Meet the Ocean

When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras.  We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.

Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.

Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.

Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.

If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate.  Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.

Download the Podcast Here

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The animal behind it all.  A humpback whale dives in Frederick Sound; not pictured is me on a small vessel nearby, listening.

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). 

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.

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

 

Words that Start with S

Summertime

IMG_0182It’s Summertime here at ORCAA and in case you haven’t noticed that means fieldwork.  We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoise here in Oregon, Selene is tagging whales in California (yawn, who would want to do that I ask, green with envy), Niki (while not technically in the field) is reporting to us from the turquoise Mediterranean, and our honorary labmate Leanna is in full blown seal tagging development.   I am, admittedly, not spending my summer in the field this year (probably just as well… I need some time at home with my data, my dogs and my sunflowers: read about previous summer field adventures during my M.S. here) that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disappoint you.  While my 2014 summer field season may be short, it’s just the beginning for 2014.


Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds

SL_sketch1For those of you who don’t know me, I finished my M.S. here at OSU in the Oceanography department.  I received an M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on conservation.  I studied humpback whale communication in Southeast Alaska (you can read my M.S. thesis here).  I moved to Juneau in 2007 after traveling through wet sunny tropical Central America.  I thought Alaska was going to be a brief pit stop on my way to tropical living.  Little did I know that 7 years later I’d still be working in the inside passage, that it would have slowly become home to me, or that I somehow would have become a cold-weather biologist (I blame it on the whales).

So, I’m headed to Glacier Bay National Park on Monday to scope out a field site for my dissertation research.  For my dissertation I’ll be investigating the use of social sounds in humpback whales (how do social sounds fit into the general repertoire of humpback whales?) and what impact noise has on social calling behavior (Lombard effect in migratory corridors has been documented in Australian humpbacks , what might vessel noise do to calling rates on a foraging ground?). For this study I’m paired up with our own seal enthusiast Leanna Matthews (see her previous post for details on the other side of seal research), who will be looking at the impact of noise on harbor seals.  We’ll be sharing a field site, and more importantly we’ll be sharing a bottom mounted hydrophone array that we intend to use to localize vocalizing animals. Noisy-Neighbors_600px Concurrent with our acoustic deployment we’ll be making visual observations with a theodolite from a nearby elevated platform.  My job next week, is to investigate potential field sites, with elevated observing options, calm waters, seals, whales, and a sleeping location as far away from the bears as possible.  Should be easy right?

The glorious part?  I’m taking the trip Northward alone- Solo. Though I will be well tended to by GLBA biologist Christine Gabriele, if the weather holds I’ll be spending a night, or two, alone at our potential field camp.  Hiking around the island, observing whales and seals, and breathing in the cold wet Alaskan air all by my lonesome.  Call me old fashioned, but I still think that seeing an area is the best way to choose a field camp.  I’ve done my research, looked at velocity charts, bathymetry charts, and topo maps… but without seeing it, listening to it, and being there I don’t feel prepared to set our precious hydrophones on the bottom on the ocean and hope for the best.  So, solo I go.

But… like I said earlier, this short trip (a week total) is just the start my 2014 field season.


South

I think secretly every biologist imagines the day that something like this happens to them:

*Phone rings*

Me: Hello?

Brilliant Super Scientist (a.k.a Holger) *on phone*: Good morning! Did I wake you?

Me: No of course not (I’ve been awake for at least 15 minutes, and you don’t know I’m in my pajamas.  Who makes work phone calls before 8am?).

Brilliant Super Scientist: Good.  Do you want to go to Antarctica?

Me: Yes. Yes I do.

This actually happened. I’m going to Antarctica! This November I will head as far South as you can get.  I’ll be joining a crew of scientists on the Korean icebreaker the R/V Araon as we head southbound from New Zealand toward the Ross Sea.  My role will be the recovery  of a U.S. hydrophone that was deployed in the area last year. The hydrophone was deployed as part of an interdisciplinary project to track oceanographic and geologic (namely glaciers) conditions in the Antarctic.  The ocean is a noisy place, and lots of features biotic and abiotic contribute to the ocean soundscape. Human activity in the Southern Ocean is limited… making it an ideal place to use acoustics to study natural phenomena like ice (and whales… lets not forget that there are lots and lots of whales in Antarctica).

