I love you, session 2!

I think this poster helps me convey how much I loved every second of my month in Alaska with 4 amazing ladies much better than I would have said in words. After all, pictures are worth a thousand words. Thanks so much for the memories, Miche, Laur, Cristina, Meghan, and Andy!

Love, Venus

Life as an intern.

I have been thinking about how to write this blog for about 2 weeks now and I still can’t seem to get my words together, but here goes.

For those of you who have had the opportunity to participate in field work of any kind, I’m sure you can gather some thoughts on what really goes on behind the scenes of the lighthouse. Those of you not in that category; perhaps a fellow session 2 intern can help enlighten you.

            When we’re not running out of water, soaking wet or freezing cold we have a pretty good time! Only someone like Miche could make such awful field conditions an amazing experience. You should ask her about her feelings on fog sometime; I guarantee she will have a lot to tell you. Ryan couldn’t have said it better when explaining her true colours. What a normal advisor would shake their head at, Miche would find humour in and quickly gained the nickname “mama miche.” When she wasn’t constantly looking after us and bringing us cups and cups of hot chocolate, she was working madly to make sure the research was working and we were getting the most out of our journey. She truly is one of a kind.

 Alaska’s playground was beyond anything I could have expected or anticipated. If you ever have a chance to visit I highly recommend it. Spending hours in noble steed listening to the beautiful wops and purrs from our neighbourly whales, and squinting through fog for any sign of a trademark fluke or spout were just a few of our duties while at the lighthouse. I met some amazing young ladies and one amazing woman who truly made it life changing. I could not have been happier with the research and the science behind the project. I can confidently say that I learned more in that month then I did in a solid 3 years of university. Shocking I know.

Although it is impossible to wrap up a month into a few paragraphs I imagine you have a fairly good idea of what life would be like stuck in a lighthouse with 4 lovely ladies. It’s challenging, exciting, always eventful, and truly a pleasure. I want to thank the Alaska Whale Foundation with all my heart, and of course Miche for being Miche. As Meghan would say: “Alaska got its hook in me”. Cristina: “That was so cra cra!” And Venus: “The Rapunzel Project would totally have 100000 hits on youtube”.


Hello Goodbye

I have wonderful news! Take a deep breath; the whales have shown up. It may have taken 7 ½ weeks for them to arrive, but I am happy to report that in our final days of Session 2 the whales increased in numbers from say… 1 or 2, to 10 or 20. They’ve arrived for now and on Sunday afternoon we successfully marked 100+ whale events! (Don’t be confused, we didn’t see 100 individual whales, we marked 100 times when a whale did something). That makes up nearly a fifth of our whale sightings so far this season. I’m happy to report that it is now Monday afternoon and for the past five days we’ve had numerous whales in the Five Finger Area.


While I could not have been more overjoyed at the sight of 20 humpback whales I was sad to say goodbye to the four ladies of Session 2.

I have to admit, when Session 1 left the island I was heartbroken. They were the backbone of our startup operation here at the light and I was unsure that our new recruits (median age, 20; median height 5’1) would be able to fill the shoes left behind (Max shoe size Session 1, 11 ½; Min shoe size Session 2, 6). When I needed cheer, Session 1 would sing to me. To be fair, whether I needed cheer or not they would sing to me. Together we talked through broken hydrophones, balance beam fuel hauls, generator ghosts, dead engines, and missing whales. To top that, Session 1 handled each and every situation, good or bad, with grace. When Session 2 showed up, they had no easy task ahead of them.

As it turns out, they two groups were like night and day. Yet, I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade a one of them, and I can only imagine the raucous good time we would have if we had the chance to meet as a single group.

The ladies of Session 2 worked harder and with more enthusiasm than I ever expected or hoped. I have to admit I anticipated giving pep talks on surveying in foul weather, but I didn’t anticipate forcing my interns to come IN from the rain. Nor did I imagine I’d ever have to coerce a seasick intern to come back to the lighthouse just because the whales were vocalizing. The only fault I can find with our Session 2 interns is that they cared too much and they worked too hard. It was inspiring exciting, and admittedly for all of us- a little exhausting. Kudos to them for the waking up for dawn surveys to yell at the fog with me (or to make us pancakes in the case of Meghan- who woke up even though it wasn’t her shift!). Many thanks for teaching me how to work my new iPhone and for broadening my musical taste (Venus, I promise I’m playing that David Choi song at the wedding). Thanks for saying what you always mean (You know who you are), and for never ever complaining about anything (even hauling the 100th gallon of water from the reserve tank… George misses you so much Laur. He’s inconsolable). Ladies I will peek over your shoulders for the rest of your lives with a big smile on my face. I couldn’t be prouder to consider you my friends and colleagues.

