<img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-1824″ src=”https://mfournet.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/img_1169.jpg” alt=”IMG_1169″ width=”5184″ height=”3456″ />What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: <i>Phocoena phocoena</i>, 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 for 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.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the Henry B. Bigelow. Or at least it feels that way. The familiar chirps and beeps pinging at all hours, the frigid temperature of the dry lab, the way the marine smell lingers on the back deck on a humid day and the salty ocean air makes my skin feel dry and sticky at the same time. I know exactly what clothing to bring for the various jobs I will have, how sleep in my athwartships bunk in rough weather, and that (unless I’m really unlucky) the satellite Internet will allow me to iMessage my friends and family back on land. I’ve been enjoying boat life for years now and I find so much comfort in the little routines.
After departing another ship following a trying journey this spring, I spent a long time thinking about why I couldn’t embrace the quiet weeks at sea that I usually love. Usually spending time offshore offers perspective, fresh air and space to think through ideas and goals and potential plans, but on that trip I spent most of the time wishing I was back at home. Back home at…work? Instead of embracing the break from daily life in Oregon, I was overcome with anxiety about the progress I wasn’t making towards my degree. Perhaps the jumpy response of the ship to rough weather translated directly to my restlessness?
But when my friend and colleague asked me if I was ready to head back to sea this summer on the Bigelow, I didn’t hesitate to tell her “yes”, I was ready. How could I not be – I love sailing on the Bigelow and working as a passive acoustics observer. It is amazing to listen to the whistles, clicks, and buzzes of cetaceans around us in real-time. One of my non-acoustician friends used to describe my job as “eavesdropping on whales”, which, sounds a bit silly, but really is a pretty accurate description of what I do on the boat. The days are long, but most of them are good.
In previous years I would balance my time in the lab with breaks outside to try and spot the animals I spent so many hours listening to. But this year the cruise nears conclusion and my tube of sunscreen is still full. Furiously trying to keep up with my academic responsibilities has limited the number of dolphins I’ve seen, but will allow me some peace returning to Oregon knowing that I won’t have weeks of ignored emails to attend to.
There is a quiet isolation that develops with time spent as a graduate student in academic research. Digging deeper into our own holes of scientific obsession, our theses wouldn’t be viable projects if someone else was already working on the same questions. I am aware of this at school, but the camaraderie of being surrounded by other students takes away a little of the loneliness. But at sea, secluded in my cabin to focus on my project, it feels more pronounced. A couple days ago I was analyzing a recording and identified a useful sound clip. Excitedly I considered who I could share my news with…but quickly realized that probably no one else would be quite as thrilled to look at a spectrogram of wind noise.
The next morning I woke up before my alarm and, not wanting to disturb my sleeping roommate, I got ready quickly and went to begin the daily set-up routines for our equipment in the dry lab. Ready to go half an hour early, I stood out on the back deck to watch the sunrise. And there, unhurried and under-caffeinated but still feeling accomplished from my thesis progress the day before, I finally reconnected with the sublime peace of being at sea.
This summer has been an experiment in re-adjusting my expectations, but I think I’m figuring out how to balance and prioritize. While I spend most of my hours staring at screens, moving between my laptop and the acoustics workstation in the dry lab, I keep a walkie-talkie on the desk just in case someone spots an animal close to the ship; it’s a lot harder to see a blue whale from my office in Oregon.
I haven’t posted in a week? Poor blogging, Selene!
Ok as promised, I wanted to post about what our day-to-day life has been like out here. Amazingly, today is our last day! I am on shore right now, making small adjustments to glider that we will pick up at noon. The rest of the team is out picking up the DASBRs and QUEphone. They will come in, we will unload gear, then go back out to get the glider.
After almost two weeks of going out everyday, we got the system down pretty well. We got stronger, and faster, and spirits remained high throughout!
Days start early – up around 5 am, for a 5:30 departure. 3 of the crew went out each day, because there wasn’t really room on the boat for 4 + all the gear, and that way we had a person on land who could give us instrument locations if we had trouble finding them.
Our main objective was to pick up all our floating/drifting recorders, and move them back up current (to the southwest) so they could drift over our moored instruments, and along the glider path, again over 24 hours.
We started each morning with an empty deck (except for a few empty tubs where line goes).
It took about 1:15 to transit out to where the instruments were floating. We had GPS coordinates for about where they were, and then half of them also had these really awesome dog trackers attached to the mast. When we were within 3 miles, the handheld receiver would point us in the direction of that “dog”. They are made for hunting, so if the floats didn’t move very fast it would alert us that our “dog” had “treed a quarry.” That was always good for a laugh. Then, using those to get to the general area, we could use relative positions of the others to find them. Some days lighting was better than others, but we always found them eventually.
Once we found an instrument, we marked its recovery location, and started to pull line. This was the fun part 🙂 the DASBRs have a surface float, and then 100 m of line down to a weight. Near the bottom of that is the two hydrophones, and depending on the type of DASBR, somewhere in there is the recording device and batteries. We all decided on our favorite and least favorite types of line to pull, and we’d share the work so it never seemed that bad! Each one took about 15 min to recover.
Every other day we recovered the QUEphone as well. It was drifting at 500 m, where the currents were slower, so it took two days to pass the HARPs. For that, Haru would text us when it surfaced, at about 8:00, then we would go grab it. Easy peasy.
After everything was loaded in the boat, we would head down to our deployment location.
We made minor adjustments to the deployment location each day, after looking at the currents from the day before. Everything stayed in formation as best as we hoped…which was awesome! The formation is critical to us being able to localize the animals we record. Heading to the deployment location took about 30 mins, where we would then drive from point to point making a rectangle. Letting the line out was super fun (compared to pulling it). If we had the QUEphone we would chuck it (gently of course) into the water, and head back in, another 1:30 transit.
While we were out there we did our part to collect mylar balloons we encountered (Please think twice about purchasing them…they don’t break down for a VERY LONG TIME and all that shiny plastic and string can look like a tasty treat to marine life). We also collected water samples in the vicinity of animals, for our the Cetacean Conservation and Genetics Lab at OSU, for an eDNA project Holger is working on with them.
We usually got back to the lab in early afternoon, again with an empty deck. Afternoons were filled with looking at instrument paths, planning for the next day, starting to look at data, discussing science, celebrating the good news for the Vaquita, and sometimes taking naps 🙂