and other watch for sea creatures during noisy pile driving that can ruin their appetite.

MUKILTEO — Neighbors have reported a shadowy figure with binoculars lurking atop the Mukilteo lighthouse.

Don’t worry, she’s not interested in what you’re doing in your condo or who you’re making out with in the car at Lighthouse Park.

That is, unless you are a protected aquatic species.

Michelle Wainstein is on the lookout for seals, sea lions, orcas and other whales so they won’t miss a meal.

She has been dubbed “the lady in the lighthouse.”

Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the Washington State Ferries terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for sea mammals while crews do underwater pile driving, typically at least several days a month.

The new ferry terminal opens Tuesday, but their work isn’t done. The monitors will return in January when crews tear down the old dock.

The machine used in pile driving causes sound-waves and vibrations that can disrupt dinner for sea dwellers. Think of it like a loud construction zone right outside your dining room window.

“It’s considered a form of harassment because it can interfere with their foraging and daily activities,” said Sue Ehler, monitor coordinator for the WSDOT Mukilteo ferry terminal project.

“If they get too close we ask the contractor to stop. If we see any they shut down and wait until the animal leaves the zone,” she said.

Depending on the animal, it might halt work for five minutes or an hour.

From the Mukilteo lighthouse, Michelle Wainstein watches for marine mammals as a tugboat maneuvers a crane into place to begin pile driving at the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

From the Mukilteo lighthouse, Michelle Wainstein watches for marine mammals as a tugboat maneuvers a crane into place to begin pile driving at the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The monitors are all trained biologists. They spend all day standing guard, like private eyes of the sea. It’s like waiting to catch a cheating spouse in the act. Many days they don’t see a single sea animal within foraging range.

The reporting distance from the pile-driving spot varies.

“We want to make sure that hammering isn’t happening when they’re close, and close is a relative term,” Wainstein said. “For seals and sea lions, it’s hundreds of feet at the most. For killer whales we’re talking about five miles.”

A monitor keeps watch by the pile driving site and another rides the ferry back and forth for surveillance. One is on the shore of Langley to keep an eye out for whales heading from Saratoga Passage.

A California sea lion pops his head up as it looks for a meal near the Mukilteo lighthouse on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A California sea lion pops his head up as it looks for a meal near the Mukilteo lighthouse on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

In January, Wainstein will have a front-row seat when the former ferry terminal is demolished.

For now, her station at the lighthouse is about a third of a mile from construction, which makes people wonder why she is there.

Some residents of the glassy Losvar Condominiums across the courtyard on Front Street worried that she was looking in their windows.

She wasn’t. “I’m excited to see any kind of wildlife,” she said.

Wainstein at times gets yelled at from those down below asking, ‘“Hey, how can I get up there?”

A sign on the locked lighthouse door explains it isn’t open to the public.

Wainstein might seem an unlikely “lady in the lighthouse.”

She has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology.

An observer watches for marine mammals from the Washington State ferry Suquamish before pile driving work begins on the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

An observer watches for marine mammals from the Washington State ferry Suquamish before pile driving work begins on the new Mukilteo ferry terminal on Dec. 15. Manson Construction, the marine contractor on the ferry terminal project, is required to have monitors stand watch for marine mammals while crews do pile driving, typically several days a month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Before motherhood, her research in the field took her to Panama, Chile and remote people-less Hawaiian islands. The lighthouse gig, braving December rain and winds for hours on end, is luxury compared to some projects.

“I’ve been dropped off on islands for months with just whatever got left with us,” she said. “Tents and a propane fridge and solar panels.”

Her teenage daughter assisted her in a study of sea turtles in the Galapagos. She also runs a research nonprofit and is wrapping up a four-year project and studying river otters and their scat.

People are more predictable than sea creatures.

“We definitely have the ability to find patterns and understand some things,” she said. “There is a degree of natural variability that we’re never going to have our thumb on. We have to be careful assuming that we know more than we do.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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