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.

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…

ExtraTuf

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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Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

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The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Antarctica the Day After Tomorrow: Part Three

The day after tomorrow we will arrive in icy waters on the R/V Araon. It will take another few days to break through the ice and arrive at the Jang Bogo. The overarching mission of the KOPRI project is to investigate ice dynamics in the Ross Sea/ Terra Nova Bay region, with particular interest in the Drygalvski Ice Tongue. We’ve just entered Antarctic waters (we passed the 60 degree parallel late last night), and we’re getting closer.

An interlude: there is a lot of time to burn on the ship. Most people spend time working (I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and processing data for my first manuscript) but in the evenings, after our daily science meeting, we watch movies. Last night we watched “The Day After Tomorrow”. The premise of the movie is far fetched- paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) predicts a catastrophic climactic shift 100-1000 years in the future and it actually takes place instantaneously in the next 48 hours. Due to the melting of Antarctica the earth’s ocean has become desalinized, the Gulf Stream has cooled, and climate goes haywire throwing us into an instantaneous ice age.

Is it possible? To the best of my scientific knowledge- no. However, there’s an interesting line in the movie when Dennis Quaid (NOAA scientist) asserts, “We know that Antarctica has been melting, but no one knows how much fresh water it puts into the ocean, or understands anything about ice dynamics!” Evidently the entire fiasco could have been avoided if we just knew more about Antarctic ice!

Well, the movie had it way off, but they got one thing close to right. We are investigating ice dynamics in Antarctica. The NOAA-Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) is part of an integrated effort to understand just that -ice dynamics in Antarctica. The hydrophone that I’m sent to recover for PMEL (in cooperation with KOPRI) has been listening to the sound of shifting ice. If you are unaware that ice makes noise, well you have been missing one of life’s great sound effects. While I haven’t had the chance to listen to Antarctic sea ice you may remember from a previous blog post that I was part of a team that analyzed a years worth of acoustic data from the Arctic where winter sea ice abounds. The sea ice sings, wheezes, moans, cracks, and whirs. It sounds like an abiotic opera, and could easily be the character in a science fiction movie (Marvin the Martian was a Bearded seal… remember? Well, perhaps Sea Ice is his alien companion?).

But these squeaks, wheezes, and moans are more than the musical byproducts of ice- they are data. Sound can be used to infer the state of the ice, whether it is melting, moving, or quaking. In short, similar to using passive acoustic monitoring to understand ecosystem dynamics of baleen whale species, we can also use passive acoustic monitoring to understand something about polar ice dynamics. And if Dennis Quaid has taught us anything it’s that ignoring Antarctic sea ice could destroy Manhattan, this weekend (well… maybe not). More likely, understanding Antarctic ice dynamics will give us critical information linked to sea level rise and shifting climactic regimes. Not quite as sexy as destroying Manhattan- but equally as important.

Over and Out.

Your Antarctic Correspondent, Michelle

 

PS- Did I mention we passed the 60 Degree Parallel! I’m at the bottom of the world!

Antarctica Part II: Setting Sail

We are at sea! After a several day weather delay at our port in Lyttleton, NZ the R/V Araon has finally departed and is making her way south. The first hour at sea was magical. Every science team on the boat (of which there are several) made their way to the helicopter pad to take photographs of the blue New Zealand waters, the ever diminishing landscape, and of course, each other.

The highlight of the departure was the arrival of several small pods of Hectors dolphins who escorted us out of the bay! I am the only marine mammalogist on the boat, but I was clearly not the only one excited to see the dolphins. Admittedly I had slunk inside to change my laundry over when one of the Kiwi helicopter pilots graciously hunted me down and dragged me back outside so I wouldn’t miss them.

Hectors Dolphins

Hectors dolphins just outside of Lyttleton Harbor, NZ. The viewing of a lifetime!

The same pilot also stood on the deck with me for nearly an hour that same evening telling me everything he knew about pelagic seabirds (which is admittedly more than I know), and pointing out how they use the wind funneling off the Araon similarly to a helicopter. The albatross are amazing! I wish I could identify them to species, but as a first time Southern Ocean visitor I’m clueless. Everything I know I learned in my afternoon at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, or Ricky the Kiwi pilot taught me.

A little about the demographics of our ship. The Araon is a Korean icebreaker (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) run by KOPRI (the Korean Polar Research Institute). I’m part of an oceanographic team working under Chief Scientist Dr. Won Sang Lee (KOPRI). Our team is made up of myself (representing the NOAA/PMEL Bioacoustics Lab), a German Oceanographer who will be recovering three Ocean Bottom Seismometers (OBS), one Korean micro-biologists, one Korean geoscientist, one Korean geoscientist/acoustician, and one Australian oceanographer. We meet nightly at 2000 (8PM) to debrief the day, make any plans, and to discuss our research. Won Sang presented an overview of the KOPRI mission in Antarctica at our meeting last night including our role at PMEL on the acoustics side of things (despite the incessant and nauseating rolling of the ship). I’ll be presenting some of my work at our meeting tonight, despite my research occurring a hemisphere away (although keep me down here long enough and suddenly my research will develop an Antarctic component).

