Watch and Listen

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.

Watch

Listen

(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales). 

The Little Things

IMG_1169What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: Phocoena phocoena, the harbor porpoise.

Due to their vessel aversion they are slightly hard to study, and their distribution, population structure, and acoustic behavior in the Park is still largely unknown. Harbor porpoise, while not an endangered species, are very susceptible to disturbance from noise. I’m not personally studying the impact of noise on these graceful creatures here in the park, but I am encouraging my team to come up with some creative study ideas.

While deterred by motorized vessels, harbor porpoise don’t appear to be disturbed by kayaks. These lovely animals often swim within meters of us when we survey on the water. Their vocalizations are too high frequency for our hydrophones to pick up, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re echolocating our equipment.

 

Three down one to go

Well folks, furlough has come to a close and it’s time to return to the island for Stint 4. This will be the last sampling period for the Acoustic Spyglass Project and as I sit here in Bartlett Cove I’m torn between sentimentality, gratitude, and the practical indifference that comes from knowing that while the end is near, this field season isn’t over yet. 

Transitions can be tricky (consider the life of a whale researcher studying migrating whales!), but they are valuable. The next 8 days give us a last chance to watch deeply and see if it is only us, the researchers, who are wrapping up the season, or to see if perhaps the wildlife is also shifting as late summer approaches. 

Fingers crossed we are attentive enough to notice.

The first group photo of Stint 4

The Talking Earth

*This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me how to read and how to listen*

When I was a small child my mother read a book called “The Talking Earth” out loud to my sister and I. As an adult I can’t quite remember the details, but it was about a Seminole girl alone in the woods interacting with plants, animals, wind and water in an effort to regain her faith in the power of nature. I vaguely remember her saving an abandoned otter pup and nursing it back to health and something lovely about a panther. What I poignantly recall, however, is a passage in the book about listening to the language of the earth as she nurses the otter; the beating hearts and warm bodies of mammals, the beating wings of the birds, and the sounds of rain and wind that collectively gives all animals a way of understanding the world. This book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.

Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about only one species, as it communicates with other animals of the same species, underwater, in the Beardslee Island Complex, in Glacier Bay Alaska. I dream about humpback whales calling in these waters at night (and often as I nap between shifts throughout our long days). But living on this island does something very kind for me, it speaks about more than just the whales. So a few days ago I stood alone on the beach at 4:07 am preparing to survey for whales and as the sun rose I took a few moments to listen to what the earth had to say to me.

The tide was shifting; I could see the water converging at our survey point. The clouds were rolling in on a southwest wind, and the fog was preparing to slowly take over the coastline in front of me. The loons called to each other in the pink turquoise rising sun. The family of oystercatchers that we watched last year gave one another their high cackling good morning greetings . The gulls squabbled, the sea lions yawned angry yawns. The earth woke up in pastel glory. When I was experiencing my first Alaskan winter I wrote that the Alaskan sun doesn’t burn, it blushes. This particular morning at 4am, the sun blushed and I was there to experience it.

It was a lovely moment for me. One of the few moments on the island when I was truly afforded solitude. Fieldwork is a strange bedfellow- the six of us are isolated on this island, yet we are never out of earshot of one another. I joke that we are isolated, together- and at 4am if given the chance to sleep in, our team will take it (and deserve it). Why I stayed up to survey myself? I’m not sure. Maybe I needed the space. Maybe when I woke up to check the weather it was too beautiful to go back to bed, and too foggy to be worth rousing my snuggling crew.

I’ve been going back and forth to that moment in my mind and it reminds me again of the book, The Talking Earth that my mother read to me as a child. It isn’t just the sounds of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is the subtle signals that the earth gives all those who inhabit it, humans included. It requires an attentiveness to hear the messages in nature, and therefore a desire to listen in the first place. Subtly is a divinely natural quality.

I realize in writing this that this is important to me because it’s how I try to run my field team. With grace and intention, routine and subtlety, with the expectation of the best of my crew, and with consistent communication. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but it is in this emulation of nature’s voice that I think we can both collect the best data possible (you can go back through this blog to learn more about the technical rigors of our field collection), while absorbing the many lessons that come from simply observing a place for as long as we are privileged to observe the waters of Strawberry Island.

The scientist in me doesn’t sleep through these sorts of introspections. My job, among many in science, is to try and take these intangibles and make them tangible. My job as a creative human is to do this without losing the essence of what makes these observations incredible. So I won’t deny that in my grand sunrise moment I grinned a little knowing that all of the glorious things I was listening to were being recorded by a two tiny terrestrial recorders that were lent to me by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (thanks to my advisor Holger and BRP!). When I’m not in the field I’ll post some clips of the Talking Earth here in Glacier Bay, I’d encourage you to close your eyes and imagine being here. Here are a few photos to help you along.

