So, from time to time the media finds that our work as scientists is worth highlighting. Today, a short article came out in Hakai Magazine highlighting our work on solitary foragers in Southeast Alaska. For a brief recap of what we found, and the short story behind how we found it read below:
Following up on my last blog post (about culture) I thought I’d start this post with a quote. In the epic words of the Rolling Stones “you can’t always get what you want.”
I’m in Monterey Bay, California right now doing some fieldwork with my friend and colleague Dave Cade (a PhD student at Stanford) and as the quote alluded field work is filled with surprises.
I came down to help Dave tag humpback whales as part of his dissertation work with Jeremy Goldbogen on humpback whale kinesthetics and foraging ecology. Admittedly my interest is this visit is three-fold. First, I wanted to see my buddy Dave. Dave and I have worked together a long time and have been attempting to collaborate on project since we finished up our M.S. degrees in OSU’s College of Earth Oceans and Atmospheric Science. Second, I needed some training on tagging whales in preparation for my own fieldwork. As an addendum to my already rich PhD research I’ve been designing a tagging playback experiment that I am piloting with Dave’s help this summer from my favorite Five Finger Lighthouse. This July we’ll be playing back social sounds (Whups and Feeding Calls) to humpback whales in Frederick Sound. The ultimate goal is to play sounds to tagged whales, so we can assess dive responses (should there be any), changes in foraging behavior, and of course, approach and avoidance behavior. We’ll also have a hydrophone in the water to document any acoustic responses from our focal animal. It seemed wise to me to actually participate in a tagging event prior to trying to pull this off. Lastly, I’m getting close to finishing up my PhD at Oregon State, and I’m trying to spread my wings and collaborate with more labs, institutes, and groups to see where my next few years as an acoustic ecologist might take me. A trip to visit my friend Dave at Stanford seemed like a great start.One of the folks I’ve been eager to meet is John Calambokidis, founder and research biologist of the Cascadia Research Institute. Cascadia is a non-profit organization that is, in my estimation, the best example of non-profit research in the United States. They successfully couple research of scientific merit with applied management implications. Further, they do so with humor, grace, and (from my outward eye and by their reputation), real concern for the environment. From this description, one can glean my excitement to introduce myself to John.
Well, spoiler alert, this weekend hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. In part, I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now writing this. I am not tagging whales. Yesterday, despite our greatest efforts, we did not tag whales. We also did not run echo sounders or fly drones. In the words of my friend Dave Cade “it was a bust”. For me though, this weekend was more than a bust. Prepare yourself for the story I will tell for the rest of my life when someone asks me about my most embarrassing moment.
It’s about 8:15 a.m. We have seen, but not successfully tagged any of the humpback whales milling about Monterey Bay. I’ve not fallen on my face, said anything offensive, or made myself look overly confident while working on our 9 meter open air rigid hull inflatable. This should be easy enough. I’ve done fieldwork in Alaska, Hawaii, Antarctica, and the Oregon Coast. I spent months of my life living and working on boats. Not looking like a fool on the water should have been a given.
Now it’s 8:45 a.m., and we are a little further from shore. The swell has rolled in and, despite a lack of wind chop, the boat is noticeably rising and falling in the 8-13 foot rollers. At this point John begins to ask me about my research. We’ve met once before and he’s somewhat familiar with what I do. For whatever reason, however, I’m unable to articulately respond. This, for those of you who know me, should come as a surprise. Articulate is my secret middle name. It’s my tiny super power. It’s what I rely on when I am feeling foolish, lost or uncomfortable, and at 8:45 a.m., for whatever reason, my super power is gone, my brain, fuzzy, my mouth dry, my tongue uncoordinated. John continues, politely, to ask me about my work and as I worked through the rubber in my mouth to respond I realized something. My only option is, as politely as possible, to raise my hand ask John Calambokidis to please wait a moment, so I may vomit over the side of the vessel. Repeatedly.
There it is. Networking.
Moreover, as it turns out the simple act of talking turned out to be the trigger. So over the course of the day (we did stay on the water) every time I attempted to have more than a four word conversation, I’d have to politely excuse myself to throw up. Repeatedly. How can I speak more plainly: talking to John the founder and director of the Cascadia Research Institute, made me vomit. #NeverGettingHiredAnywhere.
