What does “Prepping for a Field Season” actually mean?

I’m TAing a class right now.  While most grad students loathe that they have to do this, I love it.  I don’t mind the grading, the office hours, the e-mails, (the re-learning of things that I’ve long since forgotten so that I can adequately help undergrads who are learning it for the first time), and I love it when students ask me questions about my research.

Last week someone asked me what prepping for a field season actually means.  It took me a while to answer.  Ultimately, I told her it meant learning three new computer programs simultaneously, dreaming about statistics, and exercising every marketing guru trick that I know to get someone to listen to me talk about how important this whole project is…. and not just to me.  That’s why I love my research; because somewhere at its core it is larger than myself (and not just because my study species is an 80,000 pound leviathan).

In retrospect, while I think that quip suffices to answer the question, I don’t think that it is tangibly helpful for aspiring field biologists (or aspiring grad students).  So I thought, since prepping for our field season is in fact exactly what I’m doing these days I’d unpack the details of what that entails. For me it boils down to the following five things

  • Software Mastery
  • Logistics
  • Theory and Questions
  • Analysis
  • Sampling Protocol

Software Mastery

If I could offer a piece of advice to undergrad, post-bacc students, or whomever may be choosing classes for the future I’d say this: take classes that teach you to do something.  While it is obviously valuable to take classes that give you information, information is much easier to acquire than skill.  I loved my behavioral ecology classes, but I NEED statistics.

Currently I am learning three computer programs.  ArcGIS, Program R, and Ishmael.  ArcGIS is a geographic information science software package that I am using to map humpback whale distribution around the lighthouse.  It allows me to turn the numbers we so diligently recorded from the lighthouse tower into symbols on a map useful for analysis.  While I am typically reluctant to celebrate digitizing nature I must say, seeing those little blue dots on a map of Alaska for the first time, and knowing those were real whales seen from a real lighthouse was so satisfying I danced a little.  While a powerful program, ArcGIS is not too complicated for any computer savvy person to learn- particularly in a classroom setting.  I’m learning it on my own, and having just mastered the basics, I’m impressed and excited about just what happens next.  Now?  I need to take that enormous cluster of points (nearly 2,000 in all) and reduce them down to something meaningful.  I spend a lot of time working on this.

Why?  By creating a visual representation of what we recorded at the lighthouse I can  1) begin to see spatial patterns in distribution based on several variables; 2)I can attempt to gauge the effectiveness of our sampling protocol (ie. are hour long intervals too long to capture behavioral shifts?  Do patters of dispersion vary between survey sectors?); 3) I can run preliminary analysis on things like nearest neighbor distances (cluster analyses) to see if, as I hypothesize, something is actually happening when boats come through.  My advice to anyone hoping to move forward in marine mammals- take a GIS course.

I addition to ArcGIS I rely heavily on program R for statistical analysis.  R, in my opinion, is difficult to learn and difficult to use.  However, its free, open to the public, and once you learn how to write code for it (that’s correct, it’s one of those code writing deals) it’s extremely flexible.  I learned the basics of R in my statistics courses.  This quarter I’m putting that information to work in an effort to learn a few things about my data.

While the purpose of the study is to determine what impact, if any, vessel noise has on humpback whale communication and social behavior, it becomes important to be able to tease out whether or not humpbacks are reacting to boats, or whether they are reacting to their environment.  Are group sizes smaller midday because vessel traffic is heaviest?  Or is that a function of diel variability in humpback behavior?  To determine this a few things have to be done. First our sampling protocol needs to account for environmental variables. For example, I created a sampling protocol that attempted to control for tides, time of day, and vessel traffic.  This means that the lighthouse team is often up at 4 o’clock in the morning doing those dawn surveys, and often hauling kayaks and skiffs up rocky intertidal zones at the lowest, and seemingly most inconvenient, of tides.

Now, 9 months later, I look at those variable statistically to see whether or not they had an impact on thing like nearest neighbor distance, group size, frequency of surface behavior, and group composition.  If I find now that tides and time of day have no impact on these things: great. I can stop accounting for them in my sampling protocol and just focus on the meat of the matter: boats.  If I find they do have an impact (which it’s likely they do), no problem.  It just means that our analysis is richer and more complicated, like the whales themselves.  Ecology is not a neat science.  Nature is more complicated that a laboratory, thankfully.