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Albatross keeping good company on the winds of the R/V Araon. Species anyone?

Ours is not the only crew, however. There are five scientists from PRNA (the Italian Polar Research Institute) who are hitching a ride on the Araon as they prepare to summer in the Mario Zuchelli Research Base in Terra Nova Bay. They are studying the impacts of ocean acidification on polar macro invertebrates. There are two NOAA researchers headed to the Jang Bogo base to install a space weather radar. The methodology of their work is actually very similar to mine (wavelengths and physics) but what they’re actually doing is still beyond me. There are also two Russian ice pilots on board whose job it is to navigate us through the ice when we get into the Ross Sea, and a Finnish fellow who has been unfortunately seasick since we boarded the Araon. Lastly, and certainly not least, there is a team of Korean scientists (largely geo-scientists) headed down to summer at Jang Bogo Station and do all manner of measurement and experiments.

Oh! How could I forget! There are three Kiwi helicopter crew onboard. Two pilots and an engineer. I adore them.

All said and totaled there are about 30 crew members on the boat, and about 45 scientists/passengers on the vessel. There are three women; myself, my amazing roommate Ombretta, and Sukyoung from our research team. Ombretta will depart at the ice for the summer, and we will be down to two.

A few things I wished I had known before I came (silly living things, for anyone trying to get info on daily life at the R/V Araon).  There is a refrigerator in every cabin, and also a hair dryer.  The power source is European style and in 220v- this is very important for instrumentation.  Make sure you have a converter (not a just and adapter!). The beds are hard but clean, a sleeping bag goes a long way.  The food is very Korean (we had steamed octopus in chilli sauce yesterday), they make a bold effort to include western style food, but it’s just that, an effort.  Bring tea if that’s your thing (it’s mine), there is green tea on the boat, nothing else.

Good advice I was given (thanks Matt!): bring an HDMI cable.  There are TV’s everywhere you can hook your computer into.  Spices go a long way.  There is white rice at every meal, bring a little cumin, garlic salt and spinach?  You’ve got a decent meal.  Bring a mug.  All beverages are served in small metal cups.  They get very hot, and hold very little.  A to-go mug has made my life much better.  Especially since I’m on the third deck, and tea water is on the main level.

Other than that the rooms are very accommodating, there is wifi throughout the boat (albeit very slow wifi), and ample space to spread out.  There is also a sauna and a karaoke machine- but only time will tell if I dare to use them.

Over and Out.

 

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

Getting My Feet Wet

Hello Acoustics Aficionados!

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve!  I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear.  This temperate rain forest stops for no one.  A welcome relief given Oregon's hot dry summer

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve! I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear. This temperate rain forest stops for no one. A welcome relief given Oregon’s hot dry summer

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about my upcoming trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and my big “Solo” adventure into the great Alaskan Wilderness.  Well I’m happy to report the trip was an enormous success and — like so many endeavors in science — all of my “solo” work was accomplished through collaboration.

The purpose of the trip was threefold (1) familiarize myself with Glacier Bay and the surrounding community, (2) identify a viable field site that would enable Leanna and I to meet our dissertation goals, and (3) to build and maintain relationships (with the area and with the people).  In short, my goal was all about getting my feet wet in the world of Glacier Bay research, which as it turned out was an extremely easy to accomplish literally and figuratively — Southeast Alaska is very very wet.

Xtra-Tuffs.  Don't leave home without them.  Further, it's how airport employees know you'll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

Xtra-Tuffs. Don’t leave home without them. Further, it’s how airport employees know you’ll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

The nearest airport to Glacier Bay is in the diminuative village of Gustavus (small town, big character).  Living in Juneau off and on for years I’d heard a lot about this tiny place — slow bicycle races and town-wide pancake breakfasts on the Fourth of July, a community garden that would make most Alaskans blush.  With a population that ranges from 350-600 (with an influx of seasonal workers in the summer) Gustavus isn’t exactly what you’d call a city, even by Alaskan standards… and it’s not so easy to get there.

