A Summer in Southeast Alaska

Greetings from Colorado! My name is Amber, and I am ecstatic to be part of the acoustic ecology research team in Alaska this summer! To introduce myself, I will start by listing three things I am passionate about: chocolate, wildlife conservation, and chasing my wildest dreams wherever they may lead. I am originally from North Carolina, but have spent the last several years traveling North America working as a wildlife technician. From the windswept prairies of Kansas, to the arid desert southwest, and to the parklands of southern Manitoba, I have participated in many research projects and have gained some incredible experience. I have learned a great deal about not only wildlife and natural resource management, but also about myself and about people in general.

I am also passionate about sharing my love of nature with others, as I believe this is one way we can conjure interest in and devotion to our natural world. I enjoy accomplishing this through nature photography, and wish I currently had more time to dedicate to this cause. It is relatively easy to grab peoples’ attention through photos, and it is my goal to capture images that will increase awareness and instill concern for nature within their hearts. Below is a photo I took several years ago on the plains of North Dakota. It isn’t the greatest quality, but still one of my all time favorites.North Dakota sunrise

My past fieldwork endeavors have been primarily avian focused, so I am excited to be working with marine mammals during the upcoming season. I have always dreamed of working with such incredible animals. I feel as though I have much to learn from Miche and others on the crew, and am eager to conduct my own independent research project. I have not decided exactly what this will entail yet, but I am determined to produce results that will be of value and will increase our understanding of humpback whale ecology and associated management implications.

Camping in the rain for an entire summer will be a new experience for me, but I am certainly looking forward to spending a few months “off the grid.” I try to accomplish this as often as possible, but taking online courses requires me to remain somewhat close to an internet source (and the hordes of human beings associated with such places). Alaska is new to me as well, and I hope to take some photos that I can share with the rest of the world once the season is over. I am also eager to gain experience in the world of acoustic ecology. I look forward to acquiring a deeper understanding about the knowledge we are able to gain from such technology, and the insights it will provide into these animal’s lives.

Well, I guess that is me in a nutshell. I look forward to meeting some incredible people this summer, exploring a beautiful part of the world, and conducting valuable research with some amazing animals.  Here’s to the best field season yet!

-Amber

 

Introducing Myself

Hello, my name is Morgan Kroeger and I am an undergraduate student at Oregon State University. I am studying fisheries and hope to be working with sturgeon in the future. I am finishing up my third year and I hope to graduate on time next year. From there I hope enter a graduate program and further my studies.

As of such, I do not have a personal project clipped on the back of this summer research adventure. I would certainly be delighted to interweave my own project into the upcoming research event, but I sincerely would not know where to start. As it is, this is a large and intensive project, and since I am not as experienced as the majority of my colleagues it is best that I focus on the main Acoustic Spyglass project before diving into other channels.

As for how I stand on this project, I am three parts excited, two parts nervous, and one part confident. I realize that these parts do not add up to anything coherent, but neither does the scale that I am basing it off of.

I am excited to be out on the island and get into the grit and grind of field research. I am excited to learn the seeming labyrinth of protocol, sampling methods, and the organized chaos that accompanies any kind of “out there” work. I am excited to further my knowledge of fieldwork and expand my skill set. I am excited to monitor humpback whales in their summer habitat. I am excited to be helping a project that will have an impact on management concerning humpback whales.

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Me with some of the hiking gear that I’ll be bringing with me for the Acoustic Spyglass project

I am nervous about messing up in all ways possible. I know I can handle stress and pressing situations, but the prickling of nerves is still there under the skin, an impossible itch that will remain. I am not nervous about improbable threatening situations, like being struck by a summer storm when out in the kayak, or temporarily abandoning camp while the resident black bear casually ransack the little village of tents for food. I am nervous, maybe worried is a better word, about the little things. The small mistakes that can have quite the sucker punch, like dropping the theodolite, or incorrectly entering data. I know and understand that these worries are relevant, but they are held at bay with practice and training.