Lastly, I’m learning Ishmael. Ishmael is a bioacoustics program developed by Dr. Dave Mellinger and the bioacoustics lab at the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies (CIMRS) at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR.  While Ishmael is also fairly user friendly (and much friendlier when you have experienced mentors around to guide you), the physics behind marine bioacoustics are daunting and complex.  So far teasing out sounds with Ishmael is going well.  Placing them in the context North Pacific bathymetery…?  I’ll get back to you once I’ve finished reading the stack of books I have on my bedside table about marine bioacoustics and communication.  I feel confident, so long as my fingers stay crossed.

More to come….

Listen.

Well Folks, as promised the Rapunzel Project is heading to radio. As a one-time DJ myself (KRNN Rain Country Radio Juneau) and former public radio employee, I believe in the power of radio.

Not everyone has the opportunity to see the things that field researchers see.  It is a privilege to be on the ocean with an eye and an ear to the waves.  With privilege comes responsibility.  It is our responsibility to communicate our experiences.  To give them away.  Truly, not everyone has the desire to live on a 3 1/2 acre island in remote Alaska, in the rain, for weeks, or even months on end, with nothing but the sound of feeding whales to keep them company.  But most people, I’d hazard to guess, are at least a little interested in hearing about it.

Jacques Cousteau said “People protect what they love.”

He also said:

“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself. “

It is our responsibility to share our extraordinary experiences in these oceans, so that others may grow to love them.  In this way, what starts out as a short spot on a university radio station… becomes a chance to change the world.

Tune in on April 29th at 7pm Pacific Standard Time.

www.kbvr.com/listen

Miche

Lingering Spouts

So what happens now, you ask?

So… it’s mid-January now.  I haven’t finished all the interviews yet, but we’re getting close.  I have to say I’ve been both overwhelmed and completely impressed with the caliber (and number) of our candidates!

It was no surprise to hear that there are people out there who want to work with whales.  Humpbacks have an almost irrational ability to inspire awe in the public, and in the minds of young biologists in particular.  What was so exciting about your applications was how diverse and creative they were. Our applicants come from Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, Florida, California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Vermont, Peru, Spain, Britain, Germany, Singapore, Australia, and Canada.  They are students, graduates, and professionals. Freshman, sophomore, junior, seniors, master’s students, PhD students, and working ecologists.

I mentioned in some of our interviews, and likely on this website as well, that part of why this project is important to me is because of its potential to not only mitigate, but potentially prevent, negative interactions between humans and whales.  I also mentioned, however, that this project is important to me because it is creates opportunities to bring enthusiastic individuals into the field where they can become scientists who work together toward a common goal- which is cumulatively bigger than ourselves.

So… what does happen next?

Logistically it is time to begin making choices.  Hopefully within the next week we will begin contacting applicants and offering them positions with us this summer.  As always it’s a bit of a tango between skill and schedules.  It may take a week or two before our team sifts out, other opportunities may have emerged for you over the course of this application process.  If that’s the case, no worries.  But if I offer you a spot and you think you can’t take it?  Give me a heads up!  There’s someone else- a talented, willing, someone else- who wants to fill that spot.

If you have any last-minute questions let me know!  Now’s the time to get anything off your chest you may be worried about, thrilled about, or confused about.  As always, feel free to contact me at absolutely any time.

Many thanks to all of you!

Miche

TheRapunzelProject@gmail.com

Questions… Answers

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

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

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

 

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

Miche

Seeking 2012 Interns

The Rapunzel Project is looking for interns for summer 2012!

 The Rapunzel Project is an Alaska Whale Foundation (AWF) research project headed by OSU masters student Michelle Fournet under the advisement of recent OSU Fish and Wildlife graduate and AWF research director Andy Szabo.  This study focuses on the impact of anthropogenic sound on humpback whale communication. The project has three primary objectives:

1)    Classify and catalogue the vocal repertoire of southeast Alaskan humpback whales.

