<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.
*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. Book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.
Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about 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 call. 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 about sound of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is about 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 here 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 is a photo from my 4am sunrise to get you started.
A few weeks ago I wrote to you about my upcoming trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and my big “Solo” adventure into the great Alaskan Wilderness. Well I’m happy to report the trip was an enormous success and — like so many endeavors in science — all of my “solo” work was accomplished through collaboration.
The purpose of the trip was threefold (1) familiarize myself with Glacier Bay and the surrounding community, (2) identify a viable field site that would enable Leanna and I to meet our dissertation goals, and (3) to build and maintain relationships (with the area and with the people). In short, my goal was all about getting my feet wet in the world of Glacier Bay research, which as it turned out was an extremely easy to accomplish literally and figuratively — Southeast Alaska is very very wet.
The nearest airport to Glacier Bay is in the diminuative village of Gustavus (small town, big character). Living in Juneau off and on for years I’d heard a lot about this tiny place — slow bicycle races and town-wide pancake breakfasts on the Fourth of July, a community garden that would make most Alaskans blush. With a population that ranges from 350-600 (with an influx of seasonal workers in the summer) Gustavus isn’t exactly what you’d call a city, even by Alaskan standards… and it’s not so easy to get there.
I traveled via shuttle from Corvallis to PDX (nothing new here) and hopped a flight to SeaTac Airport where I settled in for a cozy overnight on an airport bench. It felt very familiar. Traveling to and from Southeast Alaska (for less than a small fortune) requires patience, a little bit of traveler’s tenacity, and typically an overnight in Seattle. Sipping an evening tea and looking around the airport I was not the only one with Xtra-Tuffs on bunking down for the night… there were quite a few of us headed home.
A 6-hour layover in Juneau was just enough time for coffee with University of Alaska- Fairbanks PhD student and humpback whale biologist Suzie Teerlink, who filled me in on some of the details of her citizen science initiatives, whale watch cooperative efforts, and some of the in’s and out’s of her Juneau fluke ID project. My first foray into humpback whale research was working with Suzie on some of these projects in their infancy, and was exciting to see how much they’d grown! We wrapped up our reunion with a quick hike before heading over to Wings of Alaska and boarding the 6-seater Cessna 207 turboprop aircraft that would safely transport me over over the mountains and fjords and set me down in Gustavus, AK. There I was warmly greeted by the Park whale biologist (and co-PI on our project) Chris Gabriele.
Over the next few days I had the chance to meet a number of the Park Staff (fisheries biologists, bear biologists, research technicians, administrators and more!), and importantly Chris and I had the opportunity to talk (face-to-face) about humpback whale non-song vocalizations — also called social sounds — produced in Southeast Alaska. Chris and her colleague Lauren Wild of the Sitka Sound Science Center have a new study coming out in the Journal of the Canadian Acoustics Associations on the acoustic properties and usage patterns of the humpback whale “whup” call. The call (which can be heard here), which is a putative contact call, plays a large role in my research past and present. I hope to build off of the work they began at the Park to understand more about how humpback whale use this and other vocalizations, as well as how vessel noise may change vocal behavior (including producing the “whup” call) or limit acoustic communication space. More details on that, and the first chapter of my dissertation, in my next blog post.
Back to the trip, I would be remiss if I led you to believe that we spent all of our time talking (remember goals 1 & 2!). While initially we didn’t think we’d have access to a boat (hence my initial decision to camp on the island for a few days), much to my excitement the Park research boat R/V Capelin came available. My second day in the Park was spent on the water scouting for field sites, measuring bottom depths, marking waypoints for locations of interest, and kayaking through non-motorized waterways to scope out potential field sites. I’m happy to report that we found one! After eliminating what looked to be a lovely cliff (with lots of blind spots and bear scat), and a good hike around Bartlet Cove where the Park’s current hydrophone is deployed (and where vessels transit daily), it was the north east tip of Strawberry Island that made the final cut. It might not look like much in the photos (did I mention that Glacier Bay is part of a rain forest?), but I think it’s exactly the spot we’re looking for.
With a field site decided (Goal 2, check!) one of the last things I was hoping to accomplish on my trip was to familiarize myself with the area, both terrestrial and aquatic. I was fortunate to spend another day on the water with Chris during one of her many whale surveys. It was a great opportunity to view whale behavior in the Park, which I’d anticipated would be different than the behavior I’d observed in Juneau or in Frederick Sound (and qualitatively, it was different); but it also gave me the chance to see more of the Park wildlife (otters! so many otters!) and get a feel for how operations work there. Part of getting familiar with an area involves knowing how to have the least negative impact both ecologically and culturally.
I took a camper orientation which gave me some good tips on how to minimize my impact on the island, but I also spent some time walking through the exhibits and chatting with Park employees, trying to get a feel for both the scientific community at the Park and the rich cultural heritage of the native people in the area. Long before Glacier Bay became a national park it was the ancestral home to the Huna Tlingit people. Near the end of the Little Ice age the glaciers (of which there are MANY) surged forward and the Tlingit were forced to abandon their settlements in the bay and move across Icy Straight to establish a new village. To the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay remains their home. In Barlett Cove (where the Park headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge are located) the presence of the Tlingit culture is palpable. A Tlingit canoe is on display and current plans are underway for a Tlingit Tribal House.
In what I thought was a poignant manifestation of the culture of science alongside the culture of people, on the same path as the canoe is a structure housing the recently re-articulated skeleton of a humpback whale named Snow, who was struck by a vessel in the Park in 2007. Snow’s bones were buried, cleaned, sent to Maine for articulation and organization, and then finally returned to the Park for the final installation. In a “Alaska’s such a small place” sort of way, one of my first field technicians, Linsday Neilson, was on the articulation team. The skeleton was complete by the time I arrived, but I did manage to catch her for a long overdue hug on the dock.
