Research of this scale cannot be conducted in a vacuum. I am not capable of running a theodolite, a total station, a hydrophone, a data computer, and an iPad simultaneously, no matter how good a scientist I may be. To this end field biology is by necessity collaborative. Bringing a team into the field is unbelievably rewarding (and challenging), but the nature of studying charismatic megafauna in a place like Alaska means that expectations must be managed.
My master’s advisor Dr. Andy Szabo of the Alaska Whale Foundation, who imparted on me many words of wisdom as we’d sit waiting for the weather to break so that data could be collected, once told me that the science that was the least exciting to collect was the most valuable to have. I’d remind myself of this as I’d strain to locate a whale from my lighthouse perch that was in fact foraging four miles away, or as I sat with my soggy headphones in a 3-meter skiff in the pouring rain waiting for a whale to call. I’d remind myself that the beauty of using these methods (land based observations and passive acoustic monitoring) was that I was in no way changing the behavior of the whales.
These are the sorts of stories I told the Acoustic Spyglass field team prior to disembarkation into the field. We learned how to spot blows, because we may be too far away to identify the backs of the whales, we learned how to use a theodolite to finely measure location and behavior from miles away, without ever interacting with the animal. I like to think that I ingrained in my team a sense of humility when thinking about the reality of these whales existing not for us, but despite us. We were prepared to watch, and listen, quietly from a distance.
But the whales came to us.
In the nine summers that I’ve been coming to Alaska to work with whales I’ve never been as close to a humpback whale as I’ve been, repeatedly, here in Glacier Bay while standing on shore. We are woken up to the explosive breath of humpback whales foraging outside of our tents, we rinse our dishes under the mist of humpback whale exhalations, sitting on the beach writing this blog post I’m not more than fifty yards away from a pair of humpback whales cruising through the intertidal zone. In fact, one blew so loudly a moment ago, that it startled Kate as she made her way across the rocks to begin a survey.
It’s four A.M. and someone is shaking my tent; David tells me that I have to get out of bed there are three whales in our intertidal zone, and one just beyond breaching. It’s ten P.M. and Luke and Kate and I are a puddled mess on the floor of Kate’s tent, moments away from being fast asleep, when David yells from the beach. There’s a whale lunge feeding right off of the shore, and then another; so close that you could count their baleen. Yesterday we cancelled our surveys for fog, again. Sitting disappointed on the beach we watch four whales scattered between the peninsula where we conduct our surveys and the point directly south of us, all of them within 50 yards of the beach – and then one breaches. Years on the water in Alaska and the closest I’ve ever been to a breaching whale was standing ankle deep in the intertidal zone. We have animals so close to the shore with such frequency that Tom coined the term “Drive By”, and the whales do in fact drive by multiple times each day.
I never expected this. I expected tiny teakettle spouts across the ocean (and we have no shortage of that), but I never expected to grow so accustomed to whales on our beach that I’d assume we would see at least one up close everyday. It is a great gift to stand on this shore in awe of these creatures, and content myself with that same knowledge that got me through my master’s degree, that this interaction (which appears to be a one-sided one… whether the whales even know we’re here is unlikely) is not harming these animals or changing their behavior, yet they are still close enough that I can see their muscles flex under
their own locomotion.
It is an even greater gift to be able to share this experience with my team, who came to Alaska never having seen a humpback whale. There is a saying about Alaska that I used to quote everyday when I worked on the boats in Juneau, it’s a version of a John Muir quote about coming to Alaska, that goes “for the purpose of sightseeing, if you are old please come. But if you’re young, stay away. For the beauty and the grandeur of a place so huge could ruin you, and it never bodes well in life to see the finest first.”
I fear my team may be ruined.