I traveled via shuttle from Corvallis to PDX (nothing new here) and hopped a flight to SeaTac Airport where I settled in for a cozy overnight on an airport bench.  It felt very familiar.  Traveling to and from Southeast Alaska (for less than a small fortune) requires patience, a little bit of traveler’s tenacity, and typically an overnight in Seattle.  Sipping an evening tea and looking around the airport I was not the only one with Xtra-Tuffs on bunking down for the night… there were quite a few of us headed home.

It's a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

It’s a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

A 6-hour layover in Juneau was just enough time for coffee with University of Alaska- Fairbanks PhD student and humpback whale biologist Suzie Teerlink, who filled me in on some of the details of her citizen science initiatives, whale watch cooperative efforts, and some of the in’s and out’s of her Juneau fluke ID project. My first foray into humpback whale research was working with Suzie on some of these projects in their infancy, and was exciting to see how much they’d grown!  We wrapped up our reunion with a quick hike before heading over to Wings of Alaska and boarding the 6-seater Cessna 207 turboprop aircraft that would safely transport me over over the mountains and fjords and set me down in Gustavus, AK. There I was warmly greeted by the Park whale biologist (and co-PI on our project) Chris Gabriele.

Over the next few days I had the chance to meet a number of the Park Staff (fisheries biologists, bear biologists, research technicians, administrators and more!), and importantly Chris and I had the opportunity to talk (face-to-face) about humpback whale non-song vocalizations — also called social sounds — produced in Southeast Alaska.  Chris and her colleague Lauren Wild of the Sitka Sound Science Center have a new study coming out in the Journal of the Canadian Acoustics Associations on the acoustic properties and usage patterns of the humpback whale “whup” call.  The call (which can be heard here), which is a putative contact call, plays a large role in my research past and present.  I hope to build off of the work they began at the Park to understand more about how humpback whale use this and other vocalizations, as well as how vessel noise may change vocal behavior (including producing the “whup” call) or limit acoustic communication space.  More details on that, and the first chapter of my dissertation, in my next blog post.

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water?  Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water? Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Back to the trip, I would be remiss if I led you to believe that we spent all of our time talking (remember goals 1 & 2!).  While initially we didn’t think we’d have access to a boat (hence my initial decision to camp on the island for a few days), much to my excitement the Park research boat R/V Capelin came available.  My second day in the Park was spent on the water scouting for field sites, measuring bottom depths, marking waypoints for locations of interest, and kayaking through non-motorized waterways to scope out potential field sites.  I’m happy to report that we found one!  After eliminating what looked to be a lovely cliff (with lots of blind spots and bear scat), and a good hike around Bartlet Cove where the Park’s current hydrophone is deployed (and where vessels transit daily), it was the north east tip of Strawberry Island that made the final cut.  It might not look like much in the photos (did I mention that Glacier Bay is part of a rain forest?), but I think it’s exactly the spot we’re looking for.

It doesn't look like much here, but come summer 2015 we'll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

It doesn’t look like much here, but come summer 2015 we’ll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

With a field site decided (Goal 2, check!) one of the last things I was hoping to accomplish on my trip was to familiarize myself with the area, both terrestrial and aquatic. I was fortunate to spend another day on the water with Chris during one of her many whale surveys.  It was a great opportunity to view whale behavior in the Park, which I’d anticipated would be different than the behavior I’d observed in Juneau or in Frederick Sound (and qualitatively, it was different); but it also gave me the chance to see more of the Park wildlife (otters! so many otters!) and get a feel for how operations work there.  Part of getting familiar with an area involves knowing how to have the least negative impact both ecologically and culturally.

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

I took a camper orientation which gave me some good tips on how to minimize my impact on the island, but I also spent some time walking through the exhibits and chatting with Park employees, trying to get a feel for both the scientific community at the Park and the rich cultural heritage of the native people in the area.  Long before Glacier Bay became a national park it was the ancestral home to the Huna Tlingit people.  Near the end of the Little Ice age the glaciers (of which there are MANY) surged forward and the Tlingit were forced to abandon their settlements in the bay and move across Icy Straight to establish a new village.  To the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay remains their home.  In Barlett Cove (where the Park headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge are located) the presence of the Tlingit culture is palpable.  A Tlingit canoe is on display and current plans are underway for a Tlingit Tribal House.

In what I thought was a poignant manifestation of the culture of science alongside the culture of people, on the same path as the canoe is a structure housing the recently re-articulated skeleton of a humpback whale named Snow, who was struck by a vessel in the Park in 2007. Snow’s bones were buried, cleaned, sent to Maine for articulation and organization, and then finally returned to the Park for the final installation.  In a “Alaska’s such a small place” sort of way, one of my first field technicians, Linsday Neilson, was on the articulation team.  The skeleton was complete by the time I arrived, but I did manage to catch her for a long overdue hug on the dock.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names "Snow". Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names “Snow”. Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The John Hopkins Glacier in all her glory!

