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.

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~

Meet our 2012 Interns!

If you’ve been reading along you should know that from mid-fall until early spring the Rapunzel Project has been on the search for interns.  Not only is coming to the Five Finger Lighthouse an amazing learning experience for any burgeoning nature enthusiast, but to be quite frank: I couldn’t do it alone. 

While the academic focus of the project is to determine the impact of vessel noise on humpback communication, it is important to the Alaska Whale Foundation, and to me personally, that all research have an educational component.  Science should have the goal of positively impacting something larger than itself, both in nature and in society.

Bearing this preamble in mind, this year twelve interns will join us at the Five Finger Lighthouse.  Our interns come from 4 different countries (US, Canada, Spain, Peru), and 9 different universities (Boston University, U. Vic, U. Miami, Eckerd College, Oregon State, University of Alaska Southeast, UW-Whitewater, U. Geulph and Cal Poly).  We collectively speak 3 languages fluently- and can probably get by with a few more in dire need.  Interns range from college freshman to recent graduates. 

They have studied in Australia, the Amazon, Ecuador, and Africa.  They have researched marine and terrestrial invertebrates, benthic ecology, oceanography, marine mammalogy and many forms of biology in between. They have volunteered at aquariums, zoos, and conservation organizations, worked on whale watching boats, in labs, and their fair share of restaurants.

We are extremely excited and proud to have them join the Rapunzel Project’s 2012 field season!

Wrapping Things Up

First, I’d like to thank everyone who submitted internship applications with us.  We had more submissions than I ever anticipated.  It’s been very difficult making final decisions, and we had far more qualified applicants than we had positions available.

We’ve concluded our review process and have contacted applicants to offer them internships.  At this point I am compiling a wait list of additional qualified applicants in the event that a position becomes available.  I will begin contacting all of you personally in the upcoming days.

As I mentioned, this was much harder than I anticipated.  I appreciate your enthusiasm for the project and your patience with the decision making.  Please keep checking back for news as the project unfolds.  As additional opportunities arise I will post them here.

Good luck and many thanks,


These things take time…

Hello Out There!

I wanted to post an update on the current state of our internships.  I know it seems like we are moving at snail’s pace, but I assure you we’re sorting things out as quickly as logistics  allow.  I was hoping to have all of our decisions finalized this week, but  I think it may be a little longer yet before all of our applicants are contacted and final decisions are made.

Alaskan winter’s are harsh- bitter cold, with daylight only momentarily opening her eyes… if she opens them at all.  For those of you who have experienced Alaska you know that time here moves at a pace and scale all it’s own.  In summer, with it’s endless daylight, time and resources are abundant and productivity is high.  Nature’s balance demands, however, that summer’s plenitude be countered by the paucity of winter.  It takes a long time for things to happen in an Alaskan January.

As we make the plans that will ultimately lead us to  a successful field season I remind myself of a few things:

1) We have over 4 months until our field season begins (4 months and 26 days to be exact)

2) Alaska is not at my beckon call… in some cases it’s not even near cell service

3) These things take time.

Thanks for your patience.  I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.


"There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea."

               -T.S. Eliot
                The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Questions… Answers

First let me say thank you to all of the intern candidates who’ve already sent in applications.  It’s been exciting to start reading over them.  For those of you who’ve expressed interest in applying but haven’t completed everything yet you do still have some time, but thanks for keeping in touch.

I’ve gotten a few questions from applicants that I thought other might benefit from as well.  I’ll update this list as more questions come in.

  • Q: “I’m a vegetarian, will that work with the 3 meals a day provided?”
  • A: Absolutely.  We eat very well at the lighthouse and can accommodate most diets (I mentioned before, but I don’t think we could accommodate a raw food diet… we’re simply too remote for that).  Vegetarianism, however, is a piece of cake.  Last year we handled vegan diets, vegetarian diets, and peanut allergies without breaking a sweat. I’ve been a vegetarian for 5 years myself and last year I did most of the cooking at the lighthouse (with no complaints from non-vegetarians I might add).  We do try to supplement store bought food with sustainably caught seafood from around the lighthouse (caught by the interns) whenever possible.  Last year one of our interns caught a halibut large enough to feed the crew for weeks.  We bring LOTS of vegetables with us from Petersburg when we come out, and are still working through possible delivery systems with boats in the area.
  • Q: “Will there be any photo identification?”
  • A: No.  Our project is not contingent of identifying individual whales.  Part of the beauty of using the lighthouse as a research platform is that we get to observe the whales relatively unaffected by human presence (i.e. a large vessels).  We are looking for contrasts in behavior in the presence and absence of vessels. A photo identification scheme that necessitates approaching whales on the water nullifies this goal.
  • Q: “How often will we be on the water?”
  • A: Daily, weather permitting.  We hope to have a hydrophone in the water as much as possible (12 hours a day ideally).  This requires an intern to be in the skiff operating it.  All interns will have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to handle the skiff.
  • Q: “Do whales ever approach the skiff?”
  • A: I don’t know what the whales will do in the future, but in the past?  Yes.  As did 700 lb sea lions, harbor seals, and Dall’s porpoise.
  • Q: “Are there other marine mammals in the area other than humpback whales?”
  • A: Yes!  See above for a short list.  Additionally we did see killer whales last year.  There is a harbor seal that regularly hauls out at the south end of the island to visit with.
  • Q: “Are there kayaks on the island?”
  • A: Yes there are.  We have 2 kayaks on the island currently, and there is the possibility of getting a third, and possibly a 4th for the summer.
  • Q: “What’s the easiest way to get to Petersburg, AK from  ___(fill in the blank)____?”
  • A: Alaska airlines services Petersburg, AK multiple times daily.  Most flights are routed through either Seattle, WA or Anchorage, AK.  Check their website ( for more specific information on flights.
  • Q: “Is it possible to stay for 3 weeks instead of 4?” Or “is it possible to come at the beginning of the month instead of the middle?”
  • A: Unfortunately, no.  There is no public transportation to or from the lighthouse, and it is approximately 30 miles away from the nearest town.  We will be chartering a boat to bring interns to the light from Petersburg, AK, but unless it’s an emergency we will not be traveling back and forth to town otherwise.  Thus ducking out early, or coming late can’t realistically be accommodated.
  • Q: “What are the exact dates of the internship?”
  • A: I don’t know yet.  We’re still working out the details with the Juneau Lighthouse Association.  I’ll post dates (and likely email them out as well) as soon as I have them!


Hope this is helpful.  Feel free to send me other questions as they arise.