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.

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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.

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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). 

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….

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