2)    Explore the relationship between communication and social behavior in the absence of anthropogenic sound.

3)    Examine the potential impact of anthropogenic sound on vocalization and social behavior.

To this end we utilize theodolite technology (simple surveyors equipment), a portable hydrophone deployed by small skiff, and the 18.3-meter platform of the Five Finger Lighthouse.  A typical day at the lighthouse involves approximately 12 hours of surveying (broken into 8-10 hours per person daily).  Surveys are done in 3-hour treatments and require 3 positions to be filled

1)    Skiff/hydrophone operator (on the water)- positions vessel as directed by “Rapunzel” (tower operators)

2)    Theodolite operator (in the lighthouse tower)- pinpoints whales in the water, gets theodolite ‘fixes’ on location of animals and reports coordinates to data recorder

3)    Data recorder (in the lighthouse tower)- utilizes small laptop computer to record theodolite fixes, environmental conditions, randomizes treatment, and times treatment segments. Communicates with “Noble Stead” in water (skiff-operator)

When we’re going and who we want to bring:

The 2012 research season runs from late-June through late-September. Internships are approximately 4-weeks long and begin mid-June, mid-July, and mid-August. Dates are approximate and subject to change.  We are looking for 3 interns for each phase, for a total of 9 interns.  Interns are asked to make a one-month minimum commitment. A maximum 2-month commitment may be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Interns are responsible for their own transportation to and from Petersburg, AK.

Life at the lighthouse:

The lighthouse is located at the intersection of Stephens Passage and Fredrick Sound, Alaska on a 3-½ acre island inside of the quaint Five Finger Island chain.  The lighthouse was both the first and last manned lighthouse in Alaska and is fully operational.  The lighthouse is inaccessible to boats except for two hours on either side of high tide, and is not serviced by public transportation.  The nearest towns are Petersburg, AK 45 miles to the south, and Juneau, AK 60 miles to the north. There is a helicopter-landing pad on the island in the event of medical emergency.

Interns will be housed in bunks (4 beds to a room) with access to a full (and beautiful) kitchen, full bathroom, and pantry.  There is electricity in the lighthouse for approximately 10 hours a day (subject to change).  Solar panels and wind turbines supplement generator power, and fuel is limited.  Basic internet service is available (no Netflix, no Skype, no picture loading, yes e-mail). Cell phone service can be found at the top of the helicopter pad.

Interns must be willing to help cook and clean, though most diet types are welcome (vegetarian, vegan, etc.)- the only exception may be “raw-foodism.” Access to fresh vegetables on the lighthouse is limited, and though every effort is made to have fresh vegetables brought, stored, beg, stolen, or borrowed, no guarantees can be made for a raw food diet.  Last season store bought food was supplemented by wild caught Alaskan halibut.  Last season’s interns claimed the thing they liked most about being at the lighthouse (second only to the whales and the company) was the food.  We eat very well.

Interns must be dog friendly as multiple dogs (including my own) may be at the lighthouse.  Allergic interns will be unhappy here.  Interns must also be comfortable sharing lodging and bathroom facilities with members of the opposite sex.

Interns are asked to work 8-10 hours/ day, 5 days a week, and flexibility is required in scheduling.  Southeast Alaska is a rainforest environment. Poor weather will result in the inability to sample and sampling days will be re-scheduled.  Days off can be spent kayaking in Fredrick Sound, lounging about the island, berry picking on neighboring islands, pursuing personal research, tide-pooling, game playing, guitar strumming, and generally loving Alaskan island life.

Interns are expected to participate in each research position, to aid in data processing as needed, and to help out with daily chores (cooking, cleaning, etc.).

Perks:

  • Getting to watch whales every day in Alaska
  • Getting to sit in a skiff and listen to whales as they swim around
  • Kayaking in whale waters
  • Getting to write on your resume that you did “humpback whale behavioral research in Alaska”
  • Getting to be a part of important marine mammal conservation
  • Maybe make a new friend or two?