Noisesources

We will be at sea for almost a month, with a stop at one of the the Korean Research Stations at the midway point.  I don’t know all the details yet, but rest assured there will be many stories to tell.  Lastly, while this isn’t technically a “solo” expedition, I will be the only one from my lab and possibly one of the few native English speakers on the boat.  I spent the evening listening to Korean phrases, luckily I have a few months left to figure out how to say hello.

In short, it’s going to be a big field year for me.  Followed up by an intensive field season in the summers of 2015 & 2016 (with interns! I love interns!)- and all it cold weather places.  If you pair my upcoming trips with my past year of Arctic data analysis (Marvin The Martian was a Bearded Seal… remember?) then I suppose my dreams of becoming a tropical bioacoustician are out… or are they?

 

Stay tuned!

 


 

 

***all cartoons reprinted from www.michw.com an excellent blog about science, and comics***

Three years and still excited

Last week I got an e-mail from a student in South America who wanted to join the Rapunzel Project field team for the summer of 2014;  I get these from time to time.  I try to respond to everyone who e-mails me, but admittedly sometimes putting the words “we do not currently have plans for a 2014 field season” down in an e-mail is tough for me.

Particularly since the research isn’t done.

Before I became a biologist (a term that I only now feel I can fully begin to embrace) when I imagined research I saw boats, and radios, laboratories and beakers, and heated conversations among colleagues- who may or may not have been shouting “Eureka” from time to time.  What I didn’t see in my imagination was the days, weeks, and months on the calendar that it takes to see a project from start to finish.

The Rapunzel Project field portion is over for now.  I can confidently tell you that the data is processed and we know a lot more about humpback whale vocal behavior than we did when we began putting the project on paper in 2010!  Even though the first manuscript is drafted and conferences are in the works (I’ll see you in San Francisco Acoustical Society), the research still isn’t over.

There’s another manuscript in process.  I’m still poring over the numbers and finding results that Andy I debate lively (I’m still waiting to hear the words Eureka come out of his mouth…. not yet).  While it may have taken a few years to figure out what the whales were saying it will take a least a few more weeks yet to put these call types into a social context.  So yes, the sexy part is over.  I’m no longer in danger of running out of water, or watching Noble Steed drift out to see.  But the drama hasn’t stopped- it’s just grown  subtle. This part has to be done privately.

I’m happy to announce, however, that AWF’s commitment to education has only intensified since the Rapunzel Project started.  AWF’s newest branch is the Southeast Alaska Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC), which will be centered out of Warms Springs Bay, AK on the eastern shore of Baranof Island.  A campaign is underway to bring the CREC up and running so AWF can continue to conduct important research, offer comprehensive education experiences, and engage the greater community of Southeast Alaska and our visitors.  Check out how things are going and see how you can get involved at the CREC website:

http://coastalresearchandeducation.org

As always thanks for checking in!

Miche

Session 1’s Exclusive Look Into Michelle Fournet: The Biologist Behind the Whale

Session 1 has come to an end and the interns have all packed their bags and left the Lighthouse. This is Ryan Meeder from Session 1 and I am posting for Miche to keep all you fine people updated. I feel obligated to warn you that my blog-writing skills are not as elegant and don’t possess the same flash and panache as Miche’s posts, but I will do my best.

The Session 1 interns and myself were all extremely sad to leave the lighthouse. The 4 weeks went by extremely quickly but we could not have asked for a better group of interns. Albeit we did have some slight problems with equipment early in the session, but the Rapunzel Project is up and running. Noble Steed, our skiff, has a shiny and perfectly functioning engine and the hydrophones seem to hear everything, sometimes perhaps too much…

After scouring through the Rapunzel Project’s Blog I have found that Miche tends to leave some things out when she posts, and on this rare occasion I have permission to take you behind the scenes and tell you all about Miche for once. We could not have asked for a better Project Leader, or a more understanding and patient friend in the lighthouse. Miche handled every problem with grace and levelheadedness. There were many instances (like when we had to carry Noble Steed through the intertidal zone-it’s not exactly light) that Miche’s leadership qualities seemed to shine. Miche was always willing to answer our many and often repetitive questions and to help us with anything and everything. Apart from being a great field leader Miche also managed the Lighthouse and found time to tell us intriguing stories about Alaska. We have all requested copies of her stories so we can pass them on.