To add insult to injury, we didn’t tag any whales yesterday. The behavior of the animals, possibly in combination with rising afternoon winds, and we couldn’t quite seal the deal. The drone pilot who’d been scheduled to join us on the water took a page out of my book and – not having a reputation as a seamen to uphold – asked to be returned to shore before he tossed his cookies. For me though, to add injury to injury my sensitive tummy didn’t let up until this morning, two hours after Dave and company left without me on flat calm waters to go tag whales again. I won’t go into the fine scale details of why I couldn’t go out today (I would have been happy to spend the day throwing up on the side of the boat again if it would salvage my poor reputation), but it suffices to say that while one can maintain some grace while vomiting over the side of the boat, if the tummy problems manifest in a different form… one should stay home.So here I am, at a lovely coffee shop in Monterey Bay, trying to imagine how I may have better prepared for this trip to avoid such calamities. There are some options, certainly, but none of them obvious or foolproof. So what I am left with instead is not how to avoid this situation in the future (I will inevitably be sea-sick again), but how to handle my current situation with as much grace as possible.
This, dear readers, is where I (as always) return to the esoteric. I once believed that in life I had, at the very least, control over my actions, my words, and my body. As it turns out, this weekend I relinquished that control to the ocean; and, if I think broadly, that is where the balance of power rightfully belongs.
So, rather than fight the literal movement of nature, I am left instead seeking grace. Grace is found in humility. Humility found in humor. So rather than crawl in a hole and cry, I’m here. Writing this.
My strengths are not in successful networking. The word makes me uncomfortable. When asked to put my “best foot forward” I have a tendency to take a step backwards. Forgiveness, on the other hand, and sincerity, these are my strengths. So, today I tell my ego to take a few days rest. I forgive the ocean for exposing my weaknesses and begin mentally drafting the email I’ll send to John Calambokidis next time I want to talk about collaborations. It will start: “Dear John, you may remember me as the girl that vomited repeatedly from your boat. I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on an acoustics project?”
What 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.
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.
*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,
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.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. 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.
The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.
Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.
The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.
One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.
When I first started grad school in OSU’s College of Oceanography I learned a few important things. The first, is what the acronym “PhD” actually stands for (see title). The second was a trick for finding out if you were ‘really‘ doing oceanography, if it’s too heavy to lift, too expensive to lose, and you drop it to the bottom of the ocean anyway, then you are in fact doing oceanography. I’m not sure if I’m happy to report or not, but after three and a half years of grad school (I know, even I’m surprised I’ve been here that long) I can finally understand what I was taught on that fitful first day of class.
To say that I’ve been busy is true, but isn’t very interesting. Busy is relative. So instead I’ll highlight a few of my major accomplishments from over the past month, and the friends and colleagues who helped me get there — because as I’ve said many times before, science is collaborative.
Accomplishment #1: Build anchors
Team: Myself, John Flynn (my husband), David Culp (my intern), special guest appearances from Florence van Tulder of the Marine Mammal Institute and Vista and Luna Tunes (my dogs).
My dissertation research hinges on the successful deployment of four Autonomous Underwater Hydrophones (AUH) which are mounted on aluminum landers and sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Glacier Bay National Park. These hydrophones are recovered six months later with the use of an acoustic release system (see my earlier blog posts from Antarctica for details on the acoustic release). This system only works if the hydrophones don’t drift away. There is no handbook for studying acoustic ecology (there is no really handbook for getting a PhD either… it’s more of a choose your own adventure book). While this system has been deployed in all the worlds oceans, each deployment is unique.
Which means we had to design a mooring system, including the anchors. Sparing you the nitty gritty details of why I couldn’t just buy anchors (4 landers x 4 feet on each lander = 16 feet needing anchors = $$$$$) what ended up happening was a little lesson in density (100 pounds of concrete on land = ~ 60 pounds of concrete in water), a few hilarious interactions with the great folks over at Englund Marine & Industrial Supply (“Hi, I’d like to buy 600 pounds of lead cannonballs. Oh, that’s all of the cannonballs? Ok, yeah. I’ll take them. And all of your 5-gallon buckets too.”), a few very long days of pouring concrete (where my intern David proved to be the most valuable intern on the face of the planet, and not just because his truck could hold 2500 pounds of concrete, and I realized I totally married the right guy), and voila we now have twenty lead/concrete anchors weighing 100-130 pounds each to keep our equipment snugly on the sea floor. Phew.
Accomplishment #2: Host Conference
Team: Myself, Shea Steingass (MMI), Courtney Hann (MMI), Selene Fregosi (ORCAA), Niki Diogou (ORCAA), with guest appearances by David Culp (my intern… again), and Kat Nikolich (former intern and Western Washington Grad Student)
So, I am one of two student representatives to the Northwest Student Chapter for the Society for Marine Mammalogy (NWSSMM). I attended my first chapter meeting in 2012 and have been an active member in the chapter ever since. This year we offered to host our annual chapter meeting, for the first time, at Oregon State University. I spearheaded the conference along with Shea (mistress of swag) with the logistical support of ORCAA and the grad students of MMI. Kat and David jumped in to help with shopping and set up (phew). I’m also proud to report that this year’s conference was sponsored! The Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Marine Mammal Institute, and OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife all generously funded this year’s conference. As a result we were able to offer free registration to all of our undergraduate students, and to provide mugs to each of our conference attendees (with a super cool logo, designed by Shea). We had record high attendance with 70 conference goers, not including our panel of experts, and our generous graders (Holger was one of our generous graders- thanks Holger!).