My last day in the Park I headed out early (5am early) and was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the small cruise ship the Baranof Dream which was headed up-bay toward the glaciers. I spent the day on the boat as a tourist admiring the spectacular scenery and mingling with the passengers. I spent the following two days as the “marine-biologist in residence”, giving talks about our research in the Park, pointing out wildlife, and harkening back to my days as a naturalist in Juneau (the killer whales were certainly a highlight too).
After a few days on the boat, I disembarked in my hometown Juneau, Alaska, exhausted, happy, inspired, a little damp and ready to go home….
But c’mon this is Alaska, you never get out that easy!!! Despite my efforts to leave straight away I ended up with an extra day in Juneau, and while I won’t go into the details of how the extra 36 hours went (that’ll have to be another blog post) you can see from the photo that it turned out pretty well. Until next time!
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It’s Summertime here at ORCAA and in case you haven’t noticed that means fieldwork. We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoise here in Oregon, Selene is tagging whales in California (yawn, who would want to do that I ask, green with envy), Niki (while not technically in the field) is reporting to us from the turquoise Mediterranean, and our honorary labmate Leanna is in full blown seal tagging development. I am, admittedly, not spending my summer in the field this year (probably just as well… I need some time at home with my data, my dogs and my sunflowers: read about previous summer field adventures during my M.S. here) that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disappoint you. While my 2014 summer field season may be short, it’s just the beginning for 2014.
Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds
For those of you who don’t know me, I finished my M.S. here at OSU in the Oceanography department. I received an M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on conservation. I studied humpback whale communication in Southeast Alaska (you can read my M.S. thesis here). I moved to Juneau in 2007 after traveling through wet sunny tropical Central America. I thought Alaska was going to be a brief pit stop on my way to tropical living. Little did I know that 7 years later I’d still be working in the inside passage, that it would have slowly become home to me, or that I somehow would have become a cold-weather biologist (I blame it on the whales).
So, I’m headed to Glacier Bay National Park on Monday to scope out a field site for my dissertation research. For my dissertation I’ll be investigating the use of social sounds in humpback whales (how do social sounds fit into the general repertoire of humpback whales?) and what impact noise has on social calling behavior (Lombard effect in migratory corridors has been documented in Australian humpbacks , what might vessel noise do to calling rates on a foraging ground?). For this study I’m paired up with our own seal enthusiast Leanna Matthews (see her previous post for details on the other side of seal research), who will be looking at the impact of noise on harbor seals. We’ll be sharing a field site, and more importantly we’ll be sharing a bottom mounted hydrophone array that we intend to use to localize vocalizing animals. Concurrent with our acoustic deployment we’ll be making visual observations with a theodolite from a nearby elevated platform. My job next week, is to investigate potential field sites, with elevated observing options, calm waters, seals, whales, and a sleeping location as far away from the bears as possible. Should be easy right?
The glorious part? I’m taking the trip Northward alone- Solo. Though I will be well tended to by GLBA biologist Christine Gabriele, if the weather holds I’ll be spending a night, or two, alone at our potential field camp. Hiking around the island, observing whales and seals, and breathing in the cold wet Alaskan air all by my lonesome. Call me old fashioned, but I still think that seeing an area is the best way to choose a field camp. I’ve done my research, looked at velocity charts, bathymetry charts, and topo maps… but without seeing it, listening to it, and being there I don’t feel prepared to set our precious hydrophones on the bottom on the ocean and hope for the best. So, solo I go.
But… like I said earlier, this short trip (a week total) is just the start my 2014 field season.
I think secretly every biologist imagines the day that something like this happens to them:
Brilliant Super Scientist (a.k.a Holger) *on phone*: Good morning! Did I wake you?
Me: No of course not (I’ve been awake for at least 15 minutes, and you don’t know I’m in my pajamas. Who makes work phone calls before 8am?).
Brilliant Super Scientist: Good. Do you want to go to Antarctica?
Me: Yes. Yes I do.
This actually happened. I’m going to Antarctica! This November I will head as far South as you can get. I’ll be joining a crew of scientists on the Korean icebreaker the R/V Araon as we head southbound from New Zealand toward the Ross Sea. My role will be the recovery of a U.S. hydrophone that was deployed in the area last year. The hydrophone was deployed as part of an interdisciplinary project to track oceanographic and geologic (namely glaciers) conditions in the Antarctic. The ocean is a noisy place, and lots of features biotic and abiotic contribute to the ocean soundscape. Human activity in the Southern Ocean is limited… making it an ideal place to use acoustics to study natural phenomena like ice (and whales… lets not forget that there are lots and lots of whales in Antarctica).
We will be at sea for almost a month, with a stop at one of the the Korean Research Stations at the midway point. I don’t know all the details yet, but rest assured there will be many stories to tell. Lastly, while this isn’t technically a “solo” expedition, I will be the only one from my lab and possibly one of the few native English speakers on the boat. I spent the evening listening to Korean phrases, luckily I have a few months left to figure out how to say hello.
In short, it’s going to be a big field year for me. Followed up by an intensive field season in the summers of 2015 & 2016 (with interns! I love interns!)- and all it cold weather places. If you pair my upcoming trips with my past year of Arctic data analysis (Marvin The Martian was a Bearded Seal… remember?) then I suppose my dreams of becoming a tropical bioacoustician are out… or are they?
***all cartoons reprinted from www.michw.com an excellent blog about science, and comics***