First Impressions

Following up on my last blog post (about culture) I thought I’d start this post with a quote. In the epic words of the Rolling Stones “you can’t always get what you want.”

I’m in Monterey Bay, California right now doing some fieldwork with my friend and colleague Dave Cade (a PhD student at Stanford) and as the quote alluded field work is filled with surprises.

I came down to help Dave tag humpback whales as part of his dissertation work with Jeremy Goldbogen on humpback whale kinesthetics and foraging ecology. Admittedly my interest is this visit is three-fold.  First, I wanted to see my buddy Dave.  Dave and I have worked together a long time and have been attempting to collaborate on project since we finished up our M.S. degrees in OSU’s College of Earth Oceans and Atmospheric Science. Second, I needed some training on tagging whales in preparation for my own fieldwork. As an addendum to my already rich PhD research I’ve been designing a tagging playback experiment that I am piloting with Dave’s help this summer from my favorite Five Finger Lighthouse. This July we’ll be playing back social sounds (Whups and Feeding Calls) to humpback whales in Frederick Sound.  The ultimate goal is to play sounds to tagged whales, so we can assess dive responses (should there be any), changes in foraging behavior, and of course, approach and avoidance behavior. We’ll also have a hydrophone in the water to document any acoustic responses from our focal animal.  It seemed wise to me to actually participate in a tagging event prior to trying to pull this off.  Lastly, I’m getting close to finishing up my PhD at Oregon State, and I’m trying to spread my wings and collaborate with more labs, institutes, and groups to see where my next few years as an acoustic ecologist might take me. A trip to visit my friend Dave at Stanford seemed like a great start.

rapunzels-tower-small1.jpg

This July we will conduct playbacks to whales in the vicinity of the Five Finger Lighthouse. This island is nestled in Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska. One of the world’s most productive humpback whale foraging grounds.

One of the folks I’ve been eager to meet is John Calambokidis, founder and research biologist of the Cascadia Research Institute.   Cascadia is a non-profit organization that is, in my estimation, the best example of non-profit research in the United States.  They successfully couple research of scientific merit with applied management implications. Further, they do so with humor, grace, and (from my outward eye and by their reputation), real concern for the environment. From this description, one can glean my excitement to introduce myself to John.

Well, spoiler alert, this weekend hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. In part, I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now writing this. I am not tagging whales. Yesterday, despite our greatest efforts, we did not tag whales. We also did not run echo sounders or fly drones. In the words of my friend Dave Cade “it was a bust”. For me though, this weekend  was more than a bust.  Prepare yourself for the story I will tell for the rest of my life when someone asks me about my most embarrassing moment.

It’s about 8:15 a.m. We have seen, but not successfully tagged any of the humpback whales milling about Monterey Bay. I’ve not fallen on my face, said anything offensive, or made myself look overly confident while working on our 9 meter open air rigid hull inflatable. This should be easy enough. I’ve done fieldwork in Alaska, Hawaii, Antarctica, and the Oregon Coast. I spent months of my life living and working on boats. Not looking like a fool on the water should have been a given.

Now it’s 8:45 a.m., and we are a little further from shore. The swell has rolled in and, despite a lack of wind chop, the boat is noticeably rising and falling in the 8-13 foot rollers. At this point John begins to ask me about my research. We’ve met once before and he’s somewhat familiar with what I do. For whatever reason, however, I’m unable to articulately respond. This, for those of you who know me, should come as a surprise. Articulate is my secret middle name. It’s my tiny super power. It’s what I rely on when I am feeling foolish, lost or uncomfortable, and at 8:45 a.m., for whatever reason, my super power is gone, my brain, fuzzy, my mouth dry, my tongue uncoordinated. John continues, politely, to ask me about my work and as I worked through the rubber in my mouth to respond I realized something. My only option is, as politely as possible, to raise my hand ask John Calambokidis to please wait a moment, so I may vomit over the side of the vessel. Repeatedly.

There it is. Networking.

Moreover, as it turns out the simple act of talking turned out to be the trigger. So over the course of the day (we did stay on the water) every time I attempted to have more than a four word conversation, I’d have to politely excuse myself to throw up. Repeatedly. How can I speak more plainly: talking to John the founder and director of the Cascadia Research Institute, made me vomit. #NeverGettingHiredAnywhere.