The feedback we got from our panelists (Drs. Leigh Torres of MMI, Markus Horning of MMI, Ari Friedlaender of MMI, and ORCAA’s own Sharon Nieukirk) was that the caliber of the presentations was impressive, the day ran smoothly (we had coffee breaks!), and that the students were engaged. The feedback we got from our students was that the panel was insightful, the presence of a wide range of professionals at the conference was exciting, and that the keynote talk by Dr. Ari Friedlaender was “tha bomb”.
The inclusion of a panel was new this year, and reflects the wide range of marine mammal professionals that we have in the OSU community. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of technology and the role of the human observer as well as the pros and cons of a PhD, and balancing life and work. I know that for those of you in the field of marine mammal science that this doesn’t seem like a breakthrough, but these fundamental topics are essential to both the progress of our field, and our humanity. When asked what he looked for in a graduate student Dr. Markus Horning astutely brought up animal welfare, and seeking students who had a vested interest in the safety and health of the animals we study. Dr. Ari Friedlaender pointed out that a drive to understand the science is as important (or perhaps more important) than the drive to love the species. Sharon and Leigh both spoke up about the role of quantitative skills (modeling, programming), as well as what it means to travel abroad, and to spend time in the field observing. Perhaps most poignantly was the conversation about what we sacrifice to study marine mammals, and the loss of women between the post-doc and faculty stages. These conversations continued long into the night after the conference, and were rehashed this past Monday when Holger took the lab out to dinner (thanks again Holger!).
I think that is largely the point of these conferences, to learn about the science, to network and meet new colleagues or revisit old ones, and to inspire conversations about topics that may not always make it into the room (like when we’re too busy pouring concrete to think about whether or not having a baby as a PhD student is realistic). In any case, the conference was a great success (from which I needed some serious recovery). Here’s a photo to prove how happy everyone was.
Accomplishment #3: Ship Hydrophones to Alaska (as well as the rest of the gear)
Team: Myself, Matt Fowler (NOAA), David Culp (you really should know this name by now), Holger Klinck, Sharon Nieukirk.
This post is getting long (you’re still reading! I’m shocked, I would have checked out a few paragraphs ago… but then again I’m ‘busy’). While this section has actually taken up the bulk of my time, describing exactly what it was I’ve been doing is difficult. The answer is fitting shackles, splicing line, shopping at Costco (thanks Sharon!), assembling and programing hydrophones (thanks Matt!), zip-tying, drilling holes in metal, taping things, buying heavy things, lifting heavy things, talking about heavy things (thanks David! for all of the ‘heavy things’), and then finally shipping heavy things (although they were nicely packaged onto pallets in meaningful ways).
I had a student ask me a few weeks ago what studying whales was like: industrial, I said. This is the little glorified part of field biology. The ability to assemble moorings, and work through the logistics (3/8″ line vs. 5/16″, where do I buy nylon insulator bushings?), problem solve on your feet (we can’t afford that much heavy chain, what else is heavy and made of lead?), paired with the ability to handle problems calmly when they arise (the manufacturer sent the wrong pair of release housings and now the instruments don’t fit. Hmm…what to do). I haven’t seen a whale in months; meanwhile the nice guy at Englund Marine went surfing with porpoise while watching gray whales this week. To study animals that live in the ocean in a meaningful way means developing a method to observe them, without changing them. This can be hard, labor intensive, and logistically complicated. It’s also satisfying, practical, valuable, and at times ridiculous. So I’ll tell you this, when the foam inserts that I needed to ship my acoustic releases were accidentally thrown away by the custodians Matt Fowler gave me the grand tour of dump sites at HMSC, and when we got to a large dumpster with my boxes in it? I didn’t hesitate.
In the end, we got the container loaded with gear (anchors, landers, hydrophones, food, shackles, lines, buckets, tarps, and one hula hoop). Matt and I sighed a collective sigh of relief before we closed the door and gave that metal box a pat. Working with Matt was a pleasure, and as he pointed out now that the hydrophones are built and shipped, our job together is done. This caught me off guard a little; building the hydrophones is just the beginning. Next stop, Glacier Bay.