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?”

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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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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). 

Incumbent

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.

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We arrived on the island just as the whales moved into the area. (photo credit: L. Matthews)

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.

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Luke and I had the privilege of spending a day with an amazing necropsy team.

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.

Failing Gracefully

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.

The Student is the Teacher

Classes have started again here at OSU.  I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late.  As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either.  For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.

FW255 student James tests out the directional microphone during a playback study at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

I love teaching.  Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true.  I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics.  In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling.  FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters.  The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure.  I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.

When your classroom looks like this teaching is heavenly.

When your classroom looks like this… teaching is heavenly

For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology.  In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams.  No student left behind here).

While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with our students in the field.  First, I have a lot to learn.  Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.  I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us.  It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.  Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.

Second, teaching is valuable.  While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact.  My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave?  By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life.  Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.

So yes, I am a teacher.  Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.

But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am).  While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true.  Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.

-Michelle-