Leaving the comforts of a modern society and spending 4 weeks on a very secluded island with limited amenities can be a very stressful adjustment. Fortunately for us, Miche was able to make what could be a stressful adjustment into a thrilling lifestyle change. Miche’s exemplary cooking skills and eagerness to help you learn made the adjustment simple and enjoyable. I know that we will all miss the lighthouse and the whales, but we will miss Miche even more. On behalf of all the interns Miche, I would like to thank you for such an incredible experience. We know that this summer will be a huge success for you and wish you the best. We will all cherish our time at the lighthouse and the memories we made together. Session 1 over and out.

Field Prep… down to the wire

My last post was all about prepping for our 2012 field season. I had every intention of following up with a “Part 2” of sorts, which would go into more details on what was happening behind the scenes at the Rapunzel Project. What happened behind the scenes ultimately kept me so busy that I couldn’t report on what was happening behind the scenes. I know it doesn’t seem like it would be that much work. Just grab a few hydrophones and a small boat and head to the lighthouse, right? Wrong.

Here’s a brief recap of some of the things that I’ve been up to lately:

  • Write (and receive!) small grants for research supplies
  • Produce poster to present at symposium for said grant
  • Finish up fellowship and scholarship applications that will be otherwise difficult to complete with in the field
  • Track intern arrival/departure times and finances
  • Communicate as much as possible (hopefully without growing obnoxious) to answer intern questions and prepare interns for a cold, wet, glorious summer
  • Write and send out Intern Primer, so everyone knows what to expect 😉
  • Send out sound catalog and example spreadsheet (after creating them, of course)
  • Book hotels for interns, plead with hotels and guest houses in Petersburg to waive the 4 night minimum.
  • Book my own travel to Alaska, including flight to Juneau for supplies (and visit with family and friends) and ferry ride (with Andy’s car) to Petersburg
  • Figure out what supplies are necessary for 3-month field season
  • Find out where to order somewhat obscure supplies, or how to get even very ordinary supplies sent to Alaska (it IS part of the US after all…)
  • Drive to Newport to calibrate hydrophones (Borrow car from generous grad student- Amelia I couldn’t have done it without you).
  • Discover one hydrophone is shot and arrange to have a new one built as quickly as possible! (Please oh please oh please arrive in time- Success! Thank you Joe at Cetacean Research Technology)
  • Collect existing AWF gear from colleagues in the Pacific Northwest and prep it all for transport to Alaska (How many bags do they let you fly with again?)
  • Miraculously collect all of the gear before leaving Oregon for the summer (no small miracle given the number of signatures required for delivery)
  • Come up with new plan for heat and electricity at lighthouse when old plan called for reconsideration
  • Order MORE gear, only for lighthouse this time (We will need electricity after all)
  • Travel to Juneau with copious numbers of bags and pelican cases… not to mention Vista’s dog kennel.  (How I wish Corvallis had an airport!  Again, thank you thank you thank you Amelia)
  • Grocery shop for a five person field team for three months of field work (The cart was overwhelming even by Costco standards)
  • Find way to store food for transport, then get it to the lighthouse without ruining it (I have single handedly moved the ~700 pounds of food through southeast Alaska, up stairs, into refrigerators, onto ferries, into other refrigerators, into boxes, into cars, out of boxes, onto boats, into totes, onto skiffs, through the slimy mucky intertidal, up precarious metal beams, up lighthouse stairs, and finally into cabinets and drawers… phew.  What we do for a few potatoes and a good cup of tea at the end of the day)
  • Budget fuel, purchase fuel, transport fuel (see above description of food transportation and substitute fuel)
  • Purchase fuel gear (fuel drums, fuel filters, fuel pumps, fuel cans- whale research is largely about fuel)
  • Organize and prep field equipment (radios, batteries, sound recorders, hydrophones, hydrophone chords- which are impossible to find- etc.)
  • And lastly…. spend every other waking moment thinking about sampling questions and sampling protocol.  Because what’s the point of moving all of the gear around, if there isn’t a study to be had?

So far I’ve spent one blissful night at the lighthouse.  I was alone on the island. The power isn’t on yet, neither is the water.  For a moment the rain stopped, and my body aching with carrying supplies was on the verge of falling asleep under the 11pm sun, when I heard a whale spout.  I couldn’t see it.  I listened to it exhaling. Then I remembered why we do what we do… or maybe just why I do what I do.  Where there is great love, there is great effort.

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….