I am confident that I can integrate myself into the team and the research. I am confident that through the Acoustic Spyglass project I will expand and deepen my skill set regarding field work and data input. I am confident that I can and will help the Spyglass project further its study. I am confident that I will survive. I am confident that I will thrive.

 

 

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

Sometimes words may fail…

The field season is over and pangs of sadness ensue for the end yet I find excitement in pondering what happens next. This has been an epic time in my life comprised of good company, beautiful surroundings, lessons from the wilderness, purpose and meaning for the work and long days pursued as well as growth through challenge. Lying in my tent grasping at words to describe my time here on Strawberry Island I’m somewhat hesitant… I feel they cannot adequately represent what I’ve seen and felt during these two-months in Southeast Alaska. I have truly been living a dream and how to communicate this dream through words?

Alaska Sunset

The winds crash waves against the shore of our temporary island residence as a pair of black oyster catchers call in ritual from the beach in the distance, not much seems to bother them. It’s been an honor to share the shoreline with the charismatic birds watching the brooding, hatching and rearing of their two chicks in such an intimate setting. We’ve all grown fond and accustomed to their presence as we’ve watched and observed the family of birds. It seems they’ve adjusted to us as well with chatterings of defense directed less at the field team and more toward encroaching eagles, falcons and gulls. The goofy little black birds found their way into my heart along with many of the people and places I’ve been blessed to encounter up here.

Time spent with the oyster catchers is just a sliver of novel experiences and first timers that my words could not due justice. I feel frustration at the attempt to illuminate my thoughts however take comfort in knowing that my team mates feel the same bewilderment. We ate, slept and wept together as a team, working through challenges and coming out stronger on the other side and for that I dearly extend my gratitude. My thanks also spans to encompass the many people who befriended and helped us along the way including but not limited to Todd our gracious escort to and from Strawberry, Chris providing warm and insightful conversation along with the most delicious kale I’ve ever tasted from her garden, Becky from the visitors center volunteering transportation for our thirty bear barrels (ughhh), Christopher and Jen for the most unusually entertaining bear safety lecture and farewell party.

I feel a deep satisfaction that Miche and our team were able to collect far more data than she had envisioned, however in truth I came to understand that this was only half of the mission. What drew me to Michelle and this project is a shared perspective that the human element and experience is equally important in the grand scheme of things. As the technological age progresses it seems society grows further removed from natural resources and our interconnectedness with nature, a trend that I hope to resist in my own life. Many researchers may never look with their own eyes on their species of study but examine from afar with the aid of field equipment, a fact that weighs at my heart considering the great joy and enrichment that I feel spending time outdoors and observing nature.  Living on Strawberry Island and playing a working component in the Acoustic Spyglass project has been monumental to say the least…

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Heart

Beyond Words

**This is a guest post by Lucas Williams, Acoustic Spyglass researcher, senior thesis student, and dear friend**

There are moments when words fail. When neither the sharpest writers nor the most eloquent orators are able to capture the impact, the emotion, of an event or experience. I have experienced those moments several times while living on Strawberry island. I’m sitting here again in the four wall tent. It’s 10:30 in the evening and I’m struggling to write down something that will describe what my life has been like these past two months in a way that I feel satisfies my desire to do it justice.

I am finding that this is impossible, or at least beyond my current scope as a writer. Instead, I will simply release a disclaimer. I don’t believe what I am about to write will do what I have seen and done any justice. The best I can do will be little more than show and tell.

Before coming to Glacier Bay I could count the number of times I had seen a whale on one hand. I had never even seen a humpback before. I figured I would get to see some whales from a distance, make out the black smooth surfaces that hinted at the leviathan under the waves. I never imagined that I would be a few yards from a thirty five ton whale, anchored in my kayak. I couldn’t have expected standing ankle deep in the water a mere stone’s throw away from a feeding whale. Whales breach as close as fifty yards from our shore, shaking the water and air around us as their weight comes crashing down. As we bed down for the night, the sound of breathing whales and splashing sea lions lulls us to sleep. Or, more likely, springs us out of our tents like small children on the first day of summer, rushing to the beach to see more of the animals we spend nearly every waking moment of our lives observing.

