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.

rapunzels-tower-small1.jpg

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.

IMG_2096

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?”

Advertisements

A Cultural Phenomenon

 

humpback_1024x10241

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 or eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in year long appointment shadowing Cher.

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.

010715whaling6

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 the case of the Atlantic grey whale –  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. Evidence suggests it may be a learned behavior; culture.

Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobtail 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.

 

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.

Three down one to go

Well folks, furlough has come to a close and it’s time to return to the island for Stint 4. This will be the last sampling period for the Acoustic Spyglass Project and as I sit here in Bartlett Cove I’m torn between sentimentality, gratitude, and the practical indifference that comes from knowing that while the end is near, this field season isn’t over yet. 

Transitions can be tricky (consider the life of a whale researcher studying migrating whales!), but they are valuable. The next 8 days give us a last chance to watch deeply and see if it is only us, the researchers, who are wrapping up the season, or to see if perhaps the wildlife is also shifting as late summer approaches. 

Fingers crossed we are attentive enough to notice.

The first group photo of Stint 4

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.

Greatest Show on Earth

In the past I’ve been plagued with managing expectations (my own and my field team’s) surrounding our whale encounters. I had to come up with subtle ways to encourage us to curb our enthusiasm for up-close whale encounters, and remind us all that the best kind of field projects are those which are the least destructive, which means that we won’t be on boats, tagging whales, or approaching our study species in any way. For 2016 I didn’t even bother curbing my enthusiasm. I arrived on Strawberry Island bright eyed bushy tails and ready to step my feet into the 18 inches of water that separated me from the glorious 35 ton creatures that I’ve built my adult life around.

Strawberry Island has not disappointed me. This year we’ve been graced, once again, with spectacular views of whales foraging and travelling in our intertidal zone. We’ve seen behaviors that I’ve only dreamt of documenting, we’ve felt our literal boots shake with the breath of whales vibrating through the water. One sunny day as we sat down for a dinner of Spanish Rice a humpback whale joined us with her own meal of what appeared to be pteropods. We literally had dinner with whales.

I typically don’t like to over hype our experiences here on the island, last year I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the experiences it felt cheap to even mention them. But I realize that some things are meant to be shared. So for those of you who haven’t spent a summer camping on Strawberry Island, or perhaps those of you who have never watched a whale from shore here in Southeast Alaska, these photos are for you.

Happy Birthday Kristin

One of the trade-offs to a glamorous life of field research is that sometimes you miss the important things, like your sister’s birthday. For those of you who’ve never talked to me for more than 15-seconds, let me just tell you how much I love my sister. My sister, as far as I’m concerned, is worth spamming every reader of this blog with a pre-scheduled post just so I can tell her how amazing she is and how lucky I am to be related to her.

To make this relevant to those of you who have the gross misfortune of NOT knowing my sister here are a few interesting facts about her.

My sister and I, through no particular rhyme or reason and very different life paths, are both marine biologists. She studies invertebrate physiology at CalPoly. Read about her super cool work here. She knows a lot about crabs.

My sister is the most beautiful human being I’ve ever met inside and out and the world would be a grander, more hilarious place, if everyone was ever so slightly more like here. (ok, not really a fact per se, but true none-the-less). Don’t ask her outright to tell you a joke though, that makes people uncomfortable.

My sister was an excellent childhood swimmer.  Her best stroke was butterfly.

My sister did her undergrad at Tulane University where she studied neuroscience, so she knows a lot about brains.

My sister taught me how to do a cartwheel; she promptly told me (with video evidence) that I was just ok at it. I’m much better now, thanks to her.

Happy Birthday to the woman who I miss the most when I’m away from cell service. I dedicate this beautiful whale photo to you. I cannot being to express how much I love you and miss you.

IMG_0551

It takes something this grand to keep me away from my sister, that’s how glorious she is (photo credit L. Matthews)

Group Photo Project

So without going into too much justification as to exactly why we feel like it’s necessary to take a group photo everyday let it suffice to know that it’s part of our daily ritual here on Strawberry Island. Our ritual goes something like this:

Wake up. Boil water for tea, coffee, and oatmeal. Find whales. Listen to seals. Eat meal. Talk about what we learned today. Take group photo (you only get one take, so it better be good).

Now that we’ve got that covered. Here are a few of our glamor shots from Stint One.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Homecoming (Guest Post by Lucas Williams)

It’s good to be back in Alaska. Last Sunday was my final day in Oregon for the summer, and I won’t be returning until the 18th of September. The crew is assembled in Gustavus, our bags are (mostly) packed, the gear is (mostly) ready, and we are all very excited. Getting here however, was more difficult than we had anticipated.

I think it is common for us, or at least myself, to grow complacent after reaching a certain amount of experience. Your brain gets used to noticing the things it must anticipate, and you know longer have to be as actively vigilant about your thoughts and behaviors as you were when you started. I think there’s a real beauty in field work, because that attitude will make you look foolish faster than you can say “mechanical error”.