But it’s mid-August now, and we are running out of more than just water. We’re running out of time. We have 3 weeks left with the Lovely Ladies of Session 3. It’s our 5th day together on the island and as I write this two of the girls are on their maiden voyage with Noble Steed, two others are carefully watching them from the ivory tower we call the Five Finger Lighthouse. Not a bad way to start the end of a pretty amazing summer.

A little talk about water

Southeast Alaska is a rainforest environment. It rains often; almost daily. More often than not we are damp. The irony is that despite our inability to dry off, that we’ve nearly run out of water.
I remember writing some weeks back about our newfound awareness of fuel use, and how easy it truly is to do without them. I cannot say the same for water, while some creature comforts are easily abandoned the desire to shower, wash our faces, boil water for tea, and flush the toilet, are not easily relinquished.
While we can have fuel delivered, and despite our hatred for hauling it, we can use diesel to run the generator or burn propane to create heat- we cannot have enough water delivered to do the dishes, make the coffee, take (even infrequent) showers, or even begin to think about fresh water laundry. We depend on the weather gods, those titans of wind and fog, to grace us with the one thing we dread most on our 12-hour sampling days: rain.
The pinnacle of our ‘water crisis’? Well… did I tell you we were going to be on TV? Because when the film crew of Jeff Corwin’s new ABC show Ocean Mysteries showed up, it was my job to tell them not to flush the toilet. More on that soon.

Now let me tell you…

I sat down to write an informative, witty, and slightly serious blog post about how our season is progressing here at the Five Finger Lighthouse. Just as I started to type, however, I hear the ear piercing scream of a twenty year old girl- and that kind of scream can mean only one of two things:

1) The R/V Noble Steed is no more


2) There is a 75,000 pound animal jumping out of the water 200 yards from the lighthouse.

I’m happy to report the blood curdling scream that shot out from the lighthouse tower, was the inspired by the latter two scenarios. Not only that, but that high girl voice was followed with the low frequency thud that my ears blissfully associate with breaching whales- and yes, we were recording.

Admittedly the whales are few in number these days. We don’t know why they aren’t here… or where they are for that matter. But I’m happy to report that at least for a today we are seeing (and hearing) exactly what we’d hoped to.

Session 2- Getting things started with a bang!

So the ladies of Session 2 have arrived and settled in nicely to the Five Finger Lighthouse. While it feels a bit like déjà vu to be explaining how a theodolite works and where to leave data notebooks at the end of the day, I do have to admit that things are off to a smooth start. The ladies arrived on the afternoon of Wednesday the 18th filled with enthusiasm and charm….just in time to witness the teary departure of our Session I interns.

Logistically it is a good system to send the preceding group off on the vessel that the subsequent group arrives on, but emotionally it’s a bit of a roller coaster. As Ryan’s previous blog post divulged… I loved my Session I interns. There may have been a few bumps getting things off the ground, but by the time they left we were a well-oiled sampling machine. I learned a lot from them, and I feel confident that they learned a lot from me as well. I miss them everyday, and whether I want to admit it or not, I’m still humming Pocohantas.

In any case there was no time for sentimentality as just as Norma, Kate, Nicole, and Ryan were hugged kissed and sent on their way just as Laura, Meghan, Venus, and Cristina stepped off the boat wide eyed and wonderful into the warm arms of the Rapunzel Project. While it may have taken me a deep breath to get things started, these ladies were filled with vim and vigor! No point in wasting any time- when 4 intelligent capable enthusiastic interns step off the boat, that’s a sign it’s time to get started.

On day one with Session 2 training was in full swing. The girls were learning the mechanics of working with the theodolite by 9am (after a breakfast of waffles of course), and were performing mock surveys with data computers in hand by the afternoon. Day two we picked up where we left off with the details of our sampling protocol (each survey consists of two 15-minute sector sweeps on either the east of the west side of the island, consecutive surveys will address the same two sectors in an effort to capture changes in dispersion, density, and potentially abundance.). We also moved out hydrophone equipment off of Noble Stead for the afternoon and set up our equipment at the kitchen table to really get a handle of how the whole thing worked (another trick learned during Session 1). Saturday morning (Day 3) was spent practicing ‘real’ surveys from the tower, and getting our feet wet on Noble Stead for the first time (ok, we may have done a little whale watching too).