To add insult to injury, we didn’t tag any whales yesterday. The behavior of the animals, possibly in combination with rising afternoon winds, and we couldn’t quite seal the deal. The drone pilot who’d been scheduled to join us on the water took a page out of my book and – not having a reputation as a seamen to uphold – asked to be returned to shore before he tossed his cookies. For me though, to add injury to injury my sensitive tummy didn’t let up until this morning, two hours after Dave and company left without me on flat calm waters to go tag whales again. I won’t go into the fine scale details of why I couldn’t go out today (I would have been happy to spend the day throwing up on the side of the boat again if it would salvage my poor reputation), but it suffices to say that while one can maintain some grace while vomiting over the side of the boat, if the tummy problems manifest in a different form… one should stay home.

IMG_2096

The view of windless, flat calm, Monterey Bay.

So here I am, at a lovely coffee shop in Monterey Bay, trying to imagine how I may have better prepared for this trip to avoid such calamities. There are some options, certainly, but none of them obvious or foolproof. So what I am left with instead is not how to avoid this situation in the future (I will inevitably be sea-sick again), but how to handle my current situation with as much grace as possible.

This, dear readers, is where I (as always) return to the esoteric. I once believed that in life I had, at the very least, control over my actions, my words, and my body. As it turns out, this weekend I relinquished that control to the ocean; and, if I think broadly, that is where the balance of power rightfully belongs.

So, rather than fight the literal movement of nature, I am left instead seeking grace. Grace is found in humility. Humility found in humor. So rather than crawl in a hole and cry, I’m here. Writing this.

My strengths are not in successful networking. The word makes me uncomfortable. When asked to put my “best foot forward” I have a tendency to take a step backwards. Forgiveness, on the other hand, and sincerity, these are my strengths. So, today I tell my ego to take a few days rest. I forgive the ocean for exposing my weaknesses and begin mentally drafting the email I’ll send to John Calambokidis next time I want to talk about collaborations.  It will start: “Dear John, you may remember me as the girl that vomited repeatedly from your boat. I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on an acoustics project?”

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). 

The Little Things

IMG_1169What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: Phocoena phocoena, the harbor porpoise.

Due to their vessel aversion they are slightly hard to study, and their distribution, population structure, and acoustic behavior in the Park is still largely unknown. Harbor porpoise, while not an endangered species, are very susceptible to disturbance from noise. I’m not personally studying the impact of noise on these graceful creatures here in the park, but I am encouraging my team to come up with some creative study ideas.

While deterred by motorized vessels, harbor porpoise don’t appear to be disturbed by kayaks. These lovely animals often swim within meters of us when we survey on the water. Their vocalizations are too high frequency for our hydrophones to pick up, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re echolocating our equipment.

 

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.

PhD: Piled High and Deeper

When I first started grad school in OSU’s College of Oceanography I learned a few important things. The first, is what the acronym “PhD” actually stands for (see title). The second was a trick for finding out if you were ‘really‘ doing oceanography, if it’s too heavy to lift, too expensive to lose, and you drop it to the bottom of the ocean anyway, then you are in fact doing oceanography. I’m not sure if I’m happy to report or not, but after three and a half years of grad school (I know, even I’m surprised I’ve been here that long) I can finally understand what I was taught on that fitful first day of class.

The life of a PhD student

The life of a PhD student

To say that I’ve been busy is true, but isn’t very interesting. Busy is relative. So instead I’ll highlight a few of my major accomplishments from over the past month, and the friends and colleagues who helped me get there — because as I’ve said many times before, science is collaborative.

Accomplishment #1: Build anchors

Luna Tunes inspects an errant chain link and wonders why we didn't use this as an anchor.

Luna Tunes inspects an errant chain link and wonders why we didn’t use this as an anchor.

Team: Myself, John Flynn (my husband), David Culp (my intern), special guest appearances from Florence van Tulder of the Marine Mammal Institute and Vista and Luna Tunes (my dogs).

