Homecoming (Guest Post by Lucas Williams)

It’s good to be back in Alaska. Last Sunday was my final day in Oregon for the summer, and I won’t be returning until the 18th of September. The crew is assembled in Gustavus, our bags are (mostly) packed, the gear is (mostly) ready, and we are all very excited. Getting here however, was more difficult than we had anticipated.

I think it is common for us, or at least myself, to grow complacent after reaching a certain amount of experience. Your brain gets used to noticing the things it must anticipate, and you know longer have to be as actively vigilant about your thoughts and behaviors as you were when you started. I think there’s a real beauty in field work, because that attitude will make you look foolish faster than you can say “mechanical error”.

Problem solving in a coffee shop

After flying into Juneau on Sunday, Michelle and David picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at the local hostel, warning me that Dawn, a previous student of Michelle’s who had recently passed through Juneau, had difficulty reserving a bed for the night. I shrugged off that warning with casual confidence. “I’ll be fine.” I told them, and I was right. I even got a whole room to myself, which was convenient considering the cold I was nursing at the time. After an early 4 AM wake up to board the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus Monday morning, everything seemed to be going just as planned. I knew what I was doing, I’d been here before and was ready for the problems we had encountered last time. Time for a relaxing boat ride to our destination.

 

The problem started while we were waiting to board David’s truck full of our gear and food for the summer onto the ferry. While waiting in the lot assigned to our ferry, David pointed out that a few cars were packing up and leaving.

“Must have parked in the wrong lot.” He said.

Not quite. A couple minutes later, we got a knock on our window, with an apologetic man telling us the ferry had a mechanical problem, and wouldn’t be taking anyone anywhere for a while.

Damn.

Well, we did the only thing we could think of. We went and got coffee to problem solve. You see, this setback had the potential to really bungle things up for the beginning of what was promised to be a smooth(er) start than last summer. First of all, the other half of the team was flying in later that evening, and was expecting to meet us in Gustavus. Furthermore, the only way to get all of the gear and food we had brought for the summer was to get David’s truck onto a ferry. After tossing around several ideas, we concluded that we would all take a small plane to Gustavus and demand a refund for our ferry tickets. We asked Michelle’s oh so generous friend Sarah to watch the truck and, when the ferry was ready, deliver it to the docking station and send it on its way to us. Thanks to the generosity of friends and the adaptability of our team, we ended up right back on schedule.

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Ferry didn’t work, hop on a plane!

 

 

I even got to fly it! (Not really)

After reaching Gustavus, I brought another problem with me. I had contracted a minor cold a couple days prior to my departure, but due to all the travel, lack of sleep and emotional duress from a recent break-up, my immune system totally crashed. After making it to the research housing, I went from a casual cold to full-blown plague victim. I was quickly quarantined in my own room, forcing the rest of my roommates to sleep out in the halls with their mattresses. I was forbidden from handling food, touching too many things, or breathing too much in people’s general presence. Basically, I was bubble boy for the week.

 

This turned out to be a wise choice, as although feeling rather useless in my seclusion, it did give me the opportunity to really heal up. Currently, I am churning this out as fast as possible, because tomorrow we head out for the real deal! Three weeks on strawberry island before we return for our first furlough.

I’ll be back with lots of photos!

If the wi-fi will allow it…

Signing off,

Luke

Making a splash in the world of marine mammals

*Guest Post By Lucas Williams*

Hello friends,

Those who’ve been gracious enough to check out my blog are likely aware that I spent last summer in Glacier Bay, Alaska as a field tech under the mentorship of Michelle Fournet (Miche). Well, I am happy to announce that I’m doing it all over again. I will be returning to my home away from home, Strawberry island, for the summer of 2016.

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Oh yeah, I’m back baby

I get to go back out into the field this summer to practice some ‘hands on’ science (not to mention experience some of the best camping this world has to offer for 3 months), but my school year has also been filled with science. There’s just been a lot more numbers involved, and lots of maps.

Before I joined everyone in Alaska last summer, Michelle and I sat down several times before the field season started to discuss potential thesis projects I could do using the data we would collect. My original idea was to investigate sound shadow usage by humpback whales in Glacier Bay. Sound acts as a wave, and similarly to light, can be blocked or dampened by obstructive objects. I was going to use the spatial data we collected to determine if humpback whales were foraging/traveling more frequently in sound shadows created by the topography and bathymetry of the survey area, and compare densities in sound shadow areas depending on level of water vessel traffic. Unfortunately, the whole survey area was essentially one large sound shadow, making any kind of comparison on the local scale largely pointless.

So, my original project was bust. But, with plenty of guidance from Michelle, I was able to craft an even better thesis project. I decided to investigate corridor usage by humpback whales. This eventually evolved into my current thesis project, eloquently titled “Local scale habitat use by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on a Southeast Alaskan foraging ground”. I’m looking at how whales use their forage grounds on a smaller scale to minimize energy expenditure while maximizing foraging intake.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this research, but not without learning several things I was told but certainly didn’t know until I experienced them myself. Those included:

  1. You never get everything right on the first try when it comes to writing a scientific paper
  2. Spreadsheets are an underappreciated form of art (yes I said it)
  3. A lot of data analysis is actually just learning how to use software
  4. ArcGIS is a sentient program that feeds off the frustration of innocent and naïve users.
  5. Finding a good mentor is like receiving a gift that just keeps on giving

This all lead to this previous weekend where I gave a 15 minute presentation of my project’s current results at the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammals conference in Seattle. Not only are conferences a lot more fun than I anticipated (scientists are cool) but the presentation itself served as my first formal introduction to the marine mammal world. It wasn’t a huge hello, more like a friendly wave, but it felt like real progress.

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A density heat map representing traveling whales in the survey area. Notice the bright green corridor in the center

Whether I end up becoming a professional marine mammal scientist is still up in the air. If you had told me last year that I would be presenting legitimate scientific results at a conference before heading off to a field season in Alaska I would have laughed in your face. But here I am. I don’t exactly know what’s in store for the future, but I’m damn excited. Here’s to another awesome year that I fully expect will challenge me in all new ways.

I’m going to make a more concerted effort this summer to bring more content to this blog as the season progresses, and you can expect another post from me in the near future.

Cheers!

Luke