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.

Find Your Park

The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.

IMG_0395

Clockwise from upper right: Snacks, Kenya, Bumblebee, and Bruiser.  The hydrophones that listen where we cannot. 

Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.

Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.

The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.

IMG_0413

Staged and almost ready to go on the dock in Bartlett Cove. Our equipment prep was completed in the company of otters, eagle, and Bonaparte gulls happily cackling

Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.

One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.

IMG_4258

The view from Strawberry Island, overlooking our hydrophone array: Glacier Bay National Park