My dissertation research hinges on the successful deployment of four Autonomous Underwater Hydrophones (AUH) which are mounted on aluminum landers and sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Glacier Bay National Park. These hydrophones are recovered six months later with the use of an acoustic release system (see my earlier blog posts from Antarctica for details on the acoustic release). This system only works if the hydrophones don’t drift away. There is no handbook for studying acoustic ecology (there is no really handbook for getting a PhD either… it’s more of a choose your own adventure book). While this system has been deployed in all the worlds oceans, each deployment is unique.

Concrete, Aluminum, and lead.  Whale research at its finest.

Concrete, Aluminum, and lead. Whale research at its finest.

Which means we had to design a mooring system, including the anchors. Sparing you the nitty gritty details of why I couldn’t just buy anchors (4 landers x 4 feet on each lander = 16 feet needing anchors = $$$$$) what ended up happening was a little lesson in density (100 pounds of concrete on land = ~ 60 pounds of concrete in water), a few hilarious interactions with the great folks over at Englund Marine & Industrial Supply (“Hi, I’d like to buy 600 pounds of lead cannonballs. Oh, that’s all of the cannonballs? Ok, yeah. I’ll take them. And all of your 5-gallon buckets too.”), a few very long days of pouring concrete (where my intern David proved to be the most valuable intern on the face of the planet, and not just because his truck could hold 2500 pounds of concrete, and I realized I totally married the right guy), and voila we now have twenty lead/concrete anchors weighing 100-130 pounds each to keep our equipment snugly on the sea floor. Phew.

Accomplishment #2: Host Conference

Florence van Tulder and I after moving 600 pounds of lead weights from the back of my Mazda hatchback to safety at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Florence van Tulder and I after moving 600 pounds of lead weights from the back of my Mazda hatchback to safety at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Team: Myself, Shea Steingass (MMI), Courtney Hann (MMI), Selene Fregosi (ORCAA), Niki Diogou (ORCAA), with guest appearances by David Culp (my intern… again), and Kat Nikolich (former intern and Western Washington Grad Student)

So, I am one of two student representatives to the Northwest Student Chapter for the Society for Marine Mammalogy (NWSSMM). I attended my first chapter meeting in 2012 and have been an active member in the chapter ever since. This year we offered to host our annual chapter meeting, for the first time, at Oregon State University. I spearheaded the conference along with Shea (mistress of swag) with the logistical support of ORCAA and the grad students of MMI. Kat and David jumped in to help with shopping and set up (phew). I’m also proud to report that this year’s conference was sponsored! The Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Marine Mammal Institute, and OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife all generously funded this year’s conference. As a result we were able to offer free registration to all of our undergraduate students, and to provide mugs to each of our conference attendees (with a super cool logo, designed by Shea). We had record high attendance with 70 conference goers, not including our panel of experts, and our generous graders (Holger was one of our generous graders- thanks Holger!).

The feedback we got from our panelists (Drs. Leigh Torres of MMI, Markus Horning of MMI, Ari Friedlaender of MMI, and ORCAA’s own Sharon Nieukirk) was that the caliber of the presentations was impressive, the day ran smoothly (we had coffee breaks!), and that the students were engaged. The feedback we got from our students was that the panel was insightful, the presence of a wide range of professionals at the conference was exciting, and that the keynote talk by Dr. Ari Friedlaender was “tha bomb”.

The inclusion of a panel was new this year, and reflects the wide range of marine mammal professionals that we have in the OSU community. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of technology and the role of the human observer as well as the pros and cons of a PhD, and balancing life and work. I know that for those of you in the field of marine mammal science that this doesn’t seem like a breakthrough, but these fundamental topics are essential to both the progress of our field, and our humanity. When asked what he looked for in a graduate student Dr. Markus Horning astutely brought up animal welfare, and seeking students who had a vested interest in the safety and health of the animals we study. Dr. Ari Friedlaender pointed out that a drive to understand the science is as important (or perhaps more important) than the drive to love the species. Sharon and Leigh both spoke up about the role of quantitative skills (modeling, programming), as well as what it means to travel abroad, and to spend time in the field observing. Perhaps most poignantly was the conversation about what we sacrifice to study marine mammals, and the loss of women between the post-doc and faculty stages. These conversations continued long into the night after the conference, and were rehashed this past Monday when Holger took the lab out to dinner (thanks again Holger!).

