So, from time to time the media finds that our work as scientists is worth highlighting. Today, a short article came out in Hakai Magazine highlighting our work on solitary foragers in Southeast Alaska. For a brief recap of what we found, and the short story behind how we found it read below:
When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras. We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.
Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.
Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.
Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.
If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate. Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.
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.
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.
(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 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.
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.
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.
*This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me how to read and how to listen*
When I was a small child my mother read a book called “The Talking Earth” out loud to my sister and I. As an adult I can’t quite remember the details, but it was about a Seminole girl alone in the woods interacting with plants, animals, wind and water in an effort to regain her faith in the power of nature. I vaguely remember her saving an abandoned otter pup and nursing it back to health and something lovely about a panther. What I poignantly recall, however, is a passage in the book about listening to the language of the earth as she nurses the otter; the beating hearts and warm bodies of mammals, the beating wings of the birds, and the sounds of rain and wind that collectively gives all animals a way of understanding the world. This book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.
Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about only one species, as it communicates with other animals of the same species, underwater, in the Beardslee Island Complex, in Glacier Bay Alaska. I dream about humpback whales calling in these waters at night (and often as I nap between shifts throughout our long days). But living on this island does something very kind for me, it speaks about more than just the whales. So a few days ago I stood alone on the beach at 4:07 am preparing to survey for whales and as the sun rose I took a few moments to listen to what the earth had to say to me.
The tide was shifting; I could see the water converging at our survey point. The clouds were rolling in on a southwest wind, and the fog was preparing to slowly take over the coastline in front of me. The loons called to each other in the pink turquoise rising sun. The family of oystercatchers that we watched last year gave one another their high cackling good morning greetings . The gulls squabbled, the sea lions yawned angry yawns. The earth woke up in pastel glory. When I was experiencing my first Alaskan winter I wrote that the Alaskan sun doesn’t burn, it blushes. This particular morning at 4am, the sun blushed and I was there to experience it.
It was a lovely moment for me. One of the few moments on the island when I was truly afforded solitude. Fieldwork is a strange bedfellow- the six of us are isolated on this island, yet we are never out of earshot of one another. I joke that we are isolated, together- and at 4am if given the chance to sleep in, our team will take it (and deserve it). Why I stayed up to survey myself? I’m not sure. Maybe I needed the space. Maybe when I woke up to check the weather it was too beautiful to go back to bed, and too foggy to be worth rousing my snuggling crew.
I’ve been going back and forth to that moment in my mind and it reminds me again of the book, The Talking Earth that my mother read to me as a child. It isn’t just the sounds of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is the subtle signals that the earth gives all those who inhabit it, humans included. It requires an attentiveness to hear the messages in nature, and therefore a desire to listen in the first place. Subtly is a divinely natural quality.
I realize in writing this that this is important to me because it’s how I try to run my field team. With grace and intention, routine and subtlety, with the expectation of the best of my crew, and with consistent communication. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but it is in this emulation of nature’s voice that I think we can both collect the best data possible (you can go back through this blog to learn more about the technical rigors of our field collection), while absorbing the many lessons that come from simply observing a place for as long as we are privileged to observe the waters of Strawberry Island.
The scientist in me doesn’t sleep through these sorts of introspections. My job, among many in science, is to try and take these intangibles and make them tangible. My job as a creative human is to do this without losing the essence of what makes these observations incredible. So I won’t deny that in my grand sunrise moment I grinned a little knowing that all of the glorious things I was listening to were being recorded by a two tiny terrestrial recorders that were lent to me by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (thanks to my advisor Holger and BRP!). When I’m not in the field I’ll post some clips of the Talking Earth here in Glacier Bay, I’d encourage you to close your eyes and imagine being here. Here are a few photos to help you along.
Your Alaskan Correspondent,
There was a point in the not too distant past when the mayor of the small town of Gustavus also ran the landfill. The mayor position is a one year gig, today Paul continues to run the landfill. After leaving his political career behind he seems content to talk about recycling (if you meet him ask him about co-mingling), and to be exuberantly invested in his town. While I didn’t get the chance to ask him if his time spent as mayor changed how he viewed Gustavus, I am certain it changed his body of knowledge about his community.
