The Season is Officially… over.

The 2016 Alaskan field season is officially over. I can drag my feet and hang my head all I want, but the acoustic and behavioral data collection for 2016 is done and the process of studying for my comprehensive exams is in full swing (I’m taking a short break from outlining the management procedures of the IWC to write this blog). Admitting that I will not wake to the sound of humpback whales breathing outside my tent is a tough reality. Going a day without seeing a seal or an otter has been harder than I expected, but I realize it is time to say goodbye.

This summer was challenging, for various reasons. Year two, I think, always is. Expectations are variable, hopes run high, and the delicious satisfaction that comes with problem solving doesn’t always happen. The problems are already solved.

Despite this, the 2016 field season remains the most lucrative of my career , with hundreds of hours of data collection and a total of nearly a thousand surveys to compliment the anticipated 3,000 hours of recordings. I learned a great deal about nature, humanity, and myself, and I have high hopes that our scientific efforts will be fruitful! Further, I deepened some of my most valuable relationships (scientifically and personally) which colleagues that intend to keep for a lifetime.

But my writing this blog post doesn’t adequately paint the picture of what life felt like on the island, or why we study what we study. PBS, however, has done a pretty nice job of doing that for us. So I encourage you to watch the five-minute film below. It was produced by PBS and Alaska public media, but really it’s the brainchild of Hanna Gomes.  She did a really nice job capturing our world of Strawberry Island. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

Watch and Listen

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

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

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

Watch

Listen

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

Three down one to go

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

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

Fingers crossed we are attentive enough to notice.

The first group photo of Stint 4

The Talking Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Alaskan Correspondent,

Miche

 

 

Listening to the Past

…but first a name

This is what we see when we study humpback whales... but what do we hear?

This is what we see when we study humpback whales… but what do we hear?

I’ve dedicated the past 3 years to understanding non-song vocalizations, which admittedly is just a drop in the bucket. Now, as I venture into my fourth year of this relationship I have to acknowledge that I’ve moved from one chapter of my research into another. The Rapunzel Project (the whimsical name for my M.S. project) was my first foray into bio-acoustics, large scale fieldwork, and in internship development. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at any of these things, I’m also no longer a novice. I defended my thesis, we’re working on publications, and by and large I’ve put the Rapunzel Project to rest (I even retired the blog!).

All that being said I’m thrillingly eyeball deep in my PhD (first committee meeting: check!), and my research is actually rolling along in advance of my first field season (patting myself –very lightly – on the back). I’ve been giving talks on my research, and the blog posts are rolling out in various forms and locations. With all of this communicating about my research I became aware of something, my project didn’t have a name. Now I know that naming each project isn’t mandatory. Some people name their cars, some don’t; some people name their research, others don’t. But I have to admit writing the words “my dissertation research” over and over has grown tedious. As someone who values accessible communication as well as the role of creativity in science, I reached out to my fellow lab mates and asked for help with a name.

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea... for humpback whales of course

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea… for humpback whales of course

Suggestions varied wildly (“Life is the bubbles” anyone? How about a Calypso reference… so much fun). The name we settled on was astutely suggested by none other than ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi (maybe that writing workshop she wrote about helped with more than just her thesis). Without further ado let me introduce you to ORCAA’s Acoustic Spyglass: investigating the impact of vessel noise on humpback whale non-song behavior from the shores of Glacier Bay National Park.

I’m please with this name because (a) it incorporates both the visual and acoustic elements of the study, (b) because the use of a hydrophone array to localize animals is quite literally a form of “acoustic spying”, and (c) the use of a spyglass implies both antiquity and a sense of looking forward. When you pair visual observations with passive acoustic monitoring you are often looking forward (to the sea, tracking whales), but often technological constraints require that you listen retroactively after the hydrophones have been recovered. In this way I am quite literally listening to the past.

Listening to the Past

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the first chapter of the Acoustic Spyglass (see that… not “my dissertation research”), where I investigate non-song call stability at the decadal scale. I’ve acquired recordings of non-song vocalizations in North Pacific Humpbacks from the mid-1970’s through present day. I’ve been reviewing these to assess if non-song vocalizations, similar to song, change rapidly with time, or if humpbacks exhibit vocal stability. It is well known that humpback whale song changes annually, and this change is believed to be culturally mediated. Little is known, however, about how non-song vocalizations stand up to the test of time. Understanding the stability of non-song vocalizations may tell us something about call innateness, and may provide clues into how these vocalizations are used. Further, if non-song vocalizations (or specific types of non-song vocalizations) have been relatively stable for the past four decades then they may act as a metric against which to quantify change in the face of a shifting baseline (increasing ocean noise, climate change).

What’s so exciting (to me and possibly the ~twelve people who study non-song communication in humpback whales) is that based on first glance at least one call type – the SEAK Whup call – is remarkably stable over time! I’ve detected this vocalization in every data set currently in my possession. I want to be clear, that these findings are anecdotal at this point.  I’ve only just started quantifying my samples, and I have a long way to go before everything is sufficiently measured and described.  But from first glance would you agree that these two spectrograms look pretty similar?

"Whup" calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

“Whup” calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced in the 1970’s and hearing some of the same purrs that I’ve grown familiar with.  That the scientific community forty years later is just now beginning to investigate what these non-song vocalizations mean is a testament to the breadth of research yet to be done on Southeast Alaskan humpback whales.  Humpback whales are long-lived, with lifespans that can reach 90+  years.  This means that the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in Southeast Alaska today.  Or perhaps these recordings may be a link between a previous generation of whales and those who have only recently made it to Southeast Alaska to forage.  In either case the analysis of this long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and I’m extremely excited to be listening.

~This work is extremely collaborative. Data contributions have been made my individual researchers referenced above as well as the National Park Service, and the Alaska Whale Foundation~

***Follow my personal research blog here, or check out my lab’s blog blogs.oregonstate.edu/bioacoustics for a broader view of bio-acoustic research***

Now let me tell you…

I sat down to write an informative, witty, and slightly serious blog post about how our season is progressing here at the Five Finger Lighthouse. Just as I started to type, however, I hear the ear piercing scream of a twenty year old girl- and that kind of scream can mean only one of two things:

1) The R/V Noble Steed is no more

Or

2) There is a 75,000 pound animal jumping out of the water 200 yards from the lighthouse.

I’m happy to report the blood curdling scream that shot out from the lighthouse tower, was the inspired by the latter two scenarios. Not only that, but that high girl voice was followed with the low frequency thud that my ears blissfully associate with breaching whales- and yes, we were recording.

Admittedly the whales are few in number these days. We don’t know why they aren’t here… or where they are for that matter. But I’m happy to report that at least for a today we are seeing (and hearing) exactly what we’d hoped to.

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

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

 

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