I think that is largely the point of these conferences, to learn about the science, to network and meet new colleagues or revisit old ones, and to inspire conversations about topics that may not always make it into the room (like when we’re too busy pouring concrete to think about whether or not having a baby as a PhD student is realistic). In any case, the conference was a great success (from which I needed some serious recovery). Here’s a photo to prove how happy everyone was.

Northwest Marine Mammal Students Unite!

Northwest Marine Mammal Students Unite!

Accomplishment #3: Ship Hydrophones to Alaska (as well as the rest of the gear)

Team: Myself, Matt Fowler (NOAA), David Culp (you really should know this name by now), Holger Klinck, Sharon Nieukirk.

This post is getting long (you’re still reading! I’m shocked, I would have checked out a few paragraphs ago… but then again I’m ‘busy’). While this section has actually taken up the bulk of my time, describing exactly what it was I’ve been doing is difficult. The answer is fitting shackles, splicing line, shopping at Costco (thanks Sharon!), assembling and programing hydrophones (thanks Matt!), zip-tying, drilling holes in metal, taping things, buying heavy things, lifting heavy things, talking about heavy things (thanks David! for all of the ‘heavy things’), and then finally shipping heavy things (although they were nicely packaged onto pallets in meaningful ways).

David and I deliriously tired and borderline giddy to see this container ship out.

David and I deliriously tired and borderline giddy to see this container ship out.

I had a student ask me a few weeks ago what studying whales was like: industrial, I said. This is the little glorified part of field biology. The ability to assemble moorings, and work through the logistics (3/8″ line vs. 5/16″, where do I buy nylon insulator bushings?), problem solve on your feet (we can’t afford that much heavy chain, what else is heavy and made of lead?), paired with the ability to handle problems calmly when they arise (the manufacturer sent the wrong pair of release housings and now the instruments don’t fit. Hmm…what to do). I haven’t seen a whale in months; meanwhile the nice guy at Englund Marine went surfing with porpoise while watching gray whales this week. To study animals that live in the ocean in a meaningful way means developing a method to observe them, without changing them. This can be hard, labor intensive, and logistically complicated. It’s also satisfying, practical, valuable, and at times ridiculous. So I’ll tell you this, when the foam inserts that I needed to ship my acoustic releases were accidentally thrown away by the custodians Matt Fowler gave me the grand tour of dump sites at HMSC, and when we got to a large dumpster with my boxes in it? I didn’t hesitate.

Miche standing inside the dumpster.  Whale research at its finest.

Miche standing inside the dumpster. Whale research at its finest.

In the end, we got the container loaded with gear (anchors, landers, hydrophones, food, shackles, lines, buckets, tarps, and one hula hoop). Matt and I sighed a collective sigh of relief before we closed the door and gave that metal box a pat. Working with Matt was a pleasure, and as he pointed out now that the hydrophones are built and shipped, our job together is done. This caught me off guard a little; building the hydrophones is just the beginning. Next stop, Glacier Bay.

 

IMG_1706

Matt and I say goodbye to the Acoustic Spyglass field gear

Story Time with Whale Acoustics

First, let me apologize for being a little late with this post.  I generally post the second Friday of every month; It’s Tuesday. One of the reasons I’m late is because I flew back to my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama as an invited teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School.  I had the privilege of running three lessons on whale communication for students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade.  Admittedly they kept me on my toes! Spending time with children is exciting and inspiring. We did a number of activities to demonstrate how marine mammals use sound to communicate. Students were given a small shaker containing one of four materials (hazelnuts, tacks, aduki beans, or rice) and they had to use their ears alone to find their “pods”.  We had fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales, and beluga whales.  Each pod was then given a ribbon the length of their whale to stretch out across the activity room.  Even I was impressed with how big a fin whale really is!

