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.

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

 

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