The world out here is truly pristine, nearly untouched by people. I can feel myself tapping into that primal buzz that seems to accompany extended stints in wild lands. It’s easy to feel a connection and kinship with the life we share this space with. We live comfortably and without conflict with at least two bears, one of which I have come face to face with. The territorial oyster catchers now tolerate our presence, and have allowed us to observe them closely as we survey from the tower and beach. Seal and otter mothers can be seen swimming with their young. Pods of killer whales will travel through our survey area, sometimes swimming right past our shore. Birds fly in unison like a school of fish in the sky. The majesty of the wildlife is complemented equally by our surroundings. When the clouds are right, and the sun is peaking out over the mountains, the whole bay will erupt into a canvas of oranges and reds, purples and pinks. Winds will come howling off the glaciers in the North, shaking the trees and churning the waters to a white froth. Other days, the fog can be seen spilling over the sides of the mountains like dry ice in a punch bowl. On one lucky night, we caught the Northern lights dancing in a clear night sky.

I have erased all doubts in my mind about my desire to pursue a life that involves studying the natural world. I finally feel ready to dive into my field of study head first, no more trepidation or hesitation. Several new seeds of personal growth and change have been planted, and I’m feeling a giddy anxiousness to nurture them and watch them grow. My mind has been exposed to so many new ideas, perspectives and lifestyles.

I have lived with people that started off as strangers, who I now consider colleagues, mentors and friends. People from different places, cultures and perspectives brought together by the unifying force of a shared goal and passion. The enthusiasm never dies. We may go through trying periods of morose wetness, piercing cold and humorous bouts of sleep deprivation, but we never stop feeling grateful to be out here. We joke that our field team is    ruined, it can never get any better than this. We may be right.

And that would be okay.

“Wonder what poor people are doing right now”

Halfway through the 1st stint on Strawberry Island I am woken up by the sounds of surfacing and trumpeting Humpback whales. These sound are like none other I have ever heard. I normally have a knack for explaining things and using analogies to help anyone to understand what I’m experiencing. This experience so far have left me unable to do this. The only thing I can say is, if you get a chance to participate in a project like this one in a place like Glacier Bay then do it and then let me know how you would explain it.

During our time here I have experienced sounds both above and under water, and I’ve heard not only whales, but also seals, sea lions, and otters. There is something about being in a remote location that allows a person to turn off the filters we use in everyday soundscapes and just enjoy the symphony produced by mother nature. We have been here for a week now today I have the morning shift off and this is my first opportunity to sit by myself with a cup of coffee and reflect and enjoy the scenery.

I am sitting here on a rock with a cup of coffee, a month old unshaved beard, a week worth of grim and crud buildup on me and still a week away before I see my biweekly shower. I look out toward the Beardslee island entrance and see a cruise ship passing by. Anecdotally, I have noticed every time the cruise ships pass by the wildlife seem to decrease their activates. I have no idea if this is indeed the case but I can’t help but chuckle. There are hundreds of people who have paid a lot of money for a place on the floating 5-star resort to see “Wild Alaska”; yet the “Wild Alaska” seems to be hiding. For the local economy I hope they see and experience all that they hope for. My chuckle soon turns to out load laughter as I see the ship sail out of sight and not more than 5 minuets later I see a humpback whale surface followed by an awe inspiring fluke dive. Seconds later a group of 3 sea lions swim by, one with a fresh caught salmon hanging out of his mouth. I was not on the floating hotel nor was I on a sightseeing day trip boat. I’m just sitting trying to wake up and drink a cup of coffee before work.

I am quickly (and daily) reminded of a statement a retired wildlife biologist told me during my field season last year with a big grin, one that Chester cat would be envious of, “I wonder what poor people are doing right now”. I asked him what he meant by it after the first couple times he told me that. He explained to me that even though the pay is normally low or non-existent, how can you consider yourself poor when everyday for work you get to enjoy the wonders of nature. He explained that if we’re doing our job right we get to see the species who call this place home interact without outside influence, giving us a glimpse into their past present and future.

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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”.

Laura 

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.

*Phew*

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.