Saying Goodnight

Going to bed (and by bed I mean tent) on the island is easy. It is often rainy and cold;  recently the days have been growing shorter revealing black starless nights that challenge my trust of these old woods, and when the weather is clear enough to work our days can be long. But occasionally as we are tucking ourselves into our sleeping bags at night something happens that’s worth getting up for.

This was the case a week or so ago when the exhales of one whale (SEAK-1899, a.k.a. “Nacho”, a.k.a. “Cervantes”) persisted for so long, and with such intensity, that we left our tents and made our way in the fading sunlight out to the beach to see what was going on. As it turned out Cervantes was feeding in our intertidal; take a peek.

Cervantes visits us often these days. This isn’t unusual for for Glacier Bay whales, which exhibit strong maternal site fidelity to the Park (for a really interesting scientific read on local recruitment of humpback whales in Glacier Bay and check our Sophie Pierszalowski’s master’s thesis here), but it is new for our field team here on Strawberry Island. The ability to recognize and interact with an individual humpback whale in such close proximity requires patience, attention and time. While our team last year grew capable of discriminating between individuals whales (a requirement for focal following a whale that’s a mile and a half away), the ability to recognize an individual whale with certainty every time one sees it requires repeated interactions. For humans who are a measly 1.75 meters tall, these interactions are imprinted more efficiently if they occur at close range.

Individuality matters. Increasing evidence for personality in animals confirms what pet owners for decades have intuitively known – animals have unique dispositions. Not all whale are created equal, and to understand how the population as a whole may respond to changes in the environment, necessitates sampling a wide swath of individuals. For example, if we follow Cervantes around from birth until death we may conclude that all humpback whale forage intertidally (likely not the case), that all whales annually migrate (also not entirely true) and that all humpback whales blow bubbles at their prey (which would be interesting… but unlikely).  Further, what if Cervantes proved to be an anomalous whale? Not wholly on the “average” spectrum for whale behavior. Cervantes is of unknown sex; it is tempting to infer that an adult whale of unknown sex who has never had a calf must be male (this is in fact what our field team inferred). The possibility, however, fully exists that Cervantes may be a late bloomer who will calve in the future and against what we anticipate given the average age of first calving, prove herself to be a lady whale after all. If Cervantes was the only animal we studied, we might infer an age of first calving for humpback whales that wasn’t accurate for the majority. So if we want to understand whales instead of understanding whale we have to look at many individuals.

Cervantes (SEAK-1899) visits the Strawberry Island survey point frequently. The entanglement scars near the dorsal fin help our team to identify this whale.

Why then are these repeated interactions with Cervantes so valuable? They are valuable scientifically in that we have the ability to investigate individual variation by linking behaviors with a known animal. More importantly for our team right now, however, these interactions are valuable to us personally. Living in the presence of giants inspires a person; knowing the giants’ name and saying good morning to him everyday, in my humble experience, moves a person beyond awe and into action. As overused as the Jacque Cousteau quote is, one cannot deny that people protect what they love. Cervantes’ ability to exist in such close proximity to our camp give us permission to love these animals, this shoreline, and this ocean just a little more strongly. This is a gift, and I am grateful.

Alaska Whale Foundation has a new website!

The long awaited unveiling of the Alaska Whale Foundation’s website has finally occurred!  AWF team members (mostly Andy and Adam) have worked tirelessly to get the AWF website up to speed.  We’ve been seeing a lot of exciting changes in the organization (like the advent of our interpretive center in Baranof Warm Springs Bay) and wanted to make sure that the online face of AWF was an accurate representation of who we are and what we’re working on.

I encourage all of the Rapunzel Project followers to head over the the website ( and have a look around.  You’ll be able to hear sound clips of social calls recorded in the field, read the official AWF blog (including posts by OSU grad student Courtney Hann), and see how you can get involved. Go ahead and like them on facebook too 🙂

Being a graduate fellow with AWF has easily been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic and professional career.  The new website is a great reflection of the dynamic organization that AWF has become.  I encourage you to check the site often for updates that may not make it to this blog.

More to come from me on the status of Rapunzel Project publications and research.





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….