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.

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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.

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The Talking Earth

*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,

Miche

 

 

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.

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.

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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

 

Strawberry 2.0

Here we go again. Time to return to Strawberry Island, the whales, oyster catchers, Teddy (black bear), and the smell of fresh crisp air. Since Michelle dragged me off of Strawberry Island last year (kicking and screaming- No, I didn’t want to leave even after 3 months) I have been lucky enough to return to Glacier Bay National Park twice, once for the hydrophone recovery and a second time for our ‘attempted deployment’.

I like to work, and on the island there was more than enough to do. I enjoyed the isolation that was provided. NO cell phone or internet was amazing; don’t get me wrong when I’m home I’m checking the  news and cell first thing in the morning. But being forced to disconnect for weeks at a time has a blissful/calming effect. Connecting to this little island and the daily flow of the environment is soooo much better. It’s worth giving up cnn.com.

Thankfully this year I won’t have to wake up before the sun rises for my own project. Last year I was looking at diel variation in calling rates of humpback whales (calls per whales per minute) and I am happy to say I found some significant results. Humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park call at a higher rate during dawn hours. Having more or less wrapped up with project (I presented a poster at the Northwest Student Marine Mammal Conference just last weekend) Michelle and I are moving on to a few new projects. This years side project will involve two terrestrial microphones that will be set up on Strawberry Island to capture humpback whales only known aerial vocalization, trumpets. Hopefully these trumpets will be paired with behavioral observations made from the theodolites.

Additionally, this year Michelle, two dogs (Vista, Luna), and myself will be driving my truck from Corvallis, Oregon to Gustavius, Alaska. Driving my truck up full of beasts, supplies, food, and then driving back with two years worth of research equipment and supplies will save the project money. Plus, as an added bonus, I get to drive my truck to Alaska. The old truck, 203,000 miles currently on her, will have gone from Key West to Alaska and that fact puts a little smile on my face. We leave May 31st and I’m sure there will be pictures and high jenkins from the road to follow.

David Culp

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A day at the office