Sunday… we took Sunday off. Oh Day Off how I love thee. We spent the morning tidepooling which turned into an afternoon kayak, a curry dinner, and then for the third time since the ladies arrived at the lighthouse we watched killer whales from the helicopter pad.

It turned out to be too much for Meghan and I. The perfect sunset, the glass calm water, the sound of porpoise, and sea lions, humpbacks and killer whales… it nearly demanded a paddle. We have 3 kayaks on the island. Meghan and I had skipped the earlier trip out and decided sunset was the perfect time to make up for it.

There were no boats, just a group of young women in Frederick Sound- some on land and some on the water- listening to the breath of whales. From the kayaks Meghan and I were surrounded not by the sight, but by the sounds, of living southeast Alaska. I think it’s safe to say it was an amazing experience for all of us.

Even Vista, whale research dog and self –proclaimed protector of the lighthouse seemed to be enjoying herself as she traced the perimeter of the helicopter pad chasing the silhouettes of sea lions.

Tomorrow? Our first full day of sampling. Pray the weather holds.

Session 1’s Exclusive Look Into Michelle Fournet: The Biologist Behind the Whale

Session 1 has come to an end and the interns have all packed their bags and left the Lighthouse. This is Ryan Meeder from Session 1 and I am posting for Miche to keep all you fine people updated. I feel obligated to warn you that my blog-writing skills are not as elegant and don’t possess the same flash and panache as Miche’s posts, but I will do my best.

The Session 1 interns and myself were all extremely sad to leave the lighthouse. The 4 weeks went by extremely quickly but we could not have asked for a better group of interns. Albeit we did have some slight problems with equipment early in the session, but the Rapunzel Project is up and running. Noble Steed, our skiff, has a shiny and perfectly functioning engine and the hydrophones seem to hear everything, sometimes perhaps too much…

After scouring through the Rapunzel Project’s Blog I have found that Miche tends to leave some things out when she posts, and on this rare occasion I have permission to take you behind the scenes and tell you all about Miche for once. We could not have asked for a better Project Leader, or a more understanding and patient friend in the lighthouse. Miche handled every problem with grace and levelheadedness. There were many instances (like when we had to carry Noble Steed through the intertidal zone-it’s not exactly light) that Miche’s leadership qualities seemed to shine. Miche was always willing to answer our many and often repetitive questions and to help us with anything and everything. Apart from being a great field leader Miche also managed the Lighthouse and found time to tell us intriguing stories about Alaska. We have all requested copies of her stories so we can pass them on.

Leaving the comforts of a modern society and spending 4 weeks on a very secluded island with limited amenities can be a very stressful adjustment. Fortunately for us, Miche was able to make what could be a stressful adjustment into a thrilling lifestyle change. Miche’s exemplary cooking skills and eagerness to help you learn made the adjustment simple and enjoyable. I know that we will all miss the lighthouse and the whales, but we will miss Miche even more. On behalf of all the interns Miche, I would like to thank you for such an incredible experience. We know that this summer will be a huge success for you and wish you the best. We will all cherish our time at the lighthouse and the memories we made together. Session 1 over and out.

Sea State, Sounds, Skiffs

There are many things I’d like to report on, but I decided to concentrate on our water based progress. After a short delay Noble Stead is now on the water and operating daily. We’ve had some fairly large tides in the past week- the 4th of July saw a 23 foot tidal shift- and our team has been deftly navigating Noble Stead around the island. Trial and error has taught us that two hands are better than one when it comes to handling our two hydrophones and the associated gear.

We have two C-55 Cetacean Research Technology dip hydrophones which we lower from the side of Noble Stead to 25 meters. They are weighted with ½ pound weights and outfitted with a sort of “shock absorber” to reduce the impact of wave and bounce related noise. Two interns man the hydrophones with a Zoom Acoustics recorder, a GPS, a thermometer, and a compass. We record in 30 minute intervals (time with tower observations) and mark each sound we hear.

And we are hearing things! Purrs and groans, tear drops and grunts, and a myriad of combinations have all made their way through our hydrophones and into the ears of our interns and myself.

A thick fog kept us off the water periodically (much to the chagrin of Ryan and Nicole who were poised on the glassy southeast Alaskan waters in Noble stead for a dawn survey at 3:15am). That morning we had to pull everyone in to the lighthouse by 5:30 and rather than work our way back to bed we settled in with headphones and data books to review our sound files.