Your Alaskan Correspondent,

Miche

 

 

Incumbent

There was a point in the not too distant past when the mayor of the small town of Gustavus also ran the landfill. The mayor position is a one year gig, today Paul continues to run the landfill. After leaving his political career behind he seems content to talk about recycling (if you meet him ask him about co-mingling), and to be exuberantly invested in his town. While I didn’t get the chance to ask him if his time spent as mayor changed how he viewed Gustavus, I am certain it changed his body of knowledge about his community.

This is, in many ways, how I view returning to Strawberry Island – as an incumbent mayor who has been recently elected to a second term. Our initial field team was tasked with establishing a small (and ephemeral) community on Strawberry Island; our little peninsula consisted of five human citizens, approximately 30 humpback whale citizens, and a large un-censused population of voles, birds, and of course harbor seals. The structure we established during our first term in office is holding up well — protocols are streamlined, our tasks are efficiently assigned and completed, our well oiled machine was restarted with relative ease. But there is a tacit anticipation that this year on the island we will accomplish more, grow more, and see more than we saw last year.

But I’m not much of a politician really; my goal is not to out-do 2015 but to strive to be as humbled by this year’s field season as we were by last year’s field season. So how do we do that?

Well, so far life is peppered with heaps of humpback whales (we had a day with 10-15 whales in the survey area and another 10 or so just out of sight), sunset kayaks, sunrise surveys, and visitors to break bread with on the island. Our oyster catchers are alive and well, and though I can’t confirm, I think they may be nesting. The harbor porpoise have calved and are regularly visitors to our island cove. In short, life on the island is bustling.

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We arrived on the island just as the whales moved into the area. (photo credit: L. Matthews)

In slightly sadder news, this year a Glacier Bay whale nicknamed Festus was found dead in the water. Two of our team members, Luke and myself were able to participate in the necropsy of this well known animal. Festus was among the first (if not the first) humpback whale to be ID’ed in Glacier Bay. He was first photographed in 1972, and has been a regular inhabitant of the Park ever since. It’s difficult to say at this point if his death was tragic, or whether it was simply time, but my hope is that the samples we were able to extract and the evidence that we gathered on the beach last week will help solve the mystery of his death.

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Luke and I had the privilege of spending a day with an amazing necropsy team.

Thought the event was sad (I described it as feeling like a funeral for someone who made you so happy you that giggle through their service despite yourself), our necropsy team was inspiring. In the company of Glacier Bay’s humpback whale monitoring team (Chris, Janet, and Lou), bear biologist Tania (talk about women in science!), BC based veterinarian Stephen (nicest man ever, even when covered in whale blood), and the slew of Gustavus-folk who just happened to show up (Of course, when you need an MD most she and her entire family of science minded enthusiasts will be camping nearby)!

I realize as I’m wrapping this up that I’m not really doing our first few weeks in the field justice; maybe it’s because I’m exhausted, or possibly the allure of Gustavus on the Fourth of July has my mind wandering. What I did learn last year is that the photos never do it justice, the stories always miss the details, and that even the mayor needs the day off from time to time.

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.

CC Kernel Map
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

Failing Gracefully

It’s been big year; there have been many successes and a few failures. Most recently Leanna, David and I flew to Glacier Bay National Park (#FindYourPark) to deploy the four elements in our hydrophone array, and we failed. We were not able to deploy any of our instruments. We did however, fail gracefully.

Poise under pressure is something that I learned from ice; I was recently reminded of this when we were in Juneau (my unofficial hometown) standing in front of the Mendenhall Glacier, which I’ve seen a thousand times before. It took cold, pressure, and time to make that glacier. In the Juneau spring light the glacier glistens like the gemstone it is. When I’m under pressures I strive to transform myself the same way glaciers do, with grace and quiet poise.

We were, in large part, capable of this during our failed deployment trip. Steadfast in her optimism Leanna kept us moving forward from solution to solution, and true to my glacial training I think I kept up with cool head and rational mind. While we were disappointed that we could not fix our broken hydrophones in time to meet out deployment schedule, we were never actually ‘stressed’ about the decision. It was clear that the decision not to deploy was the right one. Better not to put our precious ears into the water now, then to pull them up in October and discover they haven’t been listening.

What happened?  It’s small and technical, but it had to do with using a 9-volt battery to do a job that it wasn’t big enough to do. A simple mistake in a complicated process, one that may have been avoided if perhaps I’d had more experience programming hydrophones in PicoDos- but then how do we gain experience if not by doing things for the first time? I could point fingers, place blame, or beat myself up, but where’s the poise in that?

So Leanna and I are headed back to Alaska next week to try again. I hope we don’t fail a second time, but if we do I’m confident we’ll learn something along the way, and that the whales and seals will not stop calling as a result.

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.