For the older groups we talked about the relationship between size and pitch (frequency), learned how to read spectrograms, and I introduced the concept of masking and noise pollution by playing a series of whale calls and adding vessel noise.  For the kindergartners and first graders, however, it seemed more appropriate to introduce the concept of sound in the ocean with a story.  I re-purposed a true story about a killer whale from Puget Sound named Springer who was separated from, and later reunited with her pod.  In real life recordings were made of Springer’s vocalizations to help identify which pod she belonged to.  In the story below, Springer uses her family whistle to try and re-connect, and she meets a number of other whales along the way. On each page I was able to play recordings of the animals in the pictures, so my young students could hear the actual voices of the animals. Enjoy!

Antarctica Part VIII- Homeward Bound

The ice has grown thinner, the ship has grown boisterous with passengers, and with the exception of a few errant edits to cruise reports our scientific mission is complete.  But the journey is not over; I still have a few days in New Zealand to tell you about, and a 30 hour transit home. Plus… we celebrated Christmas on the ship!

When I first started this trip I spelled out the cast of characters on the ship (my beloved Kiwi pilots, my Italian roommate Ombretta and her ocean acidification project).  Well, the curtain has risen and fallen a few times on the passengers of the R/V Araon and it’s time for a new update. After our research cruise the R/V Araon returned to Terra Nova Bay to retrieve the scientists and crew that had overwintered there (that’s right, a year at Jang Bogo station).  We also picked up a handful of KOPRI geoscientists who had spent the Austral spring at the base (and found a stunning meteorite!) to transit them back to Christchurch as well.  The meteorite, which I feel privileged to have seen with my own eyes, is said to be the largest ever found by a Korean scientist and one of the largest in the world.  It’s retrieval is exciting news in the geoscience world – history in the making.

In addition to our Korean colleagues, however, we picked up Scottish volcanologist John Smellie (if you aren’t immediately impressed with a volcanologist in Antarctica let me remind you that this man studies volcanic eruptions underneath the ice), and a motley crew of nine geologists, biologists, zoologists and one fine soldier from Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station,. Remember how I said the ship had become boisterous? You can imagine why.

My Italian friends and colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

My Italian friends,  colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

Thanks to the graciousness of documentary filmmaker/marine zoologists Roberto Palozzi I resumed my Italian lessons (grazie mille, Roberto). Thanks to the sheer charisma of Nicoletta Ademolla I now have a sincere dream to study the vocal behavior of Adelie penguins (not forgetting of course the Weddell Seals). And thanks to my friend Arnold Rakaj I will forever look out for eels in shallow freshwater streams (although he is a marine ecologist by training, studying plankton… not eels). I won’t go into the specialties and details of all of the PNRA team, but suffice it to say that I was extremely impressed with the breadth and range of their work… I’d even go so far as to say envious.  A comprehensive seal reproduction study which includes live captures and the weighing of seal pups?  Yes, I would like to be included, of course.  Oh you need a bioacoustician? I just happen to be one. I just need a few more weeks to improve my Italian.

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup.  My new favorite animal.  (Photo credit Nicoletta).

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup. My new favorite animal. (Photo credit Nicoletta).

I’ve mentioned in the past that every scientific mission is accompanied by a personal one.  When I traveled to Glacier Bay this past summer one of my primary goals was to build a relationship with the landscape and the community.  I did not have the same expectation of my time in Antarctica.  I admit I’d cast the landscape as a barren bedfellow, and anticipated my time on the ship to be filled with solitude.  I can happily admit that I was wrong. Relationships are forged in unlikely places, professionally and personally. While I thoroughly anticipated feeling scientifically awakened and inspired by the scenery, I’m pleased to report that it was in the conversations with the passengers on board the ship that I truly began to build collaborations.

But enough on the value of science and relationships… I want to tell you about Christmas.

DSC01836

Amico Mio, Roberto. Cuciniamo gli spaghetti di Natale. (My Friend Roberto and I cooking Christmas spaghetti).