Our initial acoustic analysis is done aurally (by ear). We listen for sounds while recording from Noble Stead, and then review our recordings in the controlled environment of the lighthouse. Each sound is verified, clipped, and then added to a general catalogue to be incorporated into our spreadsheet. Our spreadsheet then tells the story, including the vocalizations, of exactly what we saw on a given day.

Our catalog is growing. We’re becoming more familiar with the vocal range of the humpbacks, and our accuracy is improving. We’ve started the process of categorizing sounds, and each intern (including those of you coming this week!) will have the chance- and perhaps the responsibility- to listen to the sounds and place them into categories. At the end of the season we’ll have 13 groupings of sounds which we’ll check for consistency and overlap. This ‘blind’ categorizing is the first step in classifying sounds.

In addition to hearing our beloved humpbacks we’ve also started picking up vocalizations that are distinctly odontocete-esque. As if to confirm our suspicions this evening during our dusk survey a small pod of killer whales worked their way right next to our island, before startling a raft of sea lions and buzzing past Noble Stead on their way north. Despite what the weather keeps telling us (3 foot seas and rain) tonight and last night have been breathtakingly beautiful. It’s almost painful to see the photographs… which I’m hoping will be uploaded soon by our Session 1 interns.

I regret to say that Session 1 is coming to an end. Norma, Kate, Ryan, and Nicole will be sadly departing on Wednesday. While I intend to recruit them to post photographs for me, it’s not a happy departure. It’s been an adventure and a pleasure having them here… I’m sure they know I mean that.

Look for posts on our Session 2 interns- Laura, Crisitina, Meghan, and Venus- they arrive just as Session 1 departs… and so it continues.

Up and running!

I was hoping to have posted a little something by now… but as it stands the internet is slower than I remembered. That being said I want to let you know how things are going.

Our first session of interns arrived and are hard at work! The later season interns will reap the benefit of their hard work. We met in Petersburg to last minute preparations (buying propane, grocery shopping, finalizing sampling gear). Norma and Nicole (to be introduced shortly) arrived early and we met for a short hike and some last minute supply shopping (so maybe they forgot to bring sleeping bags… and rain pants… if they didn’t turn out to be so incredibly charming and competent I’d have been tempted to hold it against them.) We were joined the following day by Kate and Ryan (who apparently forgot nothing) and met for our first crew dinner in Petersburg. By Friday morning we had two boats filled with fuel, food, gear, personal effects, and were headed to the lighthouse with our 10′ zodiac (“Noble Stead”) in tow behind us.

Our interns can attest, research is hard work. While the act of surveying the whales might not involve heavy lifting, moving our supplies through the intertidal, across the island, and into the lighthouse may have been harder than it sounded. (Not to mention carrying the refrigerator, the freezer, and the new 300 pound generator… did I mention that the other interns will reap the benefits of Session 1’s hard work?).

We now have the lighthouse all set up and after a few equipment snafu’s (namely Noble Stead’s engine not being ready yet) we’re getting close to a routine. Our research team has been trained up on theodolite use, data protocol, acoustic equipment, and skiff handling. I couldn’t be prouder of their progress.

We spent the fourth of July camping on the Brothers, a set of nearby islands, kayaking with sea lions, and hiking through Alaska’s pillowy moss. This speckled with tide pooling, an wild ride with Dr. Szabo to see some killer whales, an interpretive visit on the Wilderness Adventurer (a pocket cruiser that stopped to ‘borrow’ us from the lighthouse), a few games, and lots of Harry Potter (yes, Ryan brought the entire series. I think I am the only person not reading some sort of fantastic book right now), has filled our down time as we sort out the details of the weather, the equipment, and the tides.

Tower sampling is going well. Now that all of the interns have their eyes trained on whales and can identify the different boats (so it may not be as easy as you think) we’re averaging about 12-16 surveys a day. I’m hoping to have our points uploaded into ArcGIS soon (in progress) so we can start getting a preliminary idea of what our patterns of dispersion look like.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is that we’ve starting hearing sounds. Kate heard our first whale sound from Noble Stead before she even left the mooring buoy. A later trip into the Southeast Sector of our survey area with Norma and Nicole produced a myriad of squeaks and chirps. I was beside myself with excitement.