Problem solving in a coffee shop

After flying into Juneau on Sunday, Michelle and David picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at the local hostel, warning me that Dawn, a previous student of Michelle’s who had recently passed through Juneau, had difficulty reserving a bed for the night. I shrugged off that warning with casual confidence. “I’ll be fine.” I told them, and I was right. I even got a whole room to myself, which was convenient considering the cold I was nursing at the time. After an early 4 AM wake up to board the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus Monday morning, everything seemed to be going just as planned. I knew what I was doing, I’d been here before and was ready for the problems we had encountered last time. Time for a relaxing boat ride to our destination.

 

The problem started while we were waiting to board David’s truck full of our gear and food for the summer onto the ferry. While waiting in the lot assigned to our ferry, David pointed out that a few cars were packing up and leaving.

“Must have parked in the wrong lot.” He said.

Not quite. A couple minutes later, we got a knock on our window, with an apologetic man telling us the ferry had a mechanical problem, and wouldn’t be taking anyone anywhere for a while.

Damn.

Well, we did the only thing we could think of. We went and got coffee to problem solve. You see, this setback had the potential to really bungle things up for the beginning of what was promised to be a smooth(er) start than last summer. First of all, the other half of the team was flying in later that evening, and was expecting to meet us in Gustavus. Furthermore, the only way to get all of the gear and food we had brought for the summer was to get David’s truck onto a ferry. After tossing around several ideas, we concluded that we would all take a small plane to Gustavus and demand a refund for our ferry tickets. We asked Michelle’s oh so generous friend Sarah to watch the truck and, when the ferry was ready, deliver it to the docking station and send it on its way to us. Thanks to the generosity of friends and the adaptability of our team, we ended up right back on schedule.

IMG_1462-0
Ferry didn’t work, hop on a plane!

 

 

I even got to fly it! (Not really)

After reaching Gustavus, I brought another problem with me. I had contracted a minor cold a couple days prior to my departure, but due to all the travel, lack of sleep and emotional duress from a recent break-up, my immune system totally crashed. After making it to the research housing, I went from a casual cold to full-blown plague victim. I was quickly quarantined in my own room, forcing the rest of my roommates to sleep out in the halls with their mattresses. I was forbidden from handling food, touching too many things, or breathing too much in people’s general presence. Basically, I was bubble boy for the week.

 

This turned out to be a wise choice, as although feeling rather useless in my seclusion, it did give me the opportunity to really heal up. Currently, I am churning this out as fast as possible, because tomorrow we head out for the real deal! Three weeks on strawberry island before we return for our first furlough.

I’ll be back with lots of photos!

If the wi-fi will allow it…

Signing off,

Luke

A Summer in Southeast Alaska

Greetings from Colorado! My name is Amber, and I am ecstatic to be part of the acoustic ecology research team in Alaska this summer! To introduce myself, I will start by listing three things I am passionate about: chocolate, wildlife conservation, and chasing my wildest dreams wherever they may lead. I am originally from North Carolina, but have spent the last several years traveling North America working as a wildlife technician. From the windswept prairies of Kansas, to the arid desert southwest, and to the parklands of southern Manitoba, I have participated in many research projects and have gained some incredible experience. I have learned a great deal about not only wildlife and natural resource management, but also about myself and about people in general.

I am also passionate about sharing my love of nature with others, as I believe this is one way we can conjure interest in and devotion to our natural world. I enjoy accomplishing this through nature photography, and wish I currently had more time to dedicate to this cause. It is relatively easy to grab peoples’ attention through photos, and it is my goal to capture images that will increase awareness and instill concern for nature within their hearts. Below is a photo I took several years ago on the plains of North Dakota. It isn’t the greatest quality, but still one of my all time favorites.North Dakota sunrise

My past fieldwork endeavors have been primarily avian focused, so I am excited to be working with marine mammals during the upcoming season. I have always dreamed of working with such incredible animals. I feel as though I have much to learn from Miche and others on the crew, and am eager to conduct my own independent research project. I have not decided exactly what this will entail yet, but I am determined to produce results that will be of value and will increase our understanding of humpback whale ecology and associated management implications.

Camping in the rain for an entire summer will be a new experience for me, but I am certainly looking forward to spending a few months “off the grid.” I try to accomplish this as often as possible, but taking online courses requires me to remain somewhat close to an internet source (and the hordes of human beings associated with such places). Alaska is new to me as well, and I hope to take some photos that I can share with the rest of the world once the season is over. I am also eager to gain experience in the world of acoustic ecology. I look forward to acquiring a deeper understanding about the knowledge we are able to gain from such technology, and the insights it will provide into these animal’s lives.

Well, I guess that is me in a nutshell. I look forward to meeting some incredible people this summer, exploring a beautiful part of the world, and conducting valuable research with some amazing animals.  Here’s to the best field season yet!

-Amber