The Right Tool for the Job

During my master’s degree I remember a professor saying that oceanographers’ prided themselves on sinking heavy expensive equipment to the bottom of the ocean. In my second year as a wildlife science PhD student I began my fieldwork in Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska; we dropped four 700 lb hydrophones from the decks of a 78 foot landing craft into the mighty Alaskan Pacific.  They would spend over 8,000 hours listening for the sounds of humpback whales, harbor seals, and vessels. Lowering them overboard I felt a combined sense of pride and dread. Pride at having mounted such a large project, and dread imaging that (1) we may never recover these (practically) priceless instruments, and (2) that I may be mastering technology that, as an acoustic ecologist, I would never again be able to afford.

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This was my way of saying goodbye to the hydrophones that I’d spent so many months preparing. I openly admit that I love these instruments; I do not believe they reciprocate.

To accomplish the goals of my PhD, I needed these instruments. My advisor, Dr. Holger Klinck, and I meticulously crafted a list of needs and wants of my project. If I wanted to understand how humpback whales responded to vessel noise in Glacier Bay, these were the right tool for the job.

But throughout my graduate career I’ve been hopeful that this level of technological sophistication needed to answer my research questions might be found in a simpler (less expensive) package.

I am a believer in simplicity; the philosopher in me wonders if it is the science with the smallest footprint that has the potential for the greatest impact. Do we truly need a landing craft?  Or can we use a kayak?  Do we need a chase boat or is there an ideal viewing platform just up these stairs? If we dedicate our creative ecological minds, can we cultivate rigorous scientific studies that leave no trace, burn no fuel, and simultaneously help our human-selves to flourish?

Yes.

I’ve just returned from Glacier Bay National Park were I can happily report that my investigation of humpback whale non-song vocal behavior is going strong. My fieldwork this year, in stark contrast to 2015 and 2016, has been unusually simple. Using two small in-air recording devices known as “Swifts”, a GPS, and a kayak I mounted an investigation into the aerial vocal behavior of North Pacific humpback whales (that’s right, sounds produced in air). The instruments were deployed on two islands in Glacier Bay National Park; my research associate and I reached the islands just before sunset.

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En route to one of the unnamed islands in Glacier Bay to deploy an acoustic recorder. This is fieldwork at its absolute finest.

Swift units are small, can be deployed long term in this rain forest environment, and capture a wide range of sounds. I am hoping to record the booms, trumpets, and purrs, that humpback whales produce in Alaska’s near shore environment. This study is a first step toward understanding if these sounds are vocalizations which serve a communicative function, or whether they are a byproduct of physical exertion which may inadvertently signal something about a callers activity or motivational state. Acoustic ecology is a complex field, made simpler by the use of equipment that is (1) sturdy, (2) small, (3) portable, and (4) affordable.

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One of Cornell’s Swift recorders (camouflaged) attached to a young Sitka Spruce in Glacier Bay.

Similar to when we deployed our hydrophone array in 2015, I feel a sense of pride in this low-tech field season. Without the use of a motorized vessel, with very little money, and with an abundance of beauty (and health!) we began an investigation of ecological merit. Will we see a return on our efforts?  That remains to be seen; I cannot, after all control the whale. I am confident, however, that we are using the right tool for the job.

 

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Alaskan humpbacks produce aerial sounds through their blowholes. Some sound wheezy and airy, others sound deep like a french horn.

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?”

A Cultural Phenomenon

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Album cover of Roger Payne’s 1970 LP. Due to this record humpback whales are arguably to most listened to whales on earth.

One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling  1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales  among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying on and eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in professionally shadowing Cher for months at a time.

Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story, and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history, — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.

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Whaling is a community event in Barrow. Even Inupiat children too small to help process bowhead catches are still brought to see the whale. (Photo credit: AP Photo|GregoryBull)

The cost was enormous.

Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans… ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction, or in some cases past the brink of extinction, to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.

While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.

Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists.  But what does it mean?  Technically and in terms of conservation?

Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.

Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*.  No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behavior. It appears to be a learned behavior; culture.

Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobelia feeding.  Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright you grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat.  This is where conservation comes in.

During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds without the knowledge of any alternatives.

So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe  it allows us another way to relate to these animals.  More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska. Culture in action.

 

 

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.

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(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). 

After the Necropsy

This July Luke and I were invited to help out on the necropsy of the humpback whale “Festus” (SEAK-ID 441). This humpback whale had arguably the longest sighting history of any humpback whale in the world. While the loss of this animal in Glacier Bay has been sad, it is fascinating to see what happens when the bounty of a whale is made available to the animals of the Park. See a time-lapse of wolves and eagles foraging on the whale below.

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.