This is, in many ways, how I view returning to Strawberry Island – as an incumbent mayor who has been recently elected to a second term. Our initial field team was tasked with establishing a small (and ephemeral) community on Strawberry Island; our little peninsula consisted of five human citizens, approximately 30 humpback whale citizens, and a large un-censused population of voles, birds, and of course harbor seals. The structure we established during our first term in office is holding up well — protocols are streamlined, our tasks are efficiently assigned and completed, our well oiled machine was restarted with relative ease. But there is a tacit anticipation that this year on the island we will accomplish more, grow more, and see more than we saw last year.
But I’m not much of a politician really; my goal is not to out-do 2015 but to strive to be as humbled by this year’s field season as we were by last year’s field season. So how do we do that?
Well, so far life is peppered with heaps of humpback whales (we had a day with 10-15 whales in the survey area and another 10 or so just out of sight), sunset kayaks, sunrise surveys, and visitors to break bread with on the island. Our oyster catchers are alive and well, and though I can’t confirm, I think they may be nesting. The harbor porpoise have calved and are regularly visitors to our island cove. In short, life on the island is bustling.In slightly sadder news, this year a Glacier Bay whale nicknamed Festus was found dead in the water. Two of our team members, Luke and myself were able to participate in the necropsy of this well known animal. Festus was among the first (if not the first) humpback whale to be ID’ed in Glacier Bay. He was first photographed in 1972, and has been a regular inhabitant of the Park ever since. It’s difficult to say at this point if his death was tragic, or whether it was simply time, but my hope is that the samples we were able to extract and the evidence that we gathered on the beach last week will help solve the mystery of his death. Thought the event was sad (I described it as feeling like a funeral for someone who made you so happy you that giggle through their service despite yourself), our necropsy team was inspiring. In the company of Glacier Bay’s humpback whale monitoring team (Chris, Janet, and Lou), bear biologist Tania (talk about women in science!), BC based veterinarian Stephen (nicest man ever, even when covered in whale blood), and the slew of Gustavus-folk who just happened to show up (Of course, when you need an MD most she and her entire family of science minded enthusiasts will be camping nearby)!
I realize as I’m wrapping this up that I’m not really doing our first few weeks in the field justice; maybe it’s because I’m exhausted, or possibly the allure of Gustavus on the Fourth of July has my mind wandering. What I did learn last year is that the photos never do it justice, the stories always miss the details, and that even the mayor needs the day off from time to time.
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.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.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.
It’s been big year; there have been many successes and a few failures. Most recently Leanna, David and I flew to Glacier Bay National Park (#FindYourPark) to deploy the four elements in our hydrophone array, and we failed. We were not able to deploy any of our instruments. We did however, fail gracefully.
Poise under pressure is something that I learned from ice; I was recently reminded of this when we were in Juneau (my unofficial hometown) standing in front of the Mendenhall Glacier, which I’ve seen a thousand times before. It took cold, pressure, and time to make that glacier. In the Juneau spring light the glacier glistens like the gemstone it is. When I’m under pressures I strive to transform myself the same way glaciers do, with grace and quiet poise.
We were, in large part, capable of this during our failed deployment trip. Steadfast in her optimism Leanna kept us moving forward from solution to solution, and true to my glacial training I think I kept up with cool head and rational mind. While we were disappointed that we could not fix our broken hydrophones in time to meet out deployment schedule, we were never actually ‘stressed’ about the decision. It was clear that the decision not to deploy was the right one. Better not to put our precious ears into the water now, then to pull them up in October and discover they haven’t been listening.
What happened? It’s small and technical, but it had to do with using a 9-volt battery to do a job that it wasn’t big enough to do. A simple mistake in a complicated process, one that may have been avoided if perhaps I’d had more experience programming hydrophones in PicoDos- but then how do we gain experience if not by doing things for the first time? I could point fingers, place blame, or beat myself up, but where’s the poise in that?
So Leanna and I are headed back to Alaska next week to try again. I hope we don’t fail a second time, but if we do I’m confident we’ll learn something along the way, and that the whales and seals will not stop calling as a result.