Christmas in Korea is celebrated largely on Christmas Eve — which was amenable to our schedule given that we were slated to arrive in Lyttelton, NZ on Christmas morning.  Christmas Eve we were treated to an early Korean Christmas dinner, complete with wine and roasted nuts for a bit of flair. Our five o’clock meal, however, was complimented by a midnight meal.  The chef onboard the R/V Araon graciously agreed to turn over his kitchen (and his pantry) for the evening so that we might make Christmas Spaghetti.  Let by Chef Roberto (though admittedly I may have tried to mutiny once or twice) we cooked three dishes, complimented by Italian cheese and salami courtesy of Mario Zucchelli Station. The evening was completed once Santa Claus himself (Kiwi Engineer Chris) made an appearance, passing out candies, and asking us all what we wanted for Christmas.

It was glorious, and festive, and fitting for our last night on the ship.

I realize that unlike previous posts that this entry lacks much sincere scientific merit.  However, one of the things that was emphasized on the ship, and throughout my training as an ecologist, is the importance of balancing work and life.  Nowhere does this seem more critical than transiting to and from the bottom of the world, where the lines are blurred.  Following Christmas we docked in Lyttelton Harbor near Christchurch, New Zealand marking the end of my journey through the Southern Ocean. Bittersweet.

Don’t fret though, fearless readers, There’s one more post before I end this story, because New Zealand was glorious.

 

Your (former) Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

 

Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

DSC05263

The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Let the Science Begin: Antarctica Part… V?

(Warning: this is possibly a redundant post for those of you I’ve managed to email)

Another update from the bottom of the world.

We’ve departed the Jang Bogo research station with a considerably lighter ship! We unloaded countless shipping containers millions of gallons of fuel, enough food to feed a small army for years, and most of our passengers (including my favorite helicopter pilots).

We are now only seven passengers on this massive ship, with a crew of I think 35 to guide us through the Ross Sea. It is now that the actual science part of our cruise kicks in. Yesterday afternoon Jurgen (Geman geophysicist from KUM), Won Sang (KOPRI Chief scientist- geophysicist), and Sukyoung (KOPRI seismologist/environmental acoustician) and I assembled an ocean bottom seismometer (OBS) that will be deployed on the next leg of the trip (I’ll be gone by then). Today we assembled a 500m mooring that we will deploy first thing tomorrow morning. We conducted one CTD cast (to get info on the water column) at about 8pm and one more around midnight. Feeling science-y yet? Me too.

Because it’s 24 hours of daylight (bright as noon all the time) the crew is split into shifts, and if we’re willing we can do science in what should be the middle of the night, but looks just like early afternoon. We opted not to do too many middle of the night missions, but it blows my mind that we could. On board the R/V Araon we now get four meals a day. Breakfast at 7am, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 5:30 and ‘late meal’ at 10:00pm. Last night’s late meal was wonton soup in seaweed broth, and if I ever complained about the food on the ship I take it all back. It was excellent! I tried to convey my gratitude to tHe chef (one of my newest Korean friends on board the ship), but my Korean is still terrible. All I managed to say was thank you, and then bowed and smiled.

In less technical news I had one of the most amazing wildlife experiences of my life, though it will surprise you to hear that it was not with a whale but a seal! The seals here are extremely lazy, and hard to make move or even acknowledge the gigantic ship. They generally bask in the sunlight conserving energy (nice life). Because of this it’s fairly easy to walk across the ice and visit with them. Which of course we did as soon as we were able (no worries as a good ecologist I tried not to alter their behavior). Silly me forgot her camera (maybe better, the experience wasn’t about watching) but this seal was enormous! And although it didn’t move when it saw us it did something better… He began to vocalize.

Polar seals sound just like aliens (I’ve blogged about this before), it’s otherworldly. Typically they only make sounds in water but this seal starting singing/ringing/cooing on ice! It was the same type of sound I spent a year searching for when I was analyzing Arctic data but never got to see in person. To hear this kind of sound without a hydrophone, without a microphone, just to sit next to this massive seal and hear it ringing like a bell was the most amazing thing this acoustic ecologist could have possibly imagined. I nearly cried.

IMG_0157-0.JPG<br /

I did manage to make a recording of the call, but the quality is poor. I'll try and clean it up when I come home and get it posted for all the world to hear. Needless to say now I want to study polar seal communication, and the ecology of Antarctic pinniped species.

For now a few photos of other seals will have to do, and the sound will have to follow.

Your Antarctic Correspondent,
Michelle

IMG_3011.JPG<br /