Now… our team:

Norma Vasquez is a graduate student at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute studying interactions between Stellar sea lions and transient killer whales.

Nicole Chabaneix is a recent biology graduate from Boston University. She is originally from Peru, and is the unofficial Session 1 photographer.

Kate Indeck is a student at Eckerd College in Florida double majoring in Environmental Studies and Marine Science.

Ryan Meeder is a rising sophomore at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. (You can follow his blog on the RASMAS website… I’ll try to link it soon!)

We’ve taken so far a collective 2500+ photographs. Once I’m closer to a strong internet connection, I assure you I’ll post some so can see the smiling faces of our team!

Cheers for now~

Field Prep… down to the wire

My last post was all about prepping for our 2012 field season. I had every intention of following up with a “Part 2” of sorts, which would go into more details on what was happening behind the scenes at the Rapunzel Project. What happened behind the scenes ultimately kept me so busy that I couldn’t report on what was happening behind the scenes. I know it doesn’t seem like it would be that much work. Just grab a few hydrophones and a small boat and head to the lighthouse, right? Wrong.

Here’s a brief recap of some of the things that I’ve been up to lately:

  • Write (and receive!) small grants for research supplies
  • Produce poster to present at symposium for said grant
  • Finish up fellowship and scholarship applications that will be otherwise difficult to complete with in the field
  • Track intern arrival/departure times and finances
  • Communicate as much as possible (hopefully without growing obnoxious) to answer intern questions and prepare interns for a cold, wet, glorious summer
  • Write and send out Intern Primer, so everyone knows what to expect 😉
  • Send out sound catalog and example spreadsheet (after creating them, of course)
  • Book hotels for interns, plead with hotels and guest houses in Petersburg to waive the 4 night minimum.
  • Book my own travel to Alaska, including flight to Juneau for supplies (and visit with family and friends) and ferry ride (with Andy’s car) to Petersburg
  • Figure out what supplies are necessary for 3-month field season
  • Find out where to order somewhat obscure supplies, or how to get even very ordinary supplies sent to Alaska (it IS part of the US after all…)
  • Drive to Newport to calibrate hydrophones (Borrow car from generous grad student- Amelia I couldn’t have done it without you).
  • Discover one hydrophone is shot and arrange to have a new one built as quickly as possible! (Please oh please oh please arrive in time- Success! Thank you Joe at Cetacean Research Technology)
  • Collect existing AWF gear from colleagues in the Pacific Northwest and prep it all for transport to Alaska (How many bags do they let you fly with again?)
  • Miraculously collect all of the gear before leaving Oregon for the summer (no small miracle given the number of signatures required for delivery)
  • Come up with new plan for heat and electricity at lighthouse when old plan called for reconsideration
  • Order MORE gear, only for lighthouse this time (We will need electricity after all)
  • Travel to Juneau with copious numbers of bags and pelican cases… not to mention Vista’s dog kennel.  (How I wish Corvallis had an airport!  Again, thank you thank you thank you Amelia)
  • Grocery shop for a five person field team for three months of field work (The cart was overwhelming even by Costco standards)
  • Find way to store food for transport, then get it to the lighthouse without ruining it (I have single handedly moved the ~700 pounds of food through southeast Alaska, up stairs, into refrigerators, onto ferries, into other refrigerators, into boxes, into cars, out of boxes, onto boats, into totes, onto skiffs, through the slimy mucky intertidal, up precarious metal beams, up lighthouse stairs, and finally into cabinets and drawers… phew.  What we do for a few potatoes and a good cup of tea at the end of the day)
  • Budget fuel, purchase fuel, transport fuel (see above description of food transportation and substitute fuel)
  • Purchase fuel gear (fuel drums, fuel filters, fuel pumps, fuel cans- whale research is largely about fuel)
  • Organize and prep field equipment (radios, batteries, sound recorders, hydrophones, hydrophone chords- which are impossible to find- etc.)
  • And lastly…. spend every other waking moment thinking about sampling questions and sampling protocol.  Because what’s the point of moving all of the gear around, if there isn’t a study to be had?

So far I’ve spent one blissful night at the lighthouse.  I was alone on the island. The power isn’t on yet, neither is the water.  For a moment the rain stopped, and my body aching with carrying supplies was on the verge of falling asleep under the 11pm sun, when I heard a whale spout.  I couldn’t see it.  I listened to it exhaling. Then I remembered why we do what we do… or maybe just why I do what I do.  Where there is great love, there is great effort.