My last day in the Park I headed out early (5am early) and was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the small cruise ship the Baranof Dream which was headed up-bay toward the glaciers.  I spent the day on the boat as a tourist admiring the spectacular scenery and mingling with the passengers.  I spent the following two days as the “marine-biologist in residence”, giving talks about our research in the Park, pointing out wildlife, and harkening back to my days as a naturalist in Juneau (the killer whales were certainly a highlight too).

IMG_0505After a few days on the boat, I disembarked in my hometown Juneau, Alaska, exhausted, happy, inspired, a little damp and ready to go home….

 

 

 

But c’mon this is Alaska, you never get out that easy!!! Despite my efforts to leave straight away I ended up with an extra day in Juneau, and while I won’t go into the details of how the extra 36 hours went (that’ll have to be another blog post) you can see from the photo that it turned out pretty well.  Until next time!

-Michelle Fournet

Juneau Girl at Heart

Juneau Girl at Heart

 

A Session 3 Shout Out!

Well Rapunzel Project Followers… I got a message in my e-mail box the other day wondering where on this blog were all of the stories about Session 3?  I must admit, I was a little surprised by the comment at first- certainly all of the Session 3 posts were obvious!  But when I actually looked through the site I realized the criticism was well deserved!  Somehow in the end of season scuffle I forgot to recap our wonderful Session 3 interns!  Their absence is only exacerbated by the nostalgic posts that keep trickling in from earlier sessions…. My most sincere apologies!

Session 3 was as different from the first two Sessions as… to be trite… a humpback and a killer whale.  Session 1 may have felt at time like having a house full of rowdy kids (Disney songs abound), and Session 2 unabashedly called me ‘Mama Miche”, but the family dynamic is Session 3  was more like the zany antics of teenage sisters.  The lighthouse, on some nights at least, was transformed from a  serious research station to a kitchen dance party.  Guests in attendance:5.  We had 4:30am dance parties (getting ready for dawn surveys), we had midnight post-cruise-ship-lecture dance parties (thank goodness for a day off every now and then!), we had country Tuesday dance parties (to celebrate 12-hour sampling days of course), we had an 80’s Wednesday dance party (to celebrate the whales talking), we found every reason to wiggle and wile away the moments between the science.

The bulk of the resource restrictions fell on Session 3, who handled the situation with grace and humor.  When the rain finally did start to fall and water was once again abundant, well for some reason our water usage didn’t really go up.  Once you get used to something, particularly something important, shifting back to excess just doesn’t feel right.  And while I can’t speak for certain of what it was like for the rest of the girls when they got home, I know when we all arrived in Petersburg we couldn’t get over how much electricity people used!

All of the rigamarole aside however, one of the things Session 3 excelled at was  getting the job done.  The problem was never with getting them onto the water, only with keeping them off of it.  Session 3 not only entered in the bulk of our hydrophone data, they did it in the cold, wrapped in blankets, with smiles on their faces.  If I failed to taut their excellence, than that’s a testament to just how strange and overwhelming leaving the lighthouse is; because to forget Kat, Courtney, Lisa, and Alexa would be no easy task.

Go see some pictures of Session 3’s adventures on their meet the researchers page.  It’s still a work in progress, but may tell you a little more about what our season looked like at the end.

 

Closing Up Shop

Well Rapunzel Project Followers…. the field season is officially over.  The lighthouse has been zipped up and put to bed for the winter.  The research gear has been meticulously cleaned and set to rest.  Even Noble Stead, our faithful hydrophone zodiac has been deflated, de-barnacled, and gingerly wrapped for hibernation.
It was a glorious season, though not without its many challenges.  We battle wind and wave, we danced for water, whales, and sun.  We listened until our ears rang and our heads hurt, and we scanned the horizon for blows like true professionals.

I was unsure of at the end of the summer I would be able to successfully say that we accomplished what we set out to.  When starting a three month field season down the throat the potential for disaster looms thick.  Hindsight is blissful.  While I don’t know if our data will tell us anything, I do know that we heard things, saw things, and created relationships.  For that I can assure you every minute we spent on our 3 1/2 acre island was worth the effort.

Stay tuned for an updated meet the researchers page that will tell you more about the 12 interns who joined us, as well as an end of season report which will tell you exactly how many surveys we completed (upwards of 400), how many hours of hydrophone recordings we ended up with (it was 90 hours a few months ago), and just what we hope to do next (Rapunzel Project 2013- Focal Follows).  I’ll go through some of the 4,000 pictures that were taken and get some of those posted as well.

For now, I’m back to headphones (smelling of saltwater) and putting whales on maps, my head held high and my heart heavy with love.