Qualities we’re looking for in interns:

  • Enthusiastic, bright, and easy going!
  • Ability to work in close quarters
  • Passion for nature, marine mammals, and conservation
  • Skiff handling experience is a plus (though training can be provided)
  • Theodolite experience is a plus (though training can be provided)
  • Field experience is a plus (though general enthusiasm and attitude trump experience)
  • GIS experience is a plus
  • Work with passive acoustics or cetacean vocalizations (S-BAT, RAVEN) is a BIG plus!
  • Excel proficiency is a must!  You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to know how to maneuver around a spreadsheet.
  • Experience on the water is a plus
  • Interns must be at least 18 years of age

Associate Costs (subject to change as additional funding comes through):

Cost of internship: $2500/month

This covers food, room, board, transportation to and from the lighthouse, and lodging in Petersburg, AK.  Interns are responsible for transportation to and from Petersburg.

For more information, or to see photos of last year’s field season visit our blog at:

www.TheRapunzelProject.wordpress.com

How to apply

Interested applicants are encouraged to e-mail a resume and cover letter to me (Michelle Fournet) by December 16th.  Resumes and cover letters received after the December 16th priority deadline may be considered on a space available basis. Applicants who look like a good fit will be contacted for an interview!  Think you might be interested, but you’re not sure?  Please contact me!  Initiative counts!

 

 

Thanks so much!

 

Miche

TheRapunzelProject@gmail.com

907-723-2752

 

 

Oregon State University

College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

M.S. Candidate Marine Resource Management

 

Alaska Whale Foundation

Graduate Researcher

 

Rapunzel Project Takes to the Public Airways

Just prior to leaving Petersburg, Alaska KRBD radio interviewed Michelle Fournet on the in’s and out’s of the Five Finger Lighthouse project.  To hear the story visit the following KRBD link.

It turns out that small town Alaska cares a lot about their lighthouses and a great deal for their whales.  If you are planning a trip through Frederick Sound next summer be sure to plan a stop at the light for a look around and a chat with the research team!

Welcome to the Rapunzel Project

Welcome to the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project!  For the past five weeks we have been researching humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) from the newly established Five Finger Lighthouse research station.  This historic lighthouse has been the home to a small research team examining the role of humpback whale vocalizations on  behavior in the foraging grounds of Fredrick Sound, Alaska.  We are hoping to determine what role- if any- humpback whale vocalizations have on the distribution and dispersion of animals across the sound, as well as what vocalizations- again if any- correspond with group fission-fusion events.  Additionally, we are hoping to examine what effect anthropogenic noise generated by large vessel traffic has on humpback whale vocalizations and social behavior.

To this end we utilize a theodolite to monitor humpback whale distribution and social behavior across Fredrick Sound from the 18.3 meter tower which  dominates the island skyline. From this vantage point we can map out with fine precision where in space and time both whales and vessels are located, where they are traveling, and how they are oriented relative one another.  With a hydrophone in the water we can monitor how humpback whale dispersion correlates with the sounds they are generating below and how this appears to change in the presence of vessels.

The lighthouse vantage point allows us to observe humpback whale behavior without inundating the soundscape with research related vessel noise.  This effectively allows for us to ‘control’ for quiet periods of observation when vessels are not present in the Sound, and contrast these quiet periods with times when large vessels pass through the area.  It also affords us a land-based research station which is less vulnerable to inclement weather and is logistically much simpler than a vessel-based operation.

In addition to looking at the role of vocalization in dispersion, this project seeks to address how social interactions- primarily group formation, group dispersion, and surface behavior- vary across time of day, tide, and in response to vessel traffic. The knowledge of how humpback whales interact across these variables could provide information useful for the prevention of negative interactions with vessels transiting humpback whale foraging grounds.  Mitigating negative interactions becomes critical as the both the population of humpback whales and the number of vessels in the water continue to increase.

Our 2011 field season ended on July 7th, and we’re beginning to process data and plan for next summer.  Take a look around our blog for more information of what life at the lighthouse is like, who our 2011 research team was, and what our plans are for next year! Feel free to e-mail me any time with questions about the project or to find out how you can get involved with the Alaska Whale Foundation.

Cheers!

Michelle Fournet